Did the Butler Review see the Downing Street documents and report them accurately?

The Downing Street documents, which were leaked in 2004 and 2005, are perhaps the most significant set of documents to come into the public domain since the Butler Review published its report in July 2004. They show that the government set out to achieve regime change in Iraq, with weapons of mass destruction (wmd) as a pretext. The question of whether the Review saw these documents is crucial as its report explicitly accepted the assumption that dealing with Iraq’s wmd was the central aim of UK policy in the run-up to the war. Iraq Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot was a member of the Butler committee.

It is clear from its report that the Review saw many of the Downing Street documents but there is no reference to others. In some cases the report directly states that it saw specific documents. In other cases it either quotes from documents or appears to relate information obtained from them.

The Manning Memo and the Meyer Letter

The most significant documents that are not explicitly described in the Butler report are David Manning’s memo to Tony Blair and Christopher Meyer’s letter to Manning. In each document, the author makes clear that he had told the US that Tony Blair was committed to the policy of regime change.

The report suggests that the Review may have seen these two documents. It describes “reporting of comments made by a range of US interlocutors of emerging thinking within the US Administration” as providing the background to the March 2002 options paper.

In spite of this, the Butler review states on many occasions that the objective of UK policy was to secure Iraqi disarmament. Its entire analysis of the government’s use of intelligence is coloured by this assumption. For example, the report states at paragraph that it will “consider the shift in UK policy towards Iraq in early 2002, and the Government’s subsequent decision to take stronger action to enforce Iraqi disarmament”.

The March 2002 Options Paper

The report gives a very extensive account of the March 2002 options paper, which it describes as “inter-departmental advice to Ministers”. It quotes its main conclusion that: “In sum, despite the considerable difficulties,the use of overriding force in a ground campaign is the only option that we can be confident will remove Saddam and bring Iraq back into the international community.”

However, the report continues to imply that the objective of UK policy was to secure Iraqi disarmament. It states that among the factors it had drawn out from the paper’s conclusions was “the importance of presentational activity on Iraq’s breaches (and other issues) to persuade other members of the United Nations Security Council as well as domestic audiences of the case for action to enforce disarmament.” (emphasis added) This is a misrepresentation of the conclusions that the paper purports to summarise, which are explicitly stated as being needed “to launch such a campaign”, i.e. the ground campaign to remove Saddam.

Peter Ricketts letter and Jack Straw memo March 2002

The Review quotes selectively from the letter that Peter Ricketts, Foreign Office policy director, sent Jack Straw on 22 March 2002. It does quote his comment that “What has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programmes but our tolerance of them post 11 September” but omits a further, contradictory comment that “we are still left with a problem of bringing public opinion to accept the imminence of a threat from Iraq”. It also omits a further comment that again suggests that Straw consciously set out to use Iraq’s wmd as a pretext for regime change: “regime change: does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam. Much better, as you have suggested, to make the objective ending the threat to the international community from Iraqi WMD before Saddam uses it or gives it to the terrorists.”

Butler describes the Ricketts letter as “one of the policy papers” on Iraq at this time. Given that the letter fed into the memo that Jack Straw sent Tony Blair, it might be assumed that the Review Team saw that memo.

The report sought to explain why the government had decided to focus on Iraq rather than other countries that posed more direct threats to British interests. It claimed that “it is clear from the papers we have seen and from the evidence we have heard from witnesses that the Government, as well as being influenced by the concerns of the US Government, saw a need for immediate action on Iraq because of the wider historical and international context, especially Iraq’s perceived continuing challenge to the authority of the United Nations.” It is not clear which papers led Butler to this conclusion. Both the Ricketts letter and Straw’s memo set out the “case” that can be made on these grounds rather than stating that they are factors that should influence the government’s policy.

The July 2002 Documents

It is not clear whether the Review had access to the briefing paper for the July 2002 Downing Street meeting. The report states that papers show that Blair had raised two particular issues with Bush at his meeting in April, including “the need for effective presentational activity”. The briefing paper refers to “efforts … to shape public opinion”. It also states that: “Time will be required to prepare public opinion in the UK that it is necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussein.” This is a clear indication that the government sought to persuade the British public of the need for war, rather than what Butler repeatedly describes as action to enforce disarmament. If the Review Team did see this comment, its claim that it had seen “no evidence” that the dossier produced a few weeks later “was explicitly intended to make a case for war” is difficult to understand.

The report does give an account of the meeting on 23 July, which is the subject of the Downing Street memo. It states: “The next key stage was a meeting on 23 July chaired by the Prime Minister with those Ministers and officials primarily involved in UK policy formulation and military contingency planning. This meeting 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, noting that Iraqi capabilities were smaller in scale than those of other states of concern. The meeting discussed the re-engagement of United Nations inspectors, against the background of intelligence advice that the Iraqi regime would allow inspectors into Iraq only when the threat of military action was thought to be real. It also commissioned work on legal issues.”

Butler does not record the comment of MI6 chief Richard Dearlove that in Washington the facts and the intelligence were being fixed around the policy. Neither does it record the view of Straw that “the case was thin”.

It is not clear on what basis the Review asserted that the intelligence briefing from JIC chairman John Scarlett concerned Iraq’s supposed wmd programmes. The note states that “John Scarlett summarised the intelligence and latest JIC assessment. Saddam’s regime was tough and based on extreme fear. The only way to overthrow it was likely to be by massive military action. Saddam was worried and expected an attack, probably by air and land, but he was not convinced that it would be immediate or overwhelming. His regime expected their neighbours to line up with the US. Saddam knew that regular army morale was poor. Real support for Saddam among the public was probably narrowly based.”

This briefing, which appears to have opened the meeting, was clearly concerned with the response of Saddam’s regime to the threat of invasion. This apparent misrepresentation is one of many examples in the Review where discussion of regime change is presented as discussion of Iraq’s wmd.