How accurate were intelligence reports and assessments?

The decision of the UK government to take part in the Iraq war on the basis of claims or assumptions about weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be untrue has often been described as a failure of intelligence. It is undoubtedly the case that both raw intelligence reports and formal assessments got some things wrong. But it is important to recognise the extent to which, as the Butler report stated, “the recipients of intelligence have normally to make decisions on the basis of the balance of probabilities.”

Intelligence Reports and Assessments

Intelligence reports are issued by agencies such as MI6 and contain information provided by various sources. The reports do not necessarily assert the accuracy of that information but are expected to give guidance on the reliability of the source.

Intelligence is assessed by a number bodies within government and this requires judgements to be made of the accuracy and relevance of contributing reports. At the top of the assessment process, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) issues reports to ministers, called assessments, on specific issues. These assessments are expected to give as complete a picture as possible and the best possible guidance but are often, necessarily, heavily qualified. They do not provide conclusions but “Key Judgements”, which by definition fall short of certainty.

Intelligence assessments on Iraq’s wmd

The Butler Review stated that it was impressed by the quality of the JIC’s assessments on Iraq’s nuclear capabilities but that those on chemical and biological weapons were “less assured”. However the Review also found that the assessments correctly reported the original intelligence reports, which suggests that those reports were inaccurate and that the JIC failed to make an assessment of their accuracy. One reason that it put forward for this was that it was not fully aware of the access and background of key informants, and could not therefore read their material against the background of an understanding of their motivations. This may suggest that the originators of the reports (MI6) deliberately or negligently withheld this information.

The Review also suggested that assessments were coloured by over-reaction to previous under-estimations and pointed out that JIC assessments produced in late 2002 were prepared on a precautionary basis, in the knowledge that the government intended to attack Iraq.

Intelligence assessments during 2002

During 2002 the JIC produced a number of intelligence reports on Iraq’s wmd. Two of these have been published by the Inquiry.

March 2002

On 15 March 2002 the JIC approved and issued an assessment labelled JIC(02) 059 on The Status of Iraqi WMD programmes. The JIC made clear in the most prominent part of the assessment that the intelligence was ‘sporadic and patchy’ and that a complete picture of the various programmes was difficult to assess. But it said: “But it is clear that Iraq continues to pursue a policy of acquiring WMD and their delivery means.”

In its key judgements section, the assessment judged that Iraq may have retained stocks of chemical agent and could produce more within weeks and currently had available stocks of biological agents, of which it could produce more within days. The assessment stated that any stocks that Iraq possessed were likely to be small. Analysts were warning that stockpiles were not the issue as Iraq had the capability to produce new chemical and biological agents very quickly.

The assessment also stated: “Although there is very little intelligence we continue to judge that Iraq is pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.”

Early Summer 2002

The Butler Review states that the Downing Street meeting on 23 July “considered, on the basis of a briefing from the Chairman of the JIC, the current intelligence assessment of Iraq’s nuclear, biological, chemical and ballistic missile programmes”. It is not clear whether this indicates the existence of a further written assessment, although it is known that the JIC’s assessment staff were continuing to update the public dossier.

August and September 2002

On 21 August the JIC issued JIC(02)181: IRAQ: Saddam’s Diplomatic and Military Options. And on September 9th, JIC(02)202: Iraq use of chemical and biological weapons – possible scenarios.

Assessments after the dossier

In October and November the JIC issued further assessments. Some of the contents of some of these are set out in the Butler Review and some of the contents of others are in the Intelligence and Security Committee report.

Assessments after the Iraqi declaration

On 7 December 2002 Iraq made a declaration under its obligations under 1441. This was analysed and on 18 September the JIC issued an assessment entitled “An Initial Assessment of Iraq’s WMD Declaration”.

The Butler Review noted that after 18 December no further assessment was made, either of the accuracy of the Iraqi declaration, or of the substantive issue of whether Iraq had wmd, “as the generally negative results of UNMOVIC inspections became increasingly apparent”. The question of why no further assessment was made is a significant issue for the Inquiry. Read more

It has been alleged that in early 2003 MI6 received information from Tahir Jalil Habbush, the head of Iraqi intelligence, that Iraq no longer had wmd. It has been alleged that Blair was told about this intelligence. Read more

Intelligence assessments on Iraq’s “deception and concealment”

The Butler Review states that in the period between mid-October 2002 and March 2003, intelligence reporting on Iraqi deception and concealment activities was “voluminous”. It states that reports of such activities were frequently put before ministers, including two full JIC assessments that addressed the issue in depth.

The Review states that MI6 had two main sources who provided this intelligence who were believed at the time to be reporting reliably. It comments: “There will therefore have been a tendency for the intelligence community to assume that they were similarly reporting reliably on Iraqi concealment and deception.” This implies that the sources were the same sources that provided intelligence on Iraq’s alleged possession of wmd. In fact, Butler’s comment about the “inferential nature” of much of the intelligence on Iraq’s wmd, suggests that inferences may have been drawn from reports of attempted concealment.
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