That the case for the invasion of Iraq, which took place ten years ago this week, was based on bad intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s supposed WMD programme is not in doubt. No weapons of mass destruction were found. The government’s 2004 review, led by Lord Butler, concluded that “more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear”. Then the “Downing Street Memo” emerged: in 2002, MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove had written confidentially that George W Bush wanted to invade and that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”.
The basic stories behind Tony Blair’s September 2002 dossier, and Colin Powell’s February 2003 presentation to the United Nations, are well known. Powell’s main source for claims about chemical and biological weapons turned out to be a lone informant, codenamed Curveball, fabricating evidence; Blair’s sudden assertion that Iraq could hit British bases in Cyprus “within 45 minutes” was third-hand and contained a major mistake about the type of weapons in question.
Peter Taylor’s Panorama report, The Spies Who Fooled the World (Monday BBC2; iPlayer), spoke to the people involved, added surprising details and revealed new facets of the whole fiasco. The gathering and assessment of the intelligence was portrayed as disturbingly farcical.
With the help of a first interview from German intelligence chief August Hanning, Taylor described how an Iraqi called Rafid al-Janabi – Curveball – turned up in Germany in 1999 with detailed descriptions of a WMD factory. By 2001, the Germans had concluded he was making it up. He’d said articulated trucks came in and out of the factory’s warehouse, but satellite photos showed the turning circle was much too tight. There was also a wall in the way.
Shonkier still was former Iraqi spook Major Mohammed Harith, who said he’d met Osama bin Laden and had personally sourced the Renault vans for Saddam’s mobile weapons labs. Even the Americans decided in 2002 that this was outrageous bilge – but they kept it on file anyway.
Both al-Janabi and Harith’s claims were used by Powell in 2003. A heart-stopping scene at the end of The Spies Who Fooled the World intercut clips of Powell’s presentation with al-Janabi himself, admitting to Taylor that he’d made up each claim. Curveball looked forlornly bemused that his dishonesty had had such serious consequences. “We went to war in Iraq on a lie, and that lie was your lie,” Taylor forcefully told him.
Taylor’s real mission was to assess how Curveball et al had been allowed to do it; whether intelligence that supported going to war had been cherry-picked, and how high up that went. This meant stepping into a world where a stout denial goes a long way. Former European CIA chief Tyler Drumheller said he’d spoken twice to his superiors in the US on the eve of the Powell presentation, warning them that Curveball’s contribution was a crock. Taylor informed Drumheller that questions about this had been stonewalled by the CIA with the classic “no recollection” defence. Drumheller shrugged and tittered.
The key question of whether CIA boss George Tenet knew Curveball was a kook boiled down to banal, didn’t-you-get-my-email office politics. August Hanning recalled cabling Tenet by name in December 2002 to warn him. But he did so via Drumheller, and the CIA’s story is that the message got lost in Drumheller’s inbox. “I sent it to him!” Drumheller exclaimed.
Taylor asked Hanning if he believed that Tenet had not seen the cable. “I always believe my colleagues,” he drawled, smiling. That was as far as the programme could go, an infuriating state of affairs made worse by the knowledge that Hanning’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, had chaired the session when Powell made his presentation to the UN. We saw the footage of Fischer sitting right there as Powell spoke. Now, Fischer told Taylor: “We knew that… neither Colin Powell nor we could prove that these [were] facts.”
But a man in a suit from the CIA flatly insisted that Powell had rigorously checked the intelligence. Turning to the UK, Taylor set out how unstable nuggets of info were shoved into Blair’s dossier, and how important caveats had disappeared when the PM addressed Parliament. Blair was “too busy” to be interviewed, but would have been happy that the last word on his culpability was given to Lord Butler: “I think one could say in the Prime Minister’s defence that he’d misled himself,” he said, breezily, as if observing that Blair minor had been clean bowled because his bat had been too far from his pads. “I do believe that these were honest mistakes.” Taylor had no riposte.
There was an underlying problem with The Spies Who Fooled the World. The spies didn’t fool the world. As the film established, they didn’t fool German intelligence, or the French, or even half of MI6 and the CIA. They didn’t fool millions of anti-war protesters. Chiefly, their claims fooled the media.
Someone who might have been mentioned by Taylor was Saddam’s son-in-law General Hussein Kamel al-Majid. He defected in 1995 and told the West that Iraq had secretly built up biological weapons before the 1991 Gulf War, but had destroyed all WMDs after it. Colin Powell cited Kamel on the first point only. When the full testimony emerged in February 2003, somehow it wasn’t headline news. Nor was UN chief weapons inspector Scott Ritter reporting that Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed” by 1998. Nor were Powell and Tenet’s statements in 2001, when the political wind was blowing differently pre-9/11, that there was no evidence Iraq had weapons programmes.
The Blair/Powell claims were the hypothesis that had to be knocked down. The idea that powerful nations might lie about their motives for going to war was alien. Interviewed in 2009, Jeremy Paxman made a frank admission: “When I saw [the Powell presentation], I said, ‘We know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes this to be the case; he’s seen the evidence, I haven’t.'”
Plenty of us disbelieved Powell at the time. The fault lay not with Curveball and other desperate conmen, but with a prevailing attitude that world leaders and their top intelligence agencies can be relied on for accurate information. Limited and polite as The Spies Who Fooled the World was, within its remit it turned up enough dirt to make it harder, one hopes, for this to happen again.
“At least it’s made by somebody who cares,” said up-and-coming 52-year-old sketch comedian Kevin Eldon at the start of his first solo series, just after a giant boxing glove had appeared in shot to punch him in the face. This was the joy of It’s Kevin (Sundays BBC2; iPlayer): silly set-ups other sketch shows wouldn’t consider, executed with a level of care and expertise other sketch shows can’t match.
Eldon has appeared in Brass Eye, I’m Alan Partridge, Fist of Fun, Harry and Paul, Nighty Night and countless other revered British comedies, their creators all knowing that his impeccable timing and oddball menace would lift their projects. Big names like Julia Davis have reciprocated by guesting in It’s Kevin, but they’re not just doing Eldon a favour, and this isn’t just a chance for a technically gifted supporting actor to have a go at being the lead in a bunch of sketches. Eldon boldly put himself centre-screen as the host and creator of a programme that lovingly, caringly turned the sketch show inside-out. His writing is as impressive as his acting.
It began with a song-and-dance number in a bright white studio, with ticker tape, Cockney walkabouts, puppets and a thrash-punk interlude. If it had stopped there it would still have been the comedy of the year so far, but on it went, often staying in the white studio with sketches sidling in and out of Eldon’s interactions with a cast of helpers. His maintenance man couldn’t find the lost property office. His wardrobe assistant spoke only in screams (taken, I think, from that “goats shout like humans” YouTube video). The perfect sandwich was made by Hosni Mubarak, a curt young man with a massive dagger. A man played by David Cann explained that the best sandwich he ever had was one a found under a train seat. “I don’t know what was in it. Orangey, yellow sticky stuff.”
There hasn’t been a sketch show with ideas this good since Big Train in 1998 – Eldon was in that as well. He reprised his famous impression of George Martin, giving the Beatles producer’s voice to Hitler reminiscing about annexing the Sudetenland (“I immediately knew that we were onto something big”). But the biggest laughs were stupid visual jokes, superbly performed. The bit where Eldon failed to replace a microphone back in the stand went on for an extremely long time, but I could have watched it for longer.
The scheduling at 10.30pm on a Sunday, and the lack of on-air promotion and advance marketing, suggest BBC2 thought they had a weird dud on their hands, until scores of comedy pros shouted about It’s Kevin on social media, and every broadsheet ran a profile detailing Eldon’s impeccable pedigree. Then there was the odd flicker of support from the BBC online, too late: only 430,000 people tuned in according to overnight figures.
Those ratings are on a par with Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle – so it was that another original comedy by a rare talent pouring his heart into his career peak was seen only by the niche audience who were already on side. If people who aren’t comedy nerds miss It’s Kevin, they have really missed out.