Is the prime minister the last person to believe the intelligence on WMDs?
Gethin Chamberlain for The Scotsman, 31 January 2004
FIRST there were weapons of mass destruction that could be launched within 45 minutes, posing a threat to mainland Europe. But they became battlefield WMDs which could threaten only troops attacking Iraq. In time, they metamorphosed into programmes for the production of weapons that could or could not be used against coalition forces at some unspecified point in the future. And now it seems they may never have existed at all.
Britain’s stated case for going to war against Iraq was built on sand, and that sand has been shifting for months. Unlike the United States government, Downing Street did not leave itself the option of launching a war against Iraq simply to effect regime change.
Tony Blair put all his faith in the information supplied by Britain’s intelligence services. They assured him that Saddam had weapons that could be made ready for use within 45 minutes that Iraq was actively seeking to acquire uranium from Niger, and that the country had access to a range of unconventional weapons, from anthrax to VX nerve gas, one droplet of which can kill.
It appears they were wrong on all counts. In the aftermath of the Hutton Report, those looking for a scapegoat are turning their attentions to the intelligence services. How, they are asking, could they have got it so wrong?
In the US, patience with the intelligence services appears already to have run out. Lord Hutton may have let Mr Blair off the hook by limiting the scope of his inquiry to rule out an investigation into the case for going to war, but the Prime Minister could yet be undone by events taking place across the Atlantic.
It has been a bad week for those who took the intelligence services at their word.
First David Kay, who quit as chief weapons inspector, rubbished the idea that Saddam had any weapons worth speaking of. Then Condoleezza Rice, the trusted national security adviser of George Bush, admitted that the pre-war intelligence did not appear to gel with what forces found when they entered Iraq.
Last night, Mr Bush himself acknowledged that the spectre of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction might have been the product of an intelligence failure. The president said “I want to know the facts” about any intelligence failures regarding the deposed Iraqi leader’s alleged cache of forbidden weapons.
But Mr Bush declined to endorse calls for an independent investigation.
In the US at least, it appears that more people believe Elvis Presley is alive and working in their local diner than believe in the intelligence services’ claims about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
Next week, Mr Blair will have to go before a committee of senior MPs to be quizzed on the intelligence material. The committee chairman, Donald Anderson, has let it be known that the Prime Minister can expect an uncomfortable session. According to Mr Anderson, Mr Blair can expect to be asked whether he is the “last person to believe the intelligence assessment”.
The problem that both the US and UK governments face is that the intelligence services delivered what they thought their masters wanted to hear. Lord Hutton alluded to the problem when he said that John Scarlett, the former MI6 director responsible for writing the government’s dossier on WMD’s, may have been “subconsciously influenced” to strengthen the wording of the document.
But while the Prime Minister continues to stand by the British intelligence material, the US government is cutting its losses and admitting that it may have got it wrong.
On Thursday, Ms Rice admitted: “I think that what we have is evidence that there are differences between what we knew going in and what we found on the ground.”
The excuse she offered on behalf of US intelligence was that Iraq was a closed and secretive country that was doing everything that it could to deceive the United Nations and the world.
The US based its decision to invade on what George Bush called a “grave and gathering danger” posed by Iraq’s weapons.
But, according to Ms Rice, the US may never learn the whole truth about Iraq’s arms capabilities because of the extent of the looting which took place immediately after the invasion.
The hunt, she said, would continue, but the reality is that the widely quoted views of the weapons inspector David Kay, who said he doubted that any weapons would be found, have seriously dented the administration’s hopes of finding evidence to back up its pre-war claims.
It had already been forced to concede that it was mistaken to accuse Iraq of trying to buy African uranium.
But Mr Kay has urged the US administration to go further and to set up an independent investigation into the intelligence shortcomings. His conclusions will have made painful reading for those, like Mr Blair, who still cling on to the original intelligence assessments.
“If the weapons programmes existed on the scale we anticipated, we would have found something that leads to that conclusion. Instead, we found evidence that points to something else,” he said.
He believes the intelligence services were taken in by Saddam’s policy of “creative ambiguity”, by which he got rid of banned weapons that could have triggered a UN response and subsequent military action, while giving out the impression that he may have retained just such a deterrent. “Saddam wanted to enjoy the benefits of having chemical and biological weapons without having to pay the costs,” he said.
According to Mr Kay, it was not just the US and the UK that were taken in. The French and German intelligence services also believed that Saddam still possessed weapons of mass destruction: “We were almost all wrong,” he said.
Not only that, he said, but the chances of finding significant stockpiles of WMD were practically non-existent. The looting and the efforts of Saddam’s security services to cover their tracks had seen to that. “I don’t think they exist,” he said. And it was not hard to imagine the groans in the White House and Downing Street.
Putting a brave face on the failures, General John Abizaid, the head of the US military’s central command, said that at least some of the intelligence had proved useful.
“If we did get the WMD wrong, OK, I understand that,” said Gen Abizaid. “But I can tell you that there are certain things that we got extremely right which allowed us to conduct a campaign that was pretty quick and, you know, pretty decisive in a very short period of time.” But that is not good enough for the committees of senators and congressmen and MPs who have the task of scrutinising what went wrong.
Tony Blair will be the first to feel the heat when he appears before the liaison committee of select committee chairmen next week. Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, has already urged him to admit that the intelligence presented to Parliament was “wildly wrong”.
Yesterday, he said: “Now that even the White House has admitted they may have got it wrong, it’s getting embarrassing to watch our government still trying to deny reality. The game is up. He will never have a better opportunity to say that he believed in all good faith the intelligence he was given and he gave to Parliament, but that it has turned out to be wildly wrong.”
Mr Anderson said “further parliamentary scrutiny” of the intelligence which led to war was needed now the Hutton Inquiry was concluded.
Also facing questions will be the MI6 chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, and John Scarlett, the chairman of the joint intelligence select committee, who have both been summoned before the intelligence and security committee.
It was MI6 that provided much of the information for the government’s controversial dossier on WMD on which it based its case for war.
Both men will be asked to explain why it was that they were so confident their intelligence was correct, although the committee has already acknowledged that the MI6 struggled to make any headway against Saddam’s secretive regime.
In the US, the House and Senate intelligence committees have already unearthed a series of intelligence failures. According to the Washington Post, the committee have concluded that CIA analysts and their superiors did not seriously consider the possibility Saddam Hussein no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Although they operated independently, both committees are understood to have concluded that the CIA relied too heavily on circumstantial and outdated intelligence and was too dependent on satellite and spy-plane images and communications intercepts.
The Post said the committees also found that CIA operatives and analysts failed to realise that the Iraqi chain of command for developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons had fallen apart, and that Iraqi scientists and others were engaged in their own campaign to deceive the Iraqi leader, telling him they had weapons that did not exist.
Senator Pat Roberts, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, likened the CIA’s assessments to a runaway train. “Once it left the station, it kept going faster and faster,” said Mr Roberts.
“Some analysts may have been trying to slow it down, but it just kept going.”
It is now widely acknowledged that US intelligence-gathering inside Iraq was hampered by the near total lack of reliable human sources.
“It’s fairly evident that we did not have as much intelligence on the ground as we needed and we were having to depend on satellite reconnaissance. There is a big problem in not having enough people on the ground,” said Congressman Michael Collins, a Republican member of the House intelligence committee.
And that is the key to the problem. The real reason the intelligence was so badly flawed is as basic as it is obvious. Life in Saddam’s Iraq was so tightly controlled and the regime so secretive that Western intelligence organisations failed to gain a toehold in the country.
In the dark about Saddam’s intentions, but under pressure from their political masters to come up with answers, they did what many would have done – regurgitated the rumours, dressed up the tittle-tattle and told their governments what they wanted to hear.