The smiler with the knife

Sir Richard Dearlove, former C, defends hinself, ruthlessly.

It’s nice to watch Roger Federer at the Wimbledon net. It’s always a pleasure to watch real professionals. Via Kevin Drum, here’s a link to a little interview with Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Dearlove’s moment of unwanted fame came when someone leaked the Downing Street Memo, the secret record of a top-level British government committee in July 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Dearlove reported on his talks 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. .. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

Dearlove has now been put out to grass as Head of Pembroke College Cambridge – a plum: historic grace-and-favour apartment, classy food and booze, elegant academic backbiting at High Table, patronising clever (and some pretty) students over the second-best sherry. James Fallows asked him about the memo, and he naturally wouldn’t say much:

“I am less than two years out of government, and I have my pension,” he said, making a joke of it …“The version of the memo that is most often quoted was not the final version,” he said. “I made some important changes” — although he would not say what these pentimenti might have been.

Dearlove plays the part of Sir Humphrey Appleby to perfection, but step back a little. From Angola to Zanzibar, what kind of man enters the spying profession and rises to the very top, especially with a name out of Congreve or Wycherley? A ruthless, cunning bastard, that’s who. Geoffrey Chaucer had a phrase:

The smyler with the knyfe under the cloke.

Machiavellian interpretation is obligatory. I read it like this.

1. The little joke about the pension, made to a reporter, is a threat that if pressure is brought on him, or he’s made a fall guy, he will fight back publicly; and he knows where the bodies are buried, literally.

2. The memo is authentic. (Downing Street never denied this.)

3. Dearlove’s position is accurately reported, and he may have even used the same words; he just won’t take responsibility for Rycroft’s phrasing in the minute. (“aftermath after”? Tut tut.)

4. He’s not changed his mind.

5. The text we have is the first draft; the one sent right after the meeting to the participants alone, not the cleaned-up one sent later to a slightly wider circle.

I’ve been puzzled by the motive for the leak. Usually in Britain these things lead to well-publicised inquiries, and if it’s pinned on some outraged or venal PA, they go. This one, of a real secret, led to nothing. The inference is that it was leaked by one of the principals. Why? Not to put themselves in a good light; no-one asked the obvious question why it was in Britain’s interest to join Bush’s reckless adventure, and with ground troops. The only one who comes out of it well is C, and leaking’s not the spook style. Gordon Brown is the one Labour politician who’s unsackable and had an interest in discrediting Blair a little; but not too much, and he wasn’t on the first circulation list. Maybe somebody developed a conscience, a bit late. Machiavelli wouldn’t have bought this theory.

According to Fallows, Dearlove is still annoyingly right about the conflict:

The Western world, notably the United States, was doomed unless it reclaimed “the moral high ground”….. As a matter of pure strategic necessity, the United States needed to behave according to its best traditions, not the exigencies of an open-ended wartime emergency.

PS Dearlove is almost certainly still a talent spotter for his old firm; not that he would personally have the little chats over the best sherry or Darjeeling with young Arabists, but he’ll know of them. When he says it was easier to recruit in the Cold War, it’s practically a field report of problems today.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

3 thoughts on “The smiler with the knife”

  1. Straw, probably. He was/is vocal against widening the war. Discrediting the intel which was used to justify starting the war helps discredit the intel being used to justify widening the war.

  2. Not an apartment, a mansion (I stayed there once) with bathtubs so large you could actually drown without bending your knees if the water was deep enough.

  3. Everyone is thinking of their place in posterity in this, probably the most disastrous British Foreign Policy move since 1956.
    See the coverage of Suez 1956 this week in the Guardian.
    Everyone wants to be in a position to say 'Blair was warned, and he ignored the warnings'.

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