45 Minutes Revisited

By Dr Brian Jones

The claim made in Tony Blair’s September 2002 dossier “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction” that “the dossier discloses that [Saddam’s] military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them” was, arguably, its most influential statement in the lead-up to the Iraq war. It implied that Iraq was a serious and current threat to the UK and helped persuade many people to support the war. But after four inquiries it still remains unclear how a subsequently discredited source became so important, and how and why the government’s uncertainty about it was so carefully concealed from the first three inquiries. The Chilcot inquiry has heard again how influential it was (and I have commented) but has not yet demonstrated that it thinks it is an issue that requires further investigation. The following may help the inquiry decide it does.

I told the Hutton inquiry that the intelligence on which this claim was based was less than reliable and did not warrant such a confident statement. In his report of January 2004, Lord Hutton offered no view concerning the reliability of the 45 minute intelligence, but thought the government genuinely believed it to be reliable.

When its turn came, the Butler review examined the ’45-minute claim’ but did little to resolve the uncertainty that still surrounds it. Butler supported the analysts of the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) who argued during the drafting of the dossier, that the CX intelligence report which contained the claim was “vague and ambiguous.” Butler expressed the suspicion that the intelligence was included in the dossier because of its “eye-catching character” but concluded it should not have been used “without stating what it was believed to refer to.” It is not clear that the review addressed directly with witnesses what that belief was, but it deferred to the ISC.

The earlier report of the ISC had said that the Assessment staff judged the ’45 minute’ claim to relate to “chemical and biological battlefield munitions.” I think that this was not a judgement that could be made with a high degree of certainty because of the vague and ambiguous nature of the intelligence report. Butler seemed to acknowledge this by suggesting that a form of words which I included in my evidence to the review would have more accurately represented the intelligence report – “A source has claimed some weapons may be deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them, but the exact nature of the weapons, the agents involved and the context of their use is not clear.”

Finally, Butler noted that the review had been informed by the government that the validity of the ’45 minute’ intelligence had since come into question and the reliability of its reporting chain was in doubt. Thus, not only was the content of the report vague and ambiguous, but its sourcing was also doubtful. Of course, these were the points the DIS had been making throughout the drafting of the dossier. There can be little doubt they were accepted by the drafting group because Report X, an additional highly sensitive intelligence report received on about 10 September 2002, had to be cited to underpin the 45 minute claim. Julian Miller, the head of the Assessment Staff and the dossier drafting committee, and John Scarlett, chairman of the JIC, needed Report X to add the missing evidence that stocks of chemical or biological weapons had been produced and were actually available. There was no other intelligence to indicate there had been any production since 1991. The cabinet office had been forced to admit the ’45 minutes’ intelligence was too weak to stand alone and needed this extra evidence.

The original CX intelligence report from MI6 referring to what became the ’45 minute’ intelligence said the information came from a ‘reliable source’ quoting a sub-source whose reliability was not defined, but who was in a position to know what he reported on. What this implies to an experienced intelligence analyst is that MI6 had checked who the sub-source was and had, in some way, verified he had the access that would have given him visibility or knowledge of the information he reported. Known detail about this may well have been excluded from the CX report, perhaps legitimately if MI6 judged it necessary to protect and preserve the sources involved.

According to his evidence to Hutton, Sir Richard Dearlove (the head of MI6, also known as ‘C’) seemed from the outset to know more than had been disclosed in the CX report. He said the intelligence referred to battlefield munitions – something the CX had not revealed. When forced to do so, by ‘C’s’ revelation, John Scarlett, who had previously given evidence and neglected to mention this detail, told Hutton he also knew the weapons were battlefield munitions. They told Butler the same thing. However, until last week at Chilcot we had never had it explained why they were so certain about this. Sir John Scarlett said it was because of the use of the word “munition” and I have explained why I think the logic of that was unsound.

I had told Hutton that, on the basis of the content of the ’45 minute’ report alone, the expert analysts of the DIS had significant doubts about the reliability of the sub-source, but there was no indication in the report of any connection to Iraqi opposition groups. The question of the sources unreliability was dismissed almost out of hand by (the then unknighted) John Scarlett and Sir Richard Dearlove when they were asked about it. However, close examination of the evidence in the Butler report raises the question of whether a link between the sub-source and an Iraqi opposition group had subsequently been identified. The suspicion is that this had happened not only before the Hutton inquiry, but even before the outbreak of war.

The Butler review concluded that ‘we do not believe that over-reliance on dissident and émigré sources was a major cause of the subsequent weaknesses in the human intelligence relied on by the UK’. Presumably this means that Butler thought it was contributory to some undefined extent, but it does not expand upon or clarify that. This omission is important because the review mentions, albeit vaguely, that a ‘new sub-source to [another] main source, who provided a significant proportion of influential human intelligence reporting, turned out to have links to opposition groups of which SIS only later became aware. But SIS, once they knew of those links, warned readers in their reports of the risk of embellishment’ [my italics].

We do not know if this relates to the 45 minute intelligence or whether analysts were warned to re-examine previous reports that were now known to be under the cloud cast by this new information. Would a re-evaluation have influenced the dossier and the relayed JIC assessments?

The description of the sub-source as ‘new’ matches the ’45 minute’ intelligence and this causes me to question now whether it had originated with opposition groups and was therefore ‘tainted’. Was an important misconception allowed to persist in the mind of public and parliament, not only during the period between the dossier and the war, but also throughout the Hutton Inquiry, when this intelligence was so much discussed, and beyond? It is important that this matter be clarified.

When I read this in the Butler report I remembered something I had read six or seven months earlier. On 12 December 2003, after the Hutton hearings had finished but before the report, the journalist Con Coughlin reported in the Daily Telegraph that he had interviewed a Lieutenant-Colonel al-Dabbagh in Iraq. Dabbagh was a former Iraqi air defence commander. He told Coughlin that the information in the dossier relating to the ’45-minute’ issue was accurate and that he was responsible for providing it.

According to Dabbagh, he and other senior commanders were informed that Saddam intended to deploy his WMD arsenal to defend the country against an American-led attack. At this time Dabbagh says he was commanding one of four air-defence units based in the western desert. He could not remember precisely when he sent information about Saddam’s decision to deploy WMD, but thinks it was probably sometime in the spring of 2002. As a frontline officer, he had no way of knowing how long it would take information that he passed through a retired Iraqi General to reach London.

Dabbagh said he spied for the Iraqi National Accord (INA), a London-based exile group, for several years before the war, but provided several reports to British intelligence on Saddam’s plans to deploy WMD from early 2002 onwards. This detail would appears to be compatible with the information given to the Butler review. If, the intelligence had been supplied directly to MI6 for a period, it might have resulted in the agency not initially being aware that their new sub-source had links with the INA. I was unaware of this background when I read Coughlan’s article in 2003 and I dismissed the possibility that Dabbagh was really the source for the ’45 minute’ CX report because MI6 was normally meticulous in providing warnings where there might be potential for disinformation. Furthermore, I judged Dabbagh, speaking in the immediate aftermath of the war when members of Saddam’s administration might still have taken revenge on an informer, could have risked inventing or embellishing an heroic story in the hope that he would be spirited away from Iraq to a new home in the west.

However, regardless of his motives, Dabbagh’s account showed he did not know what the weapons he learned about actually were. He appears to have assumed that a description of ‘secret weapons’ used by other Iraqi officers meant, ‘…. they were either chemical or biological weapons; I don’t know which, because only the Fedayeen and the Special Republican Guard were allowed to use them’. The devices, which he said were delivered by crate, were never opened in his presence, were made in Iraq and, he was told, were designed to be launched by hand-held rocket-propelled grenades. Dabbagh also said they could have been launched sooner than the 45-minutes claimed in the dossier – this is consistent with the detail of the ’45 minute’ intelligence. There was no history of Iraq possessing or using a chemical or biological munition which was be launched by hand-held grenade launchers. Dabbagh’s assumption about what the weapons were was also based on the instruction that those who used these weapons had to wear gas masks. Whilst raising a suspicion about the weapons, it does not necessarily follow that such an instruction related to chemical warfare agent. Some rocket propellants and the effluxes from them can be toxic and the operators, especially of a hand-held device, might require respiratory protection. The CX report issued at the end of August 2002 did not contain anything like this amount of detail, other than the indication that ’45 minutes’ was at the top end of a range of time.

If Dabbagh was the source of the ’45 minute’ intelligence and the field report contained more detail than was included in the CX, it could explain Sir Richard Dearlove’s confidence that the weapons was for ‘battlefield’ use. Butler does not say whether it asked for the report from the field, on which the CX report was based, to examine whether it included the clear identification of a ‘battlefield’ weapon (as it might have if the source was Dabbagh, albeit not necessarily one of the chemical variety). If it did, why was this information excluded from the CX report? Was this a result of incompetence on the part of the CX report writer? If it was not, then the suspicion must be that the CX was constructed, if not to deliberately mislead its readers, then at least to allow the scope for an interpretation that included warheads for ballistic missiles.

It may be that the Butler Review team examined this point and reached a conclusion about it but that seems unlikely.

Sir Richard Dearlove was wrong in his evidence to Hutton to describe the assessment in the September 2002 JIC paper and dossier as a misinterpretation of the intelligence provided by his service. Further clarification of this was, and still is, obviously in the public interest. More especially because Sir David Omand, the Security and Intelligence Coordinator at the time has suggested that, in August/September 2002, ‘the search was intensified quickly for any relevant intelligence, and that was sweeping up material that was not of first quality’ and that ‘the 45-minute warning should never have appeared [in the dossier]’ [1].

Whatever the complete background to the ’45 minute’ intelligence, it remains difficult to comprehend that the Prime Minister was not kept fully in the picture. He was aware in late July 2002 of the absence of sufficiently convincing intelligence on Iraq’s WMD. He did not disagree with colleagues and officials who assessed it was inevitable that America would go to war. He had to convince both Parliament and the public that Britain should join in and to ensure the maximum security of the troops he would commit to action. You would expect that his interest in significant intelligence developments would be intense. Sir Richard Dearlove judged it appropriate to advise the Prime Minister of the arrival of the intelligence issued as Report X in a face-to-face meeting on 12 September 2002, it is hard to believe that the ’45 minute’ intelligence was not discussed. Yet Mr Blair told Parliament that he was not aware of the nature of the weapons concerned in the ’45 minute’ intelligence until after the war. Perhaps at this point he was trapped. It was an embarrassing and damning admission because it suggests he was careless of the detail of the case for war he was putting before the nation and failing in his duty of care for the armed forces. Clearly he should have asked the relevant questions. Even if the pressures of the moment had prevented him from doing so, a reasonable expectation would have been that the information would be brought to his attention. If it was not, then why were those responsible for the omission not brought to account? The terms of reference of the Butler Review may have disbarred it from questioning the behaviour of the Prime Minister, but it should have asked intelligence officials why he had not been told.

Of course, had he known, it would have been difficult for the Prime Minister to admit this knowledge to Parliament in the midst of the Hutton Inquiry, as the Commons would have likely deemed it important information that should not have been withheld in the dossier debate on 24 September 2002, or in the various Parliamentary debates and discussions leading up to the war. Alternatively, if the real justification for the war was other than the one made by the government and owed less to Iraq’s existing WMD capability and more to a range of other factors, some of them not directly concerning Iraq, the Prime Minister could not admit that a mere detail of intelligence on current capability was not significant in his greater strategic analysis..

[1] Glees, Davies and Morrison, ‘The Open Side of Secrecy’, The Social Affairs Unit, 2006, p105.