Will Chilcot come too late to give us lessons for Iran?

by Brian Jones

The Guardian’s reporting of the possibility of military strikes against Iran because of its probable (but unproven) nuclear weapons programme and likely UK involvement is particularly relevant to the Digest because, for many of us, the situation in which “lessons learned” from Iraq might be significant was always most likely to be military action involving Iran and its WMD. It is good that comments by John Bone and Bobm have got the ball rolling.

Although the UK aspect – rightly criticised for lack of substance in one Guardian reader’s letter – should be treated with extreme caution, reporting in the US press of statements by those keen to talk-up the potential problem demand attention.

Given the present rumblings and comments on this made by Tony Blair in his evidence to the Iraq Inquiry, there can surely be few acceptable excuses for the Inquiry’s continued leisurely pace. The silence of Parliament on this suggests that the efforts of Sir John Chilcot and co are sliding dangerously close to irrelevance.

The uncertain intelligence and half-baked justification offered in Guardian background pieces for a US/UK attack on Iran’s probable (nuclear) weapons of mass destruction programme sound all too familiar. Fortunately, its leaders (including that in today’s Observer) are much more rational – as was Richard Norton-Taylor’s Comment is Free piece, although I would be less concerned than he about the Iranian leaders’ supposed irrationality. In my view military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would be unlikely to eliminate its likely weapons programme and would only serve to stiffen the resolve of all sides in Iran.

In general terms, I think a couple of points should be noted. This problem continues to be cast in nuclear terms. We hear no mention of any capabilities that Iran may have with biological or chemical weapons capabilities (i.e. WMD). I would be very concerned about provoking a BW-capable Iran that has an extended global reach, not with missiles, but through links with terrorists. Unlike with Iraq, this particular nexus might be far more feasible. And, for this and more direct practical reasons, I’m afraid the dream of disarmament (global or regional) is too distant to guide medium term policy. Thus, as undesirable as it is, the world has to come to terms with an expanding number of states which possess or are on the threshold of possessing not only nuclear but biological and chemical weapons as well.

But why should we, rather than France or Germany, find ourselves embroiled in all this? It is because we have a government dominated by a Tory party that, whilst repeatedly taking Labour to task for its “dodgy” dossier, still, in retrospect and without further explanation, continues to support the decision to go to war in Iraq. I have heard a serving minister include the impossibility of not supporting the US as one element in his explanation. Furthermore, many of the senior civil servants involved in the deception have achieved promotion and are advising the present government on security matters.

It is very difficult to see that even a nuclear armed Iran need be a significant threat to our national security in a timescale that precludes the consideration and development of a more coherent security policy on WMD. Central to that policy may be a re-evaluation of our policy with the US, including its implications with respect to Israel and the Middle East problem in general. I would like to think Chilcot would kick start a debate on this issue. His committee has had time to think about it.


Miliband D returns unrepentant

by Brian Jones

David Miliband has returned to mainstream politics after a period in the wilderness. He appeared on BBC1’s Question Time last week (8 September), and on the Jeremy Vine BBC Radio 2 programme (time- limited availability) earlier this week. My ears pricked up on both occasions when the Iraq war was mentioned. He said pretty much the same thing about it on each programme.

Although he could not resist one aside in which he placed himself at some distance from the central decision on the invasion of Iraq – “I was education secretary at the time” – he acknowledged that he had supported it. However, in saying he would not have done so if he had known there were no WMDs, he has taken a small step away from Blair.

When Vine pressed him on the reasons for the war, Miliband D insisted it was about WMD and, as he had on Question Time, reverted to the Blair party line. He said that not only had just about every intelligence agency in the world believed Saddam had them, but that even Hans Blix believed so too – “we all got it wrong”.

Variations on this statement have reverberated around the airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic for many years now. They are either totally disingenuous or indicate a careless lack of diligence and responsibility, especially in the part of cabinet members at the time because they had the opportunity to insist on access to the detail of the case. As I will explain, the statements neglect at least one lesson that should have been learned from the Butler review – it is important not to drop caveats and qualifications.

An exposure of why this excuse is a nonsense is available in the description I provide in my book, Failing Intelligence, of a high level meeting I attended shortly after the September 2002 dossier was published. It was held in the Cabinet Office and I was there as one of several “back seat” advisers. The meeting had been arranged on the instruction of the Prime Minister with representatives of the intelligence community of a foreign country in an effort to convince that country of the case made in the dossier that Iraq had WMD. The country, the identity of which remains classified, had a mature intelligence capability and was an important player on the UN Security Council.

The UK evidence, including significant classified material, was presented to the foreign representatives by the chairman of the JIC, John Scarlett and the chief of the Cabinet Office Assessment Staff, Julian Miller. The leading expert on the foreign delegation responded with the following:

We have listened very carefully to what you have said. But you have not provided us with any information that convinces us beyond doubt that Iraq actually has chemical or biological weapons. The sort of information
we would look for and that you have not given us would be: what are the actual agents; what are the weapons; how were the agents made, where, how much? How, where and when were the weapons filled; where are they stored; where are they deployed; how will they be used? You have told us
none of these things.

Listen, we do not disagree with what you have told us. We also think that Saddam probably has weapons of mass destruction. But we do not know for sure and we could not support military action unless we were
sure.

So that important country did not get it wrong and the view of every foreign intelligence agency I am aware of was in fact, “We have no specific current information in which we can be confident but we think Iraq probably has some chemical and biological weapons but we don’t know what they have or how many they might be or whether they could constitute a significant threat. We doubt that any large stockpiles exist.” I believe this is what Blix thought as well.

On the eve of the invasion a little more than had previously been said was squeezed out of John Scarlett, presumably to meet a requirement for something more positive to satisfy the cabinet, the defence chiefs and, perhaps the attorney general. This is the best he could give them.

The JIC view is clear: Iraq possesses chemical and biological weapons, the means to deliver them and the capacity to re-establish production. The scale of the holdings is hard to quantify. It is undoubtedly much less than in 1991. Evidence points to a capability that is already militarily significant.

Read it quickly and it sounds quite positive. But look more closely and wonder is a “view” more positive than an unqualified “judgement”? Does talking about “the capacity to re-establish production” suggest that production had been discontinued – perhaps as long ago as 1991? If so, how old and viable were the any weapons that existed? Does the difficulty in quantifying the holdings (stockpiles) mean the JIC had no idea? What does “militarily significant” mean? Does it mean less than “strategically significant” or just enough to win a skirmish? We do not know if this Scarlett statement was introduced at the cabinet meeting of 17 March 2003 but it represents a good reason for many more to support Chris Lambs petition [LINK] for the minutes of that meeting to be disclosed.

Scarlett’s statement is a long way from the simplistic one that Miliband D and others continue to deploy to mitigate the terrible mistake they made. The reality is that we all did not get it wrong. The few, of which Miliband D was clearly one, who did get it wrong were those who assumed the evidence was strong enough to justify a war, and those who colluded in the promotion of such an impression or did nothing to ensure the intelligence was accurately described.

I am not sure what Miliband E will make of his brother’s intervention, but it is to be hoped that the report of the Chilcot Inquiry will make it impossible for this throwaway excuse to be trotted out for much longer.


Blix and the War Leaders

by Brian Jones

I am surprised there have been no comments on the interesting and informative article by Hans Blix posted on the Digest last Thursday. There are numerous interesting facets to what is, at first sight, a consideration of the recent memoirs of Bush, Blair and, often forgotten outside Australia, Howard. In fact the piece, which Blix appears to have shared for further distribution with a number of associates, is much more than that, making some arguments that are new, at least to me, and of importance. I have too much to say about it for a comment beneath the post and take this opportunity to be a little more expansive.

I will begin with my more negative comments but would not wish to give the impression that my overall reaction to the article was in anything other than positive.

In taking a defensive line with respect to the President’s and the Prime Ministers’ references to him, Blix allows the distortions inherent in their attempts to defend the indefensible greater credibility than they deserve. It does, however, lead to a useful summary of the disingenuous claims made by each of the three in their respective books.

However, Blix’s reflection of his own performance, albeit in the hugely complex and politically charged atmosphere of his report to the Security Council on 27 January 2003, raises an important question. Was he right to make his comments about Iraq “deliberately sharp” because he wanted to push Iraq hard to cooperate more actively? With war looming, did he not have a greater responsibility to provide the Security Council with a more balanced picture rather than use the occasion to engage in a psychological game with Saddam which appears to have backfired in giving Bush, Blair and their cohorts something more to work with than would otherwise have been the case?

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How not to do intelligence

by Brian Jones

The transcript of the Iraq Inquiry’s “private” interview of Simon Webb, the policy director of the MoD in 2002/3, reveals a great deal about the culture of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). It exposes a fundamental flaw in UK intelligence and perhaps even the nation’s security. It suggests that assumptions related to defence and security policy have been allowed to influence the interpretation of intelligence as reflected in the assessments of the JIC. These assessments, and particularly their few headlines key judgements, are the means by which most busy ministers and senior officials are informed about the capabilities and intentions of potential aggressors.

As the leader of a team that was contributing regularly to JIC assessments on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons (WMD) up to 2003, I did not understand the extent to which policy was influencing assessment and I suspect many JIC customers were similarly unaware.

Webb was one of a number of intelligence community outsiders who sat, and still sit, on the committee that has the final word on intelligence assessments. This group of individuals represent departments that are customers of the JIC and, in theory, rely on the assessments to help shape and/or execute relevant policies. I had believed their presence on the committee was to offer background context based on their wider Whitehall experience and advise on the implications of particular judgements. If such a judgement had significant implications I assumed they would advise their colleagues on the committee of the need to take special care in qualifying the intelligence according to any uncertainty associated with it and the judgements made about it. Webb’s evidence suggests the JIC operated in a less straightforward manner and allowed Whitehall’s political considerations to confuse the function of the committee.

Webb acknowledged that, although there had been a variety of reasons why Iraq mattered, it was not a direct threat to the UK in the short term. He said that the policy director of the MoD was usually a sceptic about intelligence that emphasised a threat because of the implications for policy. A requirement to redeploy already overstretched UK forces and to re-examine budgets would be problematic.

That admission exposes the flaw in the way in which the UK’s intelligence process is organised. Intelligence assessments issued by the JIC should address matters relevant to policy but not be influenced by them. Decisions arising from intelligence must, of course, take account of existing policies and other factors. It is fair enough for a policy customer to ask the intelligence analysts, “Are you sure about this because the consequences will be enormous?” It is fair enough for a member of the JIC to be sceptical of a draft intelligence assessment until the supporting evidence has been scrutinised, and any flaws in the logic of analysis addressed. But it is entirely inappropriate for scepticism about an assessment to be based on the problems it might cause for a policy director – still worse if that policy director is in a position to influence assessments. Beyond identifying requirements for intelligence focus, policy considerations beyond those which directly influence priorities should have no place in the intelligence process.

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The Intelligence Fudge

by Brian Jones

This post is complementary to this recent contribution from Chris Ames, There wasn’t much to go on. It explains how recent evidence released by the Inquiry reinforces the suspicion I first raised publicly in 2004 that Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) analysts, and probably some members of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) (and hence the wider audience – cabinet, parliament, public) were deceived into believing that the evidence of Saddam’s possession of WMD was stronger than it actually was.

To recap: throughout the drafting of the September 2002 dossier, DIS analysts argued that the assessment of Iraq’s WMD status and capability was being expressed in terms that were not warranted by the available intelligence. The DIS representatives at the final drafting meeting refused to endorse the assessment and clear the dossier. In an attempt to persuade them, they were told a recently received intelligence report (what I call “Report X”) from MI6, which could not be released to them, overcame their reservations about whether Iraq actually possessed any chemical and biological weapons. They rightly said they could not change the DIS position under such circumstances. As a result, after the meeting a representative of MI6, which had been represented at the drafting meeting, spoke with a senior manager in the DIS about the new intelligence and this led to the Chief of Defence Intelligence, on the advice of his Deputy, approving the draft of the dossier without further reference to his analysts.

The 2004 Butler Review said it was presented with no “evidence that persuaded the committee that there was an insuperable obstacle to allowing analysts access to the intelligence” (page 139, para 577) and “it was wrong that a report which was of significance in the drafting of a document of the importance of the dossier was not shown to key experts in the DIS who could have commented on the validity and credibility of the report” (page 111, para 452). The decision meant it “was not seen by the few people in the UK intelligence community able to form an all-round, professional technical judgements on its reliability and significance” (page138, para 575). Butler also noted that it was known at the outset that the intelligence on which Report X was based came from a source without a proven record of reliability. Sir Richard Dearlove, the Head of MI6 at the time, has insisted that he made this clear to those he spoke to about it, including Blair, Manning, Powell, Campbell and Scarlett. In other words Butler believed those who did see Report X were not properly qualified to analyse it and those who decided that it was necessary to exclude the expert analysts made an error of judgement.

Butler revealed that Report X indicated “the production of biological and chemical agent had been accelerated by the Iraqi Government, including through the building of further facilities throughout Iraq” (page138, para 573). Despite the fact that it was later withdrawn and discredited, the content of Report X remains a matter of the highest importance. The Butler review said Report X had provided “significant assurance to those drafting the Government’s dossier that active, current production of chemical and biological agent was taking place” (page100, para 405) and “The fact that it was not shown to ….. [Brian Jones and colleagues] resulted in a stronger assessment in the dossier in relation to Iraqi chemical weapons production than was justified by the available intelligence” (page 139, para 577). The implication is that those concerned recognised that the WMD assessment was unsustainable without the degree of certainty added by Report X if it proved to be right. This means it was a key element in the dossier which would become the most comprehensive written declaration of the government’s case for war.

Unfortunately, for reasons that require explanation, Butler avoided offering an opinion on whether those who had seen Report X were justified in believing it to be valid and credible and justified overruling the assessment of the DIS expert analysts and modifying the previous JIC position. Despite calls in the House of Commons in 2004 for the report to be released, it never has been. Seven years on, the transcripts of the private interviews are taking us beyond what was revealed by Butler. As Ames has observed, they suggest that Report X fell well short of providing the convincing evidence about Iraq’s WMD which would have been necessary to dismiss the analysts’ concerns. What they have said reinforces the suspicion I had at the time that an inconclusive intelligence report was being used incompetently or dishonestly to finesse the DIS objections.

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MI6 and Campbell

by Brian Jones

(Letter to the Guardian)

It says much about the culture of MI6 that despite its distrust of Alastair Campbell, he was shown intelligence considered too sensitive to be revealed to those of us who had undergone the full vetting processes (An unguided missile, 15 July). That culture is revealed by the observation of one senior MI6 officer about other related intelligence that: “I think we marketed that intelligence … before it was fully validated.” This is but one example of the distortions that competition has brought to parts of the machinery of government, where collaboration is essential to effectiveness. That an internal deception about the quality of evidence contributed in a major way to the deeply flawed case for war in Iraq damaged the intelligence community and public confidence in it. That it has taken seven years and four inquiries to confirm this much is further evidence of the moral vacuum that persists in the higher echelons of Whitehall, Westminster and beyond.


First judgements can be deceptive

by Brian Jones

Chris Ames has asked me to clarify why in a recent comment I described as “deceptive” the first key judgement – that “Iraq has a chemical and biological warfare capability and Saddam is prepared to use it’ – of the 9 September 2002 Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessment.

The assessment, entitled “Iraqi use of chemical and biological weapons – possible scenarios”, was an unusual JIC product. It did not assess, as a primary requirement, Iraq’s capabilities. When it was commissioned by the JIC in August, no new intelligence had arrived which changed the existing assessment of the status of Iraq’s WMD programmes that had been issued on 15 March 2002.

There was no suggestion that a paper to update the March assessment should or could have been written. Nor was there significant up-to-date intelligence available to make an assessment of how Iraq might use such weapons. Analysts were, in effect, asked to assume Iraq did have such weapons and to make their “best guess” assumptions about how Iraq would use them.

I thought the paper was designed to help military planning and preparations and it seemed appropriate to make “worst-but-reasonable” case assumptions to do this. Thus analysts drew on their general knowledge of WMD and the dated intelligence of Iraq’s past capability and experience. I presumed that the JIC had requested the paper because it judged that war with Iraq was a real possibility and wished to provide additional background to inform the final decision and to advise military commanders. I knew from my discussions within the Ministry of Defence that the military wanted such guidance.

It was not until well after the war (I had retired shortly before it) that I learned of the high level meeting the Prime Minister had held at Downing Street on 23 July 2002. Several members of the JIC, including its chairman John Scarlett, had attended. The point was made by several at the meeting that current intelligence assessments would not support a war.

Looking back, I am suspicious that the JIC papers prepared in August and September might have had a purpose that was hidden from most of those involved in their production. Meeting the military requirement may not have been the only objective. There was a political need for a more positive statement about Iraq’s WMD capability. There is no doubt that the political imperative would have loomed larger once the Americans stepped up the rhetoric and the dossier had been commissioned. The existence of a JIC paper that made more positive statements, albeit speculative ones, would have served the Prime Minister’s need to justify the likely military course ahead. Even if that had not been intended when the paper was commissioned, now that MI6 had come up with some new intelligence that might help, the JIC paper could be used to enable the dossier to say something more convincing than had previously been possible.

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The continuing mystery of Report X

by Brian Jones

With regard to my recent letter to the Independent and the intelligence report that I call Report X, here – for what they are worth – are my observations on some of the comments made on the Digest post The mystery of Report X.

Andrewsimon asked a number of questions:

1) Is it possible that this information originally came to SIS via actions of Ahmed Chalabi’s INC? It is important to read Butler on intelligence sources and validation very carefully. The Butler report is not very clear in linking individual CX report sources he mentions and aspects of them he subsequently discusses. The issue of the influence of an Iraqi opposition faction is mentioned in relation to one line of reporting but I don’t think it can be linked to this one. My judgement is that it is unlikely but not impossible.

2) Is it possible that the Americans (the CIA?) ‘assisted’ in some way by stovepiping this information into the British system to help HMG make its case? I don’t think so. I am pretty certain this was UK “owned” information.

3) Were there any other sources (as notably discussed by Butler or perhaps others) who were providing concurrent information about recent or continuing production of CW/BW agent? I cannot recall any that specific, and certainly none that was convincing. Any intelligence report coming in for assessment means that the collecting agency thought it should be analysed (i.e. that it was possibly but not necessarily largely right). It is then carefully examined by the analysts for its inherent credibility or evidence of knowledge or insight on the part of the source. It is then checked against other independent intelligence for collateral support or otherwise. Under some circumstances further questions can be put to the originating agency or others and/or further targeted collection requested. None of the reports available to the DIS up to the time of my retirement in January 2003 provided clear evidence that Iraq had a current stockpile of useable chemical or biological weapons.

4) Is there a suggestion here (or even evidence of a possible doubt by Dearlove) that the source may not have actually been “real”? It is important to read the evidence of SIS4 together with Dearlove’s evidence. It tells us, I believe, that Report X was “promising” but needed more substance (checkable detail – see above) for it to be useful. More useful detail which would make it the “golden bullet” was expected by SIS soon. The second report came (lets call it Report Y) at the end of September 2002, after the dossier had been published, which must mean they made a pretty huge assumption when they tried to persuade we DIS analysts that it removed the concerns we had. When it came it was apparently a big disappointment. Both reports X and Y were kept from analysts until after the war when I suspect they were combined and possibly redacted and issued as another report (let’s call it Report Z). I have been told DIS analysts thought it was “crap” but I do not know whether this contributed to its withdrawal in July 2003.

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Resigned to war?

by Brian Jones

Unfortunately I have been out of the loop for several days and unable to contribute to recent discussion relating to the two letters I had published on evidence of Michael Laurie on the dossier. Several important issues were raised and I have gathered together in this post my observations about comments on the letter to the Guardian (from which they extracted the words “Blair’s exaggerated rhetoric” to make a sub-headline). A second post will cover the Independent letter.

On the Digest post covering the Guardian letter, Chris Lamb commented:

“What bothers me is that if it was known within the intelligence community researching and analyzing data for the September 2002 dossier that it intended to ‘make the case for war’ in a way that unsustainably manipulated the evidence, why were there no resignations on principle of at least some of those who fundamentally opposed such a venture to highlight the issue at the time-along the lines of Elizabeth Wilmshurst’s resignation from the FCO legal team when the US revival argument was adopted.”

There are several problematic assumptions in what Chris says. The data (unassessed intelligence) that was available was analysed primarily for JIC assessments not the dossier. The dossier was drawn up in parallel with one such assessment in September 2002. Elements in the dossier that might be regarded as assessments were drafted in to the dossier by members of John Scarlett’s Assessment Staff and considered by the “drafting group” chaired by the Assessment Staff chief Julian Miller. At no point did DIS analysts entirely endorse the draft dossier. Two of us took the rare step of expressing our concerns in writing to ensure our position was formally recorded (as Chris Ames pointed out). I was very careful in my Guardian letter to refer to the “justification of a likely war” – as opposed to a certain one – and something that may or may not happen on the basis of unseen evidence hardly justifies a resignation (which is why the device of Report X was so neat – see my next post).

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The mystery of Report X

by Brian Jones

The following is the full version of a letter published in the Independent today:

In 2002 Major General Laurie was one of the three most senior members of the Defence Intelligence Staff. As a more junior member, it is interesting to learn all these years later, that our top man, Air Marshal Sir Joe French, explicitly told him something that was not revealed to we lesser mortals – that the purpose of the Iraq dossier was to make a case for war. It was more than a nod and a wink. If that was the case, as I could only infer it was at the time, it is even more important that the insistent objections of DIS analysts were circumvented through a deception apparently perpetrated on their own colleagues by MI6 and senior Cabinet Office intelligence officials. They claimed to have new intelligence that overcame our reservations, but were not prepared to disclose it to us.

As long ago as February 2004, I provided a detailed description in this newspaper of how the disagreement of DIS analysts was finessed to break the deadlock and allow publication of the dossier. I called for the vital intelligence report to be disclosed. That never happened. The inquiries since have, so far, been extremely vague about what that report said. However, almost unnoticed, the Chilcot Inquiry has recently published important evidence from a senior MI6 officer, identified as SIS4, which strongly indicates the undisclosed intelligence did no such thing. According to SIS4, that intelligence report merely promised that the required “golden bullet” would, hopefully, become available within a few weeks – but unfortunately too late for the dossier. It never materialised.

It may well be that General Laurie was not in the loop when these matters were a hot issues in the DIS in September 2002, or in 2003 when they hit the headlines in the Hutton Inquiry. However, it worries me that the Chilcot committee appear to have asked him nothing about this issue. Perhaps they already know the answers. Perhaps they will at last publish the intelligence report that did not provide the “golden bullet” or give us a clearer idea about how inadequate it really was.