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 theaustralian.com 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.