Britain loves a war criminal

As Alastair Campbell basks in the celebrity limelight of British public life, the blood of the Iraq war drips from his hands. For this is a man whose war crimes, expertly expurged from the collective imagination, demand prosecution alongside those of Tony Blair.

Is there any better demonstration of our ability to normalise the unthinkable than the continued omnipresence of Alastair Campbell in British public life? Ten years and one day ago, on 24 September 2002, the British Government released its propagandistic dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. A year later, Campbell was obliged to resign, in effect over the role he played in its composition - the publicist had become 'the story'. But this was not seen as a moral issue relating to the substance of the assault on British democracy he masterminded, but as a technical slip that could happen to 'any' public relations operative.

Since then, the public have had to endure his presence on Top Gear; on Richard & Judy; on Newsnight; Question Time; Comic Relief’s edition of The Apprentice; Sky News; the BBC News; “This Week”; the Channel 4 News; in Esquire; hosting Have I Got News for You; mentoring aspiring orators on BBC 2’s “The Speaker”; teaching politics in Channel 4’s “Jamie’s Dream School”; presenting Panorama; as a columnist for the Times; and so merrily on. So frequently has the BBC put Campbell on air that in January last year it was forced to address the issue publicly, in response to a rising tide of public complaint. If you knew nothing else about him, you’d assume he was some kind of national treasure.

Yet this man was intimately involved in one of the most abominable crimes of the twenty-first century. The illegal invasion of Iraq – which Campbell played a key role in facilitating – may have left a million people dead in four years. Millions more were forced to flee their homes and pushed into destitution. It led to the routine torture of prisoners and killing of innocent people by occupying forces. It led to the unleashing of US-sponsored death squads – a key component of its “Salvador option” for pacifying the country – across Iraq. It led to torture on a scale worse than under its former dictator. It led to an indiscriminate attack on a major city that included – in one of the cruelest ironies of the conflict – the use of banned chemical weapons. In the wake of the latter, Fallujah, a city the size of Leeds, is now experiencing a level of birth defects worse than post-war Hiroshima. In the words of US marine Ross Caputi, who took part in the attack on Fallujah, the Iraq war was “one long atrocity”.

If Campbell had propagandised for a Milosevic or a Hussein, it is unlikely he would now be exchanging chummy quips with Jeremy Clarkson. At best he would perhaps, like Iraq’s Information Minister “comical Ali”, be the object of derision; at worst he would be regarded with utter disgust. Instead, because the British mainstream media taken as a whole can't face up to the realities of a war in which it was largely complicit a remarkable transformation takes place in which the perpetrator becomes the injured party. A perfect example can be found in this month's Guardian of 8 September. It's splash called the pre-war propaganda simply “The dossier that killed trust” – as though Britain’s self-regarding political elite were the Iraq war’s primary victims, rather than its perpetrators. One interviewee was Charles Falconer, himself complicit in the crime as a supportive member of Blair’s cabinet. The record of the other, Menzies Campbell, is distinguished by his opposition to his party’s presence at the 2003 anti-war march – alongside people of all political stripes – lest they be tainted with “anti-Americanism”.

Perhaps “criminal” seems a strong label for a Labour Party spin doctor. Yet, under international law, a criminal is what he is. As George Monbiot documented in some detail earlier this month, not only was there no legal justification for the Iraq war, but in private Blair’s Government freely acknowledged as much. Campbell’s involvement was not – as far as we know – military or managerial in nature; but legally this in no way excuses him. The Principles applied at Nuremberg in 1945-6 make clear that “complicity in the commission of a crime against peace … is a crime under international law”. A “crime against peace”, these Principles state, means one of two things:

“(i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances”; or

“(ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).”

That Campbell was actively complicit in such a “common plan or conspiracy” has now been established beyond reasonable doubt. Presented below is just one sample of the evidence: a brief run-down of the established role of Campbell and colleagues in the months before the September 2002 dossier’s publication.

12 March: British Ambassador David Manning met Condoleeza Rice, reporting back to Blair:

“I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different than anything in the States.”

15 March: Reviewing an early draft dossier covering four countries, Joint Intelligence Committee chief John Scarlett advised:

“You may wish to consider whether more impact could be achieved if the paper only covered Iraq. This would have the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD, Iraq is not that exceptional.”

17 March: Britain’s Ambassador Christopher Meyer told the US Deputy Defense Secretary the UK “backed regime change”, though “It would be a tough sell for us domestically”. Meyer said:

“The UK was giving serious thought to publishing a paper that would make the case against Saddam. If the UK were to join with the US in any operation against Saddam, we would have to be able to take a critical mass of parliamentary and public opinion with us.”

2 April: Campbell, Blair and others “discussed … the central aim” in Iraq, his diaries record. “TB felt it was regime change”. “He said what was sure was that this would not be a popular war”. Meyer concurs:

“By this stage Tony Blair had already taken the decision to support regime change, though he was discreet about saying so in public.”

6-7 April: Blair met Bush, pledging his support for war if, among other things, “efforts had been made” to “shape public opinion”. Blair’s Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell, who was present, told the Chilcot Inquiry:

“thinking of them in terms of conditions is the wrong way to look at it. We weren’t trying to say, “If you tick off all these boxes, then we will be with you”.  We were saying, “We are with you in terms of what you are trying to do, but this is the sensible way to do it.””

23 April: Campbell met Scarlett and other officials, his diary records, “to go through what we needed to do communications wise to set the scene for Iraq, eg a WMD paper and other papers about Saddam.”

21 July: A Cabinet Office paper resolved to “engage the US on … creating the conditions necessary to justify government military action”, noting that “certain preparations need to be made”:

“Time will be required to prepare public opinion in the UK that it is necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussein. There would also need to be a substantial effort to secure the support of Parliament. An information campaign will be needed [which] will need to give full coverage to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, including his WMD”.

It resolved to:

“Agree to the establishment of an ad hoc group of officials under Cabinet Office Chairmanship to consider the development of an information campaign to be agreed with the US.”

23 July: Campbell and the war cabinet were informed that in Washington:

“Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

Campbell’s diary notes “TB was pretty clear that we had to be with the Americans” and backed regime change. The meeting concluded provisionally: “We should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action.”

31 August: “Blair was a lot steelier than when we went on holiday”, Campbell’s diary records. “Clear that getting Saddam was the right thing to do.”

3 September: Campbell’s diary records:

“It was not going to be at all easy to sell the policy in the next few months … [Blair] said the debate had got ahead of us, so we were going to do the dossier earlier, in the next few weeks … Today was about beginning to turn the tide of public opinion”.

9 September: Campbell briefed Scarlett:

“US officials … intend to produce a series of dossiers … to be published alongside President Bush’s speech on Thursday. They will then roll out several reports in the coming weeks. I am confident we can make yours one that complements rather than conflicts with them.”

The British dossier was subsequently compared with Bush and Cheney’s public statements, and edited accordingly.

CIA official Paul Pillar, who oversaw one Bush dossier, states that its “purpose was to strengthen the case of going to war with the American public.” The British Defence Intelligence Staff’s then Director General for Intelligence Collection Michael Laurie likewise states that “to make a case for war … was the direction we were given”; and that “these very words were used … we were under pressure to find intelligence that could reinforce the case.”

11 September: Defence official Desmond Bowen emailed Scarlett, Campbell, Manning and Powell about the draft dossier:

“In looking at the WMD sections, you clearly want to be as firm and authoritative as you can be. … I appreciate that [including caveats and uncertainties] can increase the authenticity of the document in terms of it being a proper assessment, but that needs to be weighed against the use that will be made by opponents of action who will add up the number of judgments on which we do not have absolute clarity.”

17 September: Campbell told Scarlett:

“the Prime Minister had a read of the draft … He said he thought you’d done a very good job and it was convincing (though I pointed out that he is not exactly a “don’t know” on the issue).”

Campbell refers to “my draft foreword”, which he anticipates the PM “signing off”. (This concluded that Saddam Hussein “has to be stopped”.)

18 September: Campbell told Scarlett:

“I asked someone in my office, whose judgement I trust, who has nothing to do with this area, to read the dossier “cold”, as it were, and give me impressions, which I want to pass on.

“Overall, she found it convincing CW/BW [chemical and biological weapons], in particular. “By the time I got to human rights, I was in no doubt he has to be dealt with” ...

“However, she found the nuclear section confusion and unconvincing. “It left me thinking there’s nothing much to worry about”. …

“Sorry to bombard on this point, but I do worry that the nuclear section will become the main focus and as currently drafted, is not in great shape. Do you have a new version yet?”

19 September: Powell wrote to Campbell, Scarlett and Manning:

“I think the statement on p19 that “Saddam is prepared to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat” is a bit of a problem. It backs up the Don McIntyre argument that there is no CBW threat and we will only create one if we attack him. I think you should redraft the para.”

The published version read: “intelligence indicates that as part of Iraq’s military planning Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons”.

In legal terms, this material alone is more than sufficient as prima facie evidence – the evidence required to initiate a prosecution. Admittedly, since the crime of aggression has not been incorporated into British law, there is no way to bring Campbell to trial through the British courts. But it is doubtful that any arrest attempt would therefore be unjustified. The prosecution (if not the ultimate fate) of German war criminals is seldom regarded as illegitimate simply because Germany had not approved the Nuremberg Principles in advance. More significantly, the crime of aggression figures in the domestic law of many other countries.

Like Blair, then, Campbell deserves a popular campaign to bring him to justice. Perhaps one day he will even be forced to account for his actions in a court of law, alongside all those he aided and abetted. Until then, we can at least help ensure his public treatment reflects the stigma of a war criminal, and not the adulation of a celebrity.

About the author

Tim Holmes is a freelance writer and activist. He lives in mid-Wales and tweets as @timbird84.