The beginning and the end of the plan for regime change

by Chris Ames

Four weeks ago, while researching what the Inquiry has thrown up about when, how and why Britain decided to take part in the US plan to achieve regime change in Iraq, I realised that two very significant documents, whose existence the Inquiry has revealed but which it has not published, could throw a lot of light on these issues. The failure to publish these documents is a signficant one for the Inquiry, which two years ago surrendered the right to determine what it could or could not publish.

The first document is a paper produced by Tony Blair for George Bush on 4 December 2001, which Sir David Manning and Sir Richard Dearlove presented in Washington the next day. The second is a document said to have been provided by John Scarlett to Manning on 17 March 2003, the day the Cabinet decided to back British participation in the invasion. Together they represent the beginning of a plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein and the culmination of a strategy of justifying this on the basis of Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction.

I put in separate freedom of information requests to the Cabinet Office for these documents. In each case, as the standard 20 day deadline approached it has indicated that they are covered by (mostly) qualified exemptions under the FOI Act, which means that the balance of public interest has to be considered. This of course will take more time.

The Blair paper is apparently the culmination of some fairly hasty discussions between Downing Street, SIS/MI6 and the Foreign Office which saw the senior MI6 official the Inquiry called SIS4 (Mark Allen) sending three papers to Downing Street (Via Dearlove) on 3 December 2001. The Inquiry has published these papers, the first of which is headed: “What can be done about Iraq? If the US heads for direct action, have we ideas which could divert them to an alternative course?” The second paper is headed, “Iraq, Further thoughts”. Addressed to Manning, it begins:

At our meeting on 30 November, we discussed how we could combine an objective of regime change in Baghdad with the need to protect important regional interest which would be at grave risk, if a bombing campaign against Iraq were launched in the short term. The attachment sets out these risks and costs. The paragraphs below draw on our discussion of a possible way ahead.

The paper sets out the rationale for regime change and how it might be achieved, which is said to be set out in a policy statement: “we want regime change in Baghdad and we are ready to provide air support to coup makers”.

During Blair’s second appearance at the Inquiry (in January), Roderick Lyne described the sequence of events that followed delivery of the papers:

So that advice came in and then on 3rd December you spoke to President Bush on the telephone. Then you sent him a paper which Sir David Manning delivered to Dr Condoleezza Rice during a visit to Washington on 5th December. The paper was dated 4th.

The Inquiry has not published the record of Blair’s conversation with Bush in which, according to Blair, he said that Britain would be “up for” regime change. Blair explained why he subsequently sent Bush a paper:

Because one thing I found in this was when I was trying to open up the possibility of getting a change in American policy, it helped to set it down in writing to him.

During a hearing with the former cabinet secretary Sir Richard (now Lord) Wilson, Lyne hinted that Blair may have been trying to change policy towards a particular approach to regime change – air support to coup makers – not away from the idea:

SIR RODERIC LYNE: It is perhaps unfair to ask whether you can recall from nine years ago whether you knew that Sir David Manning and Sir Richard Dearlove had gone together to Washington for talks on 5th December 2001?
LORD WILSON: I can’t remember.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Would you have expected to have been briefed on this as Cabinet Secretary?
LORD WILSON: No, I wouldn’t, unless it was something which I needed to know about.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Had we been talking opening talks with the White House about a strategy, building up towards regime change in Iraq, that would have been a big issue, not just a bit of toing and froing?
LORD WILSON: Absolutely. We were worried about what the American administration — we were concerned about what the American —
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Would you have expected at this point to be restraining the Americans or actually taking a rather forward position on the subject?
LORD WILSON: I would have expected us at this point to try to find out what they were up to and what their thinking was. That’s what I thought was going on at Crawford, by the way.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Not putting ideas into their head?
LORD WILSON: No, not at all.

Blair’s discussions with Bush, including this paper, are of course the subject of a dispute between the Inquiry and Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, who has refused permission to publish them. Chilcot told O’Donnell that “In the Inquiry’s view, it is essential, if it is to produce a reliable account, that it is able to quote extracts from the records of what [Blair] said to [Bush].”

The public interest in releasing the documents is therefore very strong. In response to my FOI request, The Cabinet Office has cited four exemptions: Section 27 (international relations); Section 35 (formulation of government policy); Section 41 (information provided in confidence); and Section 24 (National Security). However strong the case for disclosure, it appears that the country’s top civil servant has already decided that secrecy will prevail.

The second document is rather more obscure but is perhaps as significant. As Digest readers have noted, in his evidence to the Inquiry, former defence secretary Geoff Hoon quoted from a document that he says Scarlett sent Manning on 17 March 2003:

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.

As Brian Jones has pointed out there is plenty to question in Scarlett’s apparently simple statement and it is not clear whether these assertions were cleared with the JIC. It is clear that there was no new assessment. The Butler Report describes JIC assessments from September 2002 to March 2003:

Apart from an assessment of Iraq’s declaration of 7 December to the United Nations (covered further below), Iraq’s nuclear, biological, chemical and ballistic missile capabilities were covered only tangentially in those assessments.

It is unclear for what purpose the Scarlett document was produced and my FOI request has sought to establish this. The document was not itself part of the process of evidencing Blair’s claim that Iraq was in breach of UNSCR 1441 in order to persuade attorney general Lord Goldsmith to agree that the war would be legal. That had already happened, on 15 March. But, as I have noted, 17 March was the day that Blair convinced his Cabinet to back the war.

It is worth observing here that the note of 15 March in which Blair’s private secretary Matthew Rycroft assured Goldsmith’s legal secretary that Iraq was in breach of UNSCR 1441 relied on an assertion of “false statements or omissions in the declarations submitted by Iraq pursuant to this resolution”. Yet, the last JIC assessment of the Iraqi declaration to be produced, dated 18 December 2002, does not actually state in its key judgements that the Iraqi declaration included either of these. Butler thought it “odd” that the JIC produced no further assessment of the declaration, “despite its importance to the determination of whether Iraq was in further material breach of its disarmament obligations under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441”.

The Cabinet Office’s holding response to my request states that the following exemptions apply: Section 27 (international relations); Section 35 (formulation of government policy); Section 41 (information provided in confidence); and Section 23 (Security). The difference between Section 23 and Section 24 is that the latter relates to disclosures that may damage national security and is qualified, whereas the former totally exempts anything produced by the security and intelligence services.

The use of the exemption relation to the formulation (and development) of government policy is an acknlowledgement that the document was used for this purpose, if that were not already obvious. What is interesting about the exemption is that the legislation highlights “the particular public interest in the disclosure of factual information which has been used, or is intended to be used, to provide an informed background to decision-taking”.

This brings us to a third (and possibly a fourth) document that is even less likely to see the light of day.

During the secret interview with the very senior SIS official “SIS1”, Lyne told the witness:

You had a chance meeting with the Prime Minister in ************* in January 2003. *************************** ****************************************************** *********************************************************** ****************************************** ******************************************** the Prime Minister told you that he needed some more evidence, something that he wouldn’t necessarily need to make public, but that he could use as a basis for personal assurances to the Cabinet, the PLP, and to key allies like Chirac and Putin and regional leaders, that Saddam was in breach, but he hadn’t yet seen this.

You had had a brief from SIS, referred to as silver bullets, in which you told him that, while the body of available reporting was highly damning, none of the reports could yet be termed a silver bullet.

This is pretty clear. Blair knew that he didn’t have anything 100% certain that he could use to convince various people that it was right to go to war and therefore asked for something intelligence-based to this effect. He was told that the best that could be said was that “the body of available reporting was highly damning”. (SIS1 later described how he sent Blair “a stocktake: where are we, and can we have an assessment of what’s the likelihood of the UNMOVIC process producing this kind of evidence?” It appears that it was in this document, rather than a direct conversation, in which SIS1 told Blair that there was no “silver bullet”.)

Blair, who had notoriously asserted that intelligence had “established beyond doubt” that Iraq had WMD, was told by SIS that none of the evidence was conclusive. Did he share this with any of those that he had wanted to convince with the non-existent silver bullets? Apparently not. But two months later he commissioned a document that described the JIC’s “view” of the situation, without the JIC itself producing a new assessment.

Exactly why that document was commissioned, how it was produced and what it was used for are crucial in explaining how the British government decided to take the country to war. Clearly we cannot rely on the Inquiry to tell us this.

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