MPs from all parties say his testimony should be heard in public
Crucial evidence to the Iraq inquiry by Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6 at the time of the 2003 invasion, is likely to be heard in private.
He presented to Tony Blair the intelligence, obtained from an agent known as “Curveball”, that Saddam Hussein had mobile production facilities for chemical weapons. Blair told the Chilcot inquiry on Friday: “This did have an impact on me at the time, although this particular piece of intelligence turned out later to be wrong.”
“Curveball” was an asset of the German intelligence service who was later discovered to be a fantasist. The UK was never allowed to question the spy personally. Dearlove’s evidence is likely to come after the general election. Whitehall sources have indicated that the format of Dearlove’s appearance is still being thrashed out between MI6 and the Chilcot team. “If he [Dearlove] believes he can give some of his evidence in public, he will be encouraged to do so, but clearly this may not be the case,” one source said.
The inquiry is thought to be struggling to establish which confidential documents presented to it can be declassified, making it difficult for its members to question key intelligence officials in public.
Andrew Mackinlay, a Labour MP and former member of the foreign affairs select committee, said he would be “appalled” if Dearlove did not appear in public. “There is amazing deference in this country to the intelligence services, and as a result they call the shots,” he said.
He drew comparisons with the US, where intelligence chiefs regularly appear in public and pointed out that Chilcot had a “safety button” to suspend live discussion if the committee saw fit.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman, said Dearlove had to give at least some evidence in public. “If there is not a public session with the person who more than any relayed intelligence to the PM, the inquiry will be undermined,” he said.
Ben Wallace, a Tory MP and former military intelligence officer, said “operational issues” relating to the workings of the intelligence services had to be taken in private. “But issues relating to the interface between intelligence and Downing Street’s case for war should be in public.”
Dearlove, now Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, gave evidence in person at the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and also to the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly, albeit via audio link so he could remain unseen.
Chilcot has defended the need for some evidence to be heard behind closed doors. “If the inquiry is to succeed in getting to the heart of what happened and what lessons need to be learnt, we recognise that some evidence sessions will need to be private,” he said at its opening.
So far, one witness, a general who served in Basra, has given evidence in private. Allowing Dearlove to give evidence behind closed doors on the grounds of national security would be far more controversial.