"No conscious intention", or 007 types of ambiguity

Caspar Henderson
12 December 2009

In recent years neuroscientists have discovered amazing things about the human brain. Free will and consciousness are, it appears, at least partly illusions. A literary movement in the early twentieth century latched on to something similar with the notion of 'automatic writing': great screeds of text produced without the guidance of any conscious intelligence.

Has something similar has crept into British political discourse? Earlier this week, Sir John Scarlett, the recently retired head of MI6, was quizzed at the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war regarding a claim in a dossier issued by Downing Street in September 2002 which claimed that Saddam Hussein was capable of striking weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order being given.

An assessment by the intelligence service that Iraq could deploy biological and chemical weapons in battlefield munitions which we now know to be unsound (see, for example Ron Manley's 2003 interview with openDemocracy) became, in the Downing Street dossier a 'beyond doubt' capability to strike British targets at 45 minutes notice with WMD mounted on balistic missiles.

The intelligence services had 'no conscious intention' to mislead, Sir John assured the Inquiry. He did not see but we may conclude that the master class in creative writing took place elsewhere. Or perhaps the Holy Ghost intervened.

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