More from: Intelligence

Butler, Blair and inexplicable inconsistency

by Chris Ames

In 2007, Lord Robin Butler, who conducted a previous inquiry into Iraq. with Sir John Chilcot as a sidekick, said the following in the House of Lords:

I have also always accepted and continue to accept that the Prime Minister sincerely believed that Saddam possessed such weapons and was bent on acquiring more. Our intelligence community believed that, as did other countries’ intelligence communities, as well as Hans Blix when he first took UN observers back into Iraq. But here was the rub: neither the United Kingdom nor the United States had the intelligence that proved conclusively that Iraq had those weapons. The Prime Minister was disingenuous about that. The United Kingdom intelligence community told him on 23 August 2002 that,

    “we … know little about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons work since late 1988”.

The Prime Minister did not tell us that. Indeed, he told Parliament only just over a month later that the picture painted by our intelligence services was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”. Those words could simply not have been justified by the material that the intelligence community provided to him.

Bizarrely, his lordship said today:

Tony Blair really believed there were WMD as did most of the intelligence agencies in the world.

He wanted to be in helping the US because he thought Saddam Hussein was a dangerous person to the world and to the Middle East and the world would be better off without him.

My criticism of him was the way in which he reported the intelligence. He exaggerated the reliability of the intelligence…he was trying to persuade the UN and the world that there was a proper legal basis for taking military action.

In the fact the Joint Intelligence Committee had said to him that the intelligence was sporadic and patchy. He said to the House of Commons that it was extensive, detailed and authoritative.

That was where the inconsistency lay. I don’t call that a lie. He may well have thought it was extensive, detailed and authoritative but it wasn’t.

Butler’s own inconsistency is inexplicable but a reminder that the heads of establishment inquiries, whose judgements we are supposed to treat as definitive, can sometimes reach some random and arbitrary conclusions.

The Chilcot Report – An end to smoke and mirrors?

Piers Robinson

Of the many issues that the Inquiry is expected to report on, the issue of deception and its role in paving the road to war in Iraq is the most longstanding and controversial.

Shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Andrew Gilligan reported suggestions by the UK’s leading biological weapons expert, Dr David Kelly, that intelligence had been manipulated for political purposes.

Across the Atlantic, Ambassador Joseph Wilson made similar claims regarding the US government. Since then the idea that people were deceived or lied to by the Bush and Blair administrations in order to mobilise support for war has been widespread and persistent.

This should be of little surprise. The multiple and changing justifications for war, coupled with the failure to find any usable weapons of mass destruction (WMD) within Iraq, has led perhaps most of the British and American public to believe they were misled.

Moreover, democracies are not supposed to go to war based on lies and, in legal terms, unprovoked aggression is a most serious crime. The casualty toll from the Iraq war and its aftermath is horrific with some estimates putting the number of dead around the million mark. The stakes are very high. Readmore..

What can Dearlove possibly be hiding?

by Chris Ames

The Telegraph has run another story reminding us that Richard Dearlove, who was head of MI6/SIS at the time of the Iraq Dossier and the invasion, has threatened to spill the beans if he is criticised by the Inquiry. The story is based on the announcement that Dearlove is to leave his role as Master of Pembroke College Cambridge.

An honourable man, Sir Richard has been bound by official secrecy rules from defending himself from the suggestion that Tony Blair’s government was misinformed by the intelligence services about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction ahead of the war.

Sir Richard has spent the last year on sabattical (sic), writing a detailed account of the events leading up to the war, which, if he faces censure by the Chilcot Inquiry, he may place in the public domain. He had previously intended to make the work available to academics only posthumously. Sir Richard, 68, who became Master of Pembroke at the start of the Michaelmas Term, 2004, will retire in 2015.


Sources close to Dearlove have spoken about how he feels Chilcot should recognise the role played by Blair and his spokesman Alastair Campbell in the reports which suggested Saddam could use chemical weapons to target British troops in Cyprus – a claim which put Britain on a path to war in Iraq.

The story is so sympathetic to Dearlove, you wonder if he wrote it himself. I don’t think anyone can be in any doubt who those “sources close to Dearlove” are. But why, you have to ask again, can Dearlove have anything to say about the dossier or anything else that he didn’t say to the Inquiry? If his main revelation is that he told Blair and Campbell that there were doubts that Iraq had wmd but they told the public a different story, why would “official secrecy rules” stop him?

Dearlove places pre-emptive pressure on Chilcot?

by Andrew Mason

Reported today in The Sunday Mail is a story concerning Sir Richard Dearlove’s continuing displeasure about Downing Street’s use of MI6 intelligence material to make the case for war.

A security source told The Mail on Sunday: “This is Sir Richard’s time-bomb. He wants to set the record straight and defend the integrity of MI6.”

“And Sir Richard has taken a lot of personal criticism over MI6’s performance and his supposedly too-cosy relationship with Mr Blair.”

“No Chief of MI6 has done anything like this before, but the events in question were unprecedented.”

“If Chilcot doesn’t put the record straight, Sir Richard will strike back.”

As can be seen here and here, much of Dearlove’s evidence given in private to the Iraq Inquiry was heavily redacted before being published on their website.

Revisiting the life and death of Dr David Kelly

by Andrew Mason

Writing in yesterday’s Guardian, Robert Lewis, the author of the newly published and first ‘proper’ biography of Dr David Kelly CMG, Dark Actors: The Life and Death of David Kelly, states that he has broken faith with the various suggestions that Dr Kelly died by any means other than of his own volition.

I don’t think Kelly ever gave an unauthorised interview in his entire life. Jones [the late Dr Brian Jones – head of the WMD analysis branch of DIS until shortly before the Iraq War and one of our most experienced, knowledgeable and important contributors here at the Digest] believed his post-Kuwait briefings were intended to manage public expectations after the invasion, and to make sure it was the government, not British intelligence, which got the blame for confecting claims about Iraqi WMD. But the political fallout was cataclysmic. Downing Street went on an unprecedented offensive, and Kelly found rattled senior spooks were turning against him. Just as politicians and mandarins were traducing his professional reputation, counter-intelligence was set to tear his private life apart. Shortly before his death his top secret clearance was revoked. It would have heralded the most intrusive investigation imaginable, and to save himself and his family from the indignity, he walked up Harrowdown Hill and reduced his security risk to zero.


Belief, evidence and proof – from Iraq to Syria

by Chris Ames

The suggestion that the Syrian opposition, as well as the Syrian government itself, may have used chemical weapons continues to provide an interesting lens through which to consider the concepts of evidence, proof and indeed belief when it comes to intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

There has been some fairly inept reporting of recent suggestions regarding the Syrian Opposition, including this one from the BBC a couple of days ago

UN commission downplays claim Syria rebels used sarin

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria has sought to distance itself from comments made by one of its members that there was evidence of the nerve agent sarin being used by rebels.

Carla Del Ponte said testimony from victims and doctors had given rise to “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof”.

But the commission stressed that it had not reached any “conclusive findings”.

So Carla Del Ponte says there are “concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof” and the UN Commission of Inquiry somehow distances itself from her by stressing that it had not yet reached any “conclusive findings”.

Ironically, there is an equally inept critique of the BBC story on the News Unspun website:

The BBC, reporting on the various suggestions that the rebels or regime have used chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, report incorrectly that ‘evidence that government forces have used chemical weapons’ has been found by western governments. In reality, what western governments have found, according to David Cameron, is ‘limited, but growing‘ evidence – clearly not conclusive evidence.

Such reporting can easily mislead readers – a correct report may have referred to evidence that government forces may have used chemical weapons.

Whoever wrote this article doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of evidence or its usage and seems to have confused the concept with proof. Evidence that something has happened does not have to be conclusive to be described in this way. It is still evidence, even if it is not conclusive. There is no need to double-qualify such a statement by saying that it is evidence that something may have happened.

Given the extensive confusion about the meanings of these words, it’s not surprising that there remains so much scope for confusion and misrepresentation about Iraq. Leaving aside Tony Blair’s unjustified expressions of certainty, the former prime minister continues to misrepresent the views of other leaders on the WMD issue before the war.  Here he is writing in The Sun a couple of months ago:

the view that he had a WMD programme was held not just by the intelligence services in the UK and US but in countries which opposed military action.


Cameron: Iraq Inquiry redundant

by Chris Ames

The situation in Syria and allegations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons has brought inevitable comparisons with Iraq, with the obvious suggestion that Western governments are more reluctant as a result both to make intelligence-based claims about weapons of mass destruction and to intervene militarily on the basis of such claims.

In this BBC report from last week, David Cameron deliberately chose his words carefully with regard to the allegations and accepted the comparison with Iraq:

The prime minister then addressed concerns about the quality of the UK’s intelligence and fears that unreliable evidence could again be used as a justification for the West to become involved in a Middle Eastern conflict.

He said: “I would want to reassure people and say the lessons of Iraq have been learned.

“There are proper processes in place to try and make sure that what people say is properly backed up by the information.

In the context of the Inquiry and the government’s ridiculous refusal to say anything about Iraq or even allow a debate until the Inquiry’s report is published, these comments are significant for two reasons.

Firstly, it is notable that Cameron, as other ministers have said before, claims that the lessons (ie all of them) of Iraq have been learned. Given that the purpose of the Inquiry is said to be “to identify lessons that can be learned from the Iraq conflict”, it is not clear what the purpose of the Inquiry is now.

Secondly, Cameron’s point that “There are proper processes in place to try and make sure that what people say is properly backed up by the information”, implies very strongly that what happened over Iraq was that people said things that weren’t backed up by the information. The phrase “the information” is a bit ambiguous here. With Iraq you can identify the flimsy and “limited” intelligence, the assessments made by the intelligence experts on the basis of that intelligence, and the claims made by politicians as to what that intelligence showed. But Cameron is very clearly talking about what is said publicly and the difference between that and the intelligence and/or intelligence assessemnts.

Interestingly, the BBC’s Gordon Corera doesn’t need to wait for the Inquiry report either:

With Iraq a decision had been made to go to war and the intelligence was brought into the public domain to make the case for it.

Howard shoots Blair down under

by Chris Ames

In the ongoing debate in Australia about whether there should be an inquiry into that country’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, former PM John Howard is to make a speech defending his actions. A version of the speech is online on website, with the predictable title Errors were made but we did not go to war on a lie.

The gist of Howard’s defence is this passage:

After the fall of Saddam, and when it became apparent that stockpiles of WMDs had not been found in Iraq, it was all too easy for certain people, who only months earlier has said Iraq had the weapons, to begin claiming that Australia had gone to war based on a lie.

That claim merits the most emphatic rejection. Not only does it impugn the integrity of the decision-making process at the highest level but also the professionalism and integrity of intelligence agencies here and elsewhere.

Some of their key assessments proved to be wrong, but that is a world away from those assessments being the product of deceit and/or political manipulation.

Intelligence assessments never produce evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. To illustrate, in his book The Finish, which deals with the killing of Osama bin Laden, Mark Bowden quotes CIA deputy director Michael Morell telling Barack Obama that he had spent a lot of time on both WMDs and the tracing of bin Laden to Abbottabad, “and I am telling you the case for WMDs wasn’t just stronger, it was much stronger”.

I’m not by any means familiar with what Howard’s government said about the certainty with which intelligence was said to show that Iraq had WMD but his line that “Intelligence assessments never produce evidence beyond a reasonable doubt” is a real shot somewhere painful for Tony Blair. Blair’s assertion in the September 2002 dossier that “assessed intelligence” had “established beyond doubt” that Iraq had WMD came in for criticism early in the Inquiry’s hearings from Sir John Chilcot, who said that the Butler review, of which he had been a member, “came to a view that it was not a statement it was possible to make on the basis of intelligence”.

The question that comes to mind is not so much why Howard believed this as a general rule while Blair didn’t, but why no-one told Blair that it wasn’t true in relation to Iraq, if indeed no-one did. When the issue was raised at JIC chairman John Scarlett’s first appearance at the Inquiry, Scarlett seemed to dodge the the issue, which wasn’t put to him directly anyway:

I’m not able to completely reconstruct the thought process, but my memory at the time quite clearly was this was something which was the Prime Minister’s and it was going out under his signature. So it was different from the attention that I paid to the wording of the dossier.

It’s worth recalling here that the main function of the JIC chairman is to make sure that ministers and the prime minister in particular have a good understanding of intelligence. Scarlett seems to be implying that he didn’t really notice what Blair was saying sufficiently to correct him, either for the sake of being accurate in public statements or so that he didn’t base his policy on a complete misconception. It says a lot about the Inquiry that this point wasn’t pressed. But then it says a lot about the Inquiry that Scarlett was never asked about his comment in March 2002 that having a dossier about Iraq only, as opposed to four countries with WMD programmes of concern, would  have “the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD Iraq is not that exceptional”. Once you know that Scarlett said that, you know that from the outset he was happy for the dossier to mislead people about Iraq’s WMD.

If you just take the executive summary

by Chris Ames

The BBC’s story on Tony Blair saying that he has no regrets over the invasion of Iraq largely concentrates on his comparison of the cost of the war in human lives, compared to what Blair thinks might have happened had Saddam have been left in power.  The orignal justification for the war – Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction – doesn’t really feature, until the BBC reminds readers that:

He has insisted that, on the basis of the intelligence available at the time, it was “beyond doubt” Iraq was continuing to develop its weapons capability.

This is apparently a reference to Blair’s appearance at the Inquiry, specifically in 2010, when he justified the use of the phrase “beyond doubt”, including by reference to the September 2002 WMD dossier:

if you look at the dossier itself — and, of course, the dossier itself, if you just take the executive summary — I mean, I won’t go through and read it, but this executive summary wasn’t drawn up by me. It was drawn up by the Joint Intelligence Committee and they did it perfectly justifiably on the information they had before them.

Unfortunately for Blair, former Foreign Office press secretary John Williams has since told the Inquiry in a statement that he drew up the dossier’s executive summary when he produced his own version:
It was a routine job of taking the strongest points and putting them in an executive summary, while taking care to reflect their content accurately,  and introducing them with the sort of language that was familiar from speeches and interviews given by the PM and Foreign Secretary. […]
Some journalists have detected similarity between the shape of my effort and the finished product, but it would have been surprising if an organisation which had never produced a public document not taken some pointers from a professional.
Presumably, the sort of language that was familiar from Blair included:
We know that he [Saddam Hussein] has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons
NBC TV, 3 April 2002

So Blair has justified his certainty by reference to an executive summary that was not drawn up by the JIC but by a communications official, who justified the judgements that he fabricated by reference to the language used by Blair.

Butler not told about Habbush or Sabri

by Chris Ames

Tonight’s Panorama (BBC1 10.35 ) takes another look at the way that “key aspects of the secret intelligence used by Downing Street and the White House to justify the invasion were based on fabrication, wishful thinking and lies. ”

A lot of the stories about the dodgy sources, including the notorious 45 minutes claim, will be familiar to people who have followed the story closely, including reports that two sources, very highly placed within the Iraqi regime, told Western intelligence services in the months before the war that Iraq had no WMD, or very little. But what is new and very, very important is a claim from Lord Butler, whose 2004 review of intelligence included Sir John Chilcot, that he was not told about either of these sources, or what they said.

Butler told the programme’s presenter, Peter Taylor, that although his review was given paperwork about SIS/MI6’s meetings with Tahir Habbush, in which Habbush told SIS that Saddam did not have any WMD, it was not pointed out to him. During the interview, it also became clear that Butler had not either been told that Naji Sabri, Iraq’s foreign minister, had given similar information to the CIA in September 2002. He told Taylor:  “If SIS  was aware of it, we should have been informed.”

It’s a complicated story and it’s not clear whether SIS or Butler should take most blame for the Habbush issue. What is clear is that the revelation that the Butler review was not aware of and did not therefore take into account two significant sources who told the US and UK what turned out to be the truth about Iraq’s non-existent WMD is another blow to Butler’s inquiry and to establishment inquiries in general. For the public to have confidence in this type of inquiry, we have to believe that inquiries will be told what happened and that their reports will reflect what they have been told. With the Iraq Inquiry struggling to get permission to publish what it has found out, it’s not clear how we can be sure that we have been told the whole truth, or just an edited version of the truth.

The programme also features contributions from the late Dr Brian Jones, a founding contributor to the Digest, who died a year ago.

Footnote: the Digest covers this issue here.