Britain secretly helped to arm Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The facts about this were concealed until the Matrix Churchill trial took place. The trial began at the Old Bailey before a jury on 12 October 1992. The three defendants, accused of illegally exporting munitions machinery to Baghdad, had been charged twenty months earlier, in February 1991. But extraordinary delays had stopped their case from being heard in public until well after the general election of April 1992 which confirmed John Major - victor of the Gulf War against Iraq - in office. The eventual trial of the three men was scheduled to last until Christmas. But four weeks later after a memorable cross-examination of Alan Clark, a former minister of the Crown, it abruptly halted. The prosecutor of the charge brought by HM Customs had not even finished presenting his case: but the jury was discharged and the three defendants in the dock formally acquitted. That afternoon's splash front page in the London Evening Standard accurately conveyed a sense of the storm that was about to break: 'IRAQI ARMS DEAL TRIAL COLLAPSES. Three cleared as ex-Minister's evidence is called inconsistent.'
Alan Moses, QC for HM Customs, told the judge that the Crown could no longer continue with the case because Alan Clark's evidence under oath was 'inconsistent' with what he had originally told Customs investigators in a witness statement. Clark's testimony had been elicited by Geoffrey Robertson QC, counsel for the main defendant, with the help of a stack of Whitehall documents of the type normally kept secret in Britain - briefings prepared by top officials for Ministers; records of meetings of those Ministers; and, most secret and unprecedented of all, records from Britain's two intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6. John Major's Cabinet Ministers had signed orders concealing all this information from the court - Ministerial orders eventually overturned by the judge. Intelligence officers, as well as senior civil servants and government Ministers, were forced to come to the Old Bailey to testify.
The outcome of the case caused a political crisis. Quite how big that crisis is has so far been concealed, because the Prime Minister felt he had no alternative but to bow immediately to opposition demands for a judicial inquiry into the biggest scandal of the Conservative administration. Lord Justice Scott, a senior High Court judge, has been authorised to conduct an inquiry which begins later this year. His terms of reference enable him to sit in private to investigate the circumstances in which Britain secretly armed Iraq.
It was the extraordinary history of the Matrix Churchill trial which brought to light what happened. The conduct of the case was a legal tour de force. Government Ministers have been since all too anxious to muddy the waters - claiming the outcome of the case had nothing to do with the secret Whitehall files. They also said that Ministers never tried to suppress the truth. This book simply documents what happened and what facts really have emerged. They make startling, and sometimes bizarre, reading.
There has never before been such authentic and detailed material available about the operations of the British secret services and their influence on Whitehall - right down to verbatim copies of their own agents' reports and their internal memoranda. Was the chief defendant betrayed by MI6? Was the foreign Secretary betrayed by his colleagues? And were the victims of Saddam Hussein betrayed by the British government? HM Customs' determination to investigate and prosecute the defendants did not succeed in convicting them. But it did surgically slice open the underbelly of government, to reveal corruption within. Had the trial occurred earlier, it would have been much more difficult for John Major and the Conservative Party to win the last general election. It remains to be seen how much effect it will have on the next one.
D.L. London, January 1993