The Double Deception and the Road to War in Iraq

by Eric Herring and Piers Robinson

The US-instigated invasion of Iraq in 2003 continues to have profound and disastrous consequences for the region, including the partial disintegration of Iraq itself and the fuelling of a wider war in the Middle East aimed at dividing Sunni and Shia into crudely polarised identity groups. Central to the ongoing conflict are regional power politics between key players such as Saudia Arabia and Iran, and the involvement and influence of external actors including the US, Russia and China. In terms of how Britain and the US came to initiate such an ill-thoughtout war, the British public remain, to a significant degree and probably more than they realise, in the dark. The Chilcot Inquiry panel has thus far failed to deliver its report and there remains uncertainty as to the extent to which it will get to the truth.

From the perspective of the British public and political system, however, there has been a persistent and widely held view that some level of deliberate deception occurred in order to mobilise support for the invasion of Iraq. For many, perhaps most, the British and US Governments set about a policy aimed at removing Saddam Hussein through force for undeclared reasons and misled their publics by disguising the war as a defensive act aimed at protecting the world from Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). For those politicians and officials involved in UK policy, however, their position has remained resolute: Britain sought to disarm Iraq by peaceful means and did so primarily because of the threat posed by Iraq. From this latter perspective, the Iraq War was primarily a consequence of intelligence failure in which analysts provided politicians with faulty assessments as to the WMD capability of Iraq. Of course, the implications of there having been a deliberate deception are serious and include substantive concerns about the workings of the British political system, its democratic credentials, the legality of the war and the probity of the politicians and officials involved.

A Double Deception

Whatever the ongoing claims and counter claims, there now exists a significant body of evidence in the public domain which has allowed us to develop a good understanding of the extent to which deception was deployed by UK (and US) officials. Two deceptions, performed via a carefuly orchestrated propaganda campaign, can be identified. The first concerns the allegation that Iraq was producing WMD and the second the claim by the British Government that its principal objective was the disarmament of Iraq via the UN and that regime change was not Britain’s objective.  Drawing upon our recently published studies, Report X Marks the Spot in Political Science Quarterly and Deception and Britain’s Road to War in Iraq in the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, we summarise the evidence for each of these deceptions.

The September Dossier and Deception Over WMD

The question of lying and deception over WMD has been the most widespread and well known alleged example of deception and continues to fuel allegations that officials, in particular Tony Blair and George Bush, lied with respect to the presence of WMD in Iraq. In fact, as we show in Report X Marks the Spot, the deception in this case was not one of a straightforward lie whereby the British government claimed that Iraq possessed WMD when they knew that there were no WMD. Instead, this was a case where officials intentionally exaggerated the certainty and threat assessment of their intelligence regarding possible WMD in Iraq through acts of omission and distortion. The most prominent example of this, in the UK context, was the 2002 September Dossier.

The dossier was conceived of as part of a campaign of organised persuasive communication aimed at mobilizing support for the invasion of Iraq. Between March 2002 and September 2002, under the direction of the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir John Scarlett, intelligence on Iraq, which was known to be limited and uncertain, was strengthened so as to create the impression that Iraq was known for sure to be a current WMD threat. One prominent example of the strategy of deception occurred when John Scarlett advised that other more serious WMD threats (Iran, North Korea and Libya) be removed from the dossier so as to ‘obscure’ the fact that Iraq was not an exceptional WMD problem. However, the most serious, and to date poorly understood, act of deception involved the use of what has come to be known as ‘Report X’. Report X involved little more than a promise, from a source on trial, that evidence would be provided of active chemical and biological weapons production. Despite the suggestion during the Chilcot hearings from MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) chief Sir Richard Dearlove that he insisted the information could not be used in the dossier, it was in fact used to harden claims that Iraq was actively producing chemical and biological agents, underpin the claim that these could be fired within 45 minutes of an order to do so, and allowed Blair to state in the foreward to the dossier that the intelligence was ‘beyond doubt’. To date, there is still no clear understanding of precisely who was responsible for electing to use such a flimsy piece of information, merely the promise of intelligence to come, to strengthen these key claims in the dossier, other than that senior officials, including Blair, were party to the process.

The ‘UN Route’

In some ways the persistence of controversy regarding deception over WMD has obscured a second significant deception with regard to the path to war in Iraq. To date, leading officials have maintained that the objective of British policy was to seek the disarmament of Iraq through peaceful means if possible. As both Tony Blair and Jack Straw have repeatedly claimed, if Saddam had fully complied with UN resolutions, then he could have stayed in power and war would have been averted. At the most extreme, key officials such as Sir Jeremy Greenstock (UK Ambassador to the UN) have presented British pressure to go the ‘UN route’ as a heroic attempt to force compliance from Saddam and to avert war.

The problem with this claim is that contemporaneous documentation now available shows that the purpose of pursuing the ‘UN route’ was primarily designed to create legal cover for British involvement in a US-led invasion of Iraq, whilst also helping to build domestic and international support for military action against Iraq. As we set out in Deception and Britain’s Road to War in Iraq, as early as March 2002 UK policy was firming up around supporting a US-led invasion of Iraq in order to remove Saddam from power. A key problem, recognised as early as November/December 2001, was that a policy aimed at regime change would be illegal under international law. By March 2002, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was advising Blair that military action had to be rationalised as part of an attempt to disarm Iraq if adequate legal cover was to be secured. At best, the ‘UN route’ was likely mainly about gaining legal cover for the invasion of Iraq with only an outside belief that it may avert war. In this scenario, and at best, UK officials would appear to have deceived through omission and distortion: omitting the fact that the major rationale for the UN route was primarily one of obtaining support for war and legal cover for British involvement, and exaggerating the idea that going the UN route was ever likely to avert war. At worst, officials are guilty of a more direct deception: claiming that their goal was to avert war via the UN route, UN inspections and Iraq compliance when, all along, their greatest concern was that Iraq might comply sufficiently and in a way that would prevent them from getting the war they wanted.

Broader implications

From many quarters, the 2003 Iraq invasion is now seen as a seminal case of deception in politics. The implications of this for British (and US) democracy are far reaching, suggesting that politicians have a considerable degree for freedom of manoeuvre when it comes to misleading their publics, and highlighting the ways in which organised persuasive communication slips easily into propagandistic manipulation and deception. Of course, the implications for Iraq and the region are, undoubtedly, of a different order. Whether the Chilcot Inquiry, when it finally reports, grapples with these deeper issues remains to be seen. It would be easy, and convenient, to sweep the issues of deception and propaganda underneath the carpet whilst assuming the upstanding and honest intentions of all those involved. However, if any substantive lessons are to be learned from this case, and ones which might contribute to improving the accountability of the government and encouraging a more ethical (i.e. non deceptive) mode of persuasion and communication, then the deceptive manner in which the invasion of Iraq was sold needs to be fully investigated, understood and brought to light. The opportunity to start such a debate now lies with Chilcot.

This post was edited on 13 May 2015 at the request of the authors.

Straw on the Straw Paradox

by Chris Ames

I wrote here about John Williams’ reference, to the Straw paradox – the idea that Iraq could only be induced to comply with the UN by threat of force that might then have to be used. Jack Straw himself also discussed this issue at his last appearance at the Inquiry, which was four years ago.

It is very significant that if you look at the last meeting of the Security Council that took place on 7th March that nobody, not a single delegate, suggested that Iraq was complying. Now the argument was in the context they were not complying and they were required to comply. That was the difficulty. The other problem here is what Sir Jeremy Greenstock described as the Straw paradox, which is this, that —
SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: You initially called it the Straw paradox.
THE RT. HON. JACK STRAW MP: It is a pretty straightforward point and my name is tagged to it, which is that we wanted to resolve it peacefully. The only way we could resolve the matter peacefully was through compliance. The only way you could get compliance was through the threat of the military action, I mean the real threat.
Indeed, that paradox was actually, mainly inadvertently, brought out by President Chirac in that interview he gave on 10th March 2003 where he says —  before he says “we are going to veto” — he says that there has been some advance in compliance, but he thinks it is almost certainly because of the troops sitting outside Saddam’s door. That for sure was true.

Straw is so duplicitous that he “inadvertently” manages to contradict himself within a few lines at the same appearance at the Inquiry. No-one thought Saddam was complying, indeed they all thought he was not complying. Except that Chirac thought that there has been some advance in compliance, which Straw agrees with.

You couldn’t make it up. Well, not like Straw, anyway.


Campbell’s non denial

by Chris Ames

During the Inquiry’s hearings, Alastair Campbell was asked about the possibility that government spin doctors may have had some input into the inclusion of the 45 minutes claim in the dossier, particularly in changing the wording from “munitions” in the secret JIC to “chemical or biological weapons”. As Lawrence Freedman pointed out:

“munitions”, that really conveys battlefield use, whereas “weapons” could be anything; they could  be long range weapons. I’m just wondering whether you or members of your team were involved in the discussion of how this 45 minutes was going to be introduced in the drafting and whether this distinction was one that was understood by your team or mattered.

You would imagine that Campbell would be quick to deny any suggestion that he or other spin doctors had anything to do with this issue, which was the fundamental allegation at the heart of the whole Kelly/Gilligan row. Instead, he set off on a long-winded diversion: Readmore..

Allow people to make up their own minds

by Chris Ames

Two of the Sunday papers carry calls for the Inquiry report, or at least the evidence, to be published now, following last week’s report that the report may not come out this year.

The Sunday Times (paywall) reports that:

SIR JOHN CHILCOT should be forced to produce a report on the findings of his inquiry into the war in Iraq or be replaced, Lord Morris, Tony Blair’s first attorney-general, has said.

Morris said it was “monstrous” that the families of killed and injured servicemen and women now face waiting until next year for the long-awaited publication. The independent inquiry got under way in 2009 and was supposed to deliver its findings by the end of 2011.

Morris, a QC and a Labour peer, said the “uninhibited independence” granted to the inquiry had not worked and whoever is in power after the election should get parliamentary approval to force Chilcot’s hand.

“Chilcot should be curbed and told either you make an interim report or, if you can’t make an interim report, you want to give up, we will find somebody else,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the Observer, Jamie Doward and I report that:

The Liberal Democrats have broken ranks with the other main parties to call for evidence submitted to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war to be published immediately.


[Tim] Farron said that as much as possible of the material that has already been approved for release should now be published. Chilcot has previously said that he will not publish any further evidence in advance of the report. “There is a danger that the pattern of delay looks like an establishment stitch-up,” said Farron. “We are at the point where what can be published should be published. I am therefore calling on Sir John Chilcot to publish all the evidence considered by the inquiry immediately, including the Blair-Bush memos. Agreement has already been reached in principle to publish the memos at the time that the inquiry reports, so there should be no obstacle to doing so now. The public shouldn’t be kept waiting and should not have to suffer while legal arguments rage on in secret for God knows how long. Releasing the documents would allow people to make up their own minds.”



Reaction to the latest delay story

by Chris Ames

In the Guardian, my colleague Richard Norton-Taylor has a follow up piece to the BBC’s story that the Inquiry report is unlikely to be published this year. He says:

Witnesses to the inquiry have also made clear to the Guardian that they intend to deliver devastating criticism of the Blair government and some of its leading members but are holding back until after Chilcot has published his report.

Some commentators have suggested that the final report will be an anti-climax, if not a whitewash. However, Chilcot and his panel are well aware of such potential attacks and suggest they had no intention of muting their criticism. It is the very strength of the intended criticism that is prolonging the delay, sources say.

Blair has rejected suggestions he was behind the delay, saying it would be “far better” for him if the report were published. He has said he was not responsible for holdups to the inquiry and that suggestions to the contrary were “incorrect and politically motivated”.

Blair’s denial is now worthless, unless he comes out and says that he is not seeking to contest any of the Inquiry’s findings. If he is contesting the findings, he is in part responsible for the delay and it becomes a question of subjective interpretation as to whether he is doing so within reasonable limits.

Norton-Taylor also reports Nick Clegg’s reaction:

I’m just dismayed beyond belief that we are having to wait so long – and now, it is being reported, even longer than I had feared – to finally find out the truth of what happened in the runup to that fateful – and what I have always considered, personally, to be illegal – invasion of Iraq.

Also on the Guardian website Mary Dejevsky has a comment piece calling for the report to be published as soon as the polls close in the general election. This adds little or nothing to the debate or the sum of knowledge and seems particularly ill-informed about what is really going on. The Inquiry is not “chaired by a senior judge”, as Dejevsky appears to believe.

Meanwhile, the SNP’s (current) Westminster Leader and Defence and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Angus Robertson has called the delay “completely unacceptable”. Plaid Cymru’s former Westminster leader Elfyn Llwyd, who is not seeking re-election, called the current situation “absolutely ridiculous”. He added:

At the very least, they should publish the evidence that they’ve taken on the website as they initially did to make up for this inordinate delay. But I’m afraid that ultimately when it comes out, whichever way it goes, it’s losing credibility month by month.



Nobody expects this to come out this year

by Chris Ames

Last night on Newsnight, the BBC’s Mark Urban reported a source “closely involved… in the deliberations of the Chilcot Inquiry” as saying “Nobody expects this to come out this year”. Urban said that someone “similarly involved in this process” had confirmed this to him.

Urban said that the new delay was because the “Maxwellisation process” had become so complex that the Inquiry had given up setting a deadline for people to respond to potential criticism. People would say “why don’t you look at these 30 emails”.

My worst fear is that people like Blair and Straw, and of course their lawyers, will once again bluff and bluster and obfuscate to the point where the Inquiry loses the plot and waters down its criticism. If it does, it must surely be the end of the establishment Inquiry.

The BBC website reports the story here. Urban’s story is also on the site.

The Evans Case and the Iraq War Cabinet Minutes

by Chris Lamb

As Chris Ames has described, I have recently made a third freedom of information request for the ‘Iraq War Cabinet minutes’, which has again been refused by the Cabinet Office. The advice I have received from the Information Commissioner’s Office is that this is the only request (and subsequent vetoes) that the recent Supreme Court Ruling in the ‘Evans Case’ will have a bearing on. It first needs to clear the hurdle of winning the Information Commissioner’s backing for disclosure (assuming that the Cabinet Office, which is currently reviewing its decision, is unlikely to change its mind).

My two previous requests and their corresponding vetoes are outside of the power of the Supreme Court to review, not only because this court has no retrospective facility to cover the dates when they were issued (2009 and 2012) but also because, as the final Court of Appeal, a legal process must first be pursued through judicial review (the ‘Administrative Court’) and the first appeal stage (the ‘Court of appeal’) before it can reach the Supreme Court.

In the ‘Evans Case’, an application for judicial review by journalist Rob Evans (backed by the Guardian) upheld the attorney general’s use of the veto as lawful. This was followed by a Court of Appeal ruling that overturned the Administrative Court’s decision and ruled against the attorney general (on grounds precipitating the Supreme Court’s ruling). The attorney general appealed to the Supreme Court and, by a majority-voted ruling, lost the case.

In February 2009, when the Justice Secretary Jack Straw issued the first ever Section 53 veto to block disclosure of the Cabinet minutes of 13 and 17 March 2003, the Information Commissioner’s Office sought Queen’s Counsel advice on pursuing a judicial review and ruled out this course as it did not consider a successful challenge of Straw’s ‘reasonable grounds’ possible under the Wednesbury Principles.

My own efforts to pursue judicial review came to nothing as I was informed that, being in employment, I would not qualify for legal aid and I could not find an influential backer, such as a major paper, to take up the cause (despite press coverage at the time being highly critical of Straw’s use of the veto).

The window of opportunity for a legal review of the first two vetoes has, therefore, passed. This, as I shall explain, is deeply unfortunate as serious questions are raised by the choice of Jack Straw as the minister to apply the veto and the issue of how the veto was exercised.

The views contained in the majority ruling of the Supreme Court over the Evans Case can be applied to Straw’s exercise of the veto – and indeed to the veto issued by attorney general Dominic Grieve in 2012. Readmore..

Government blocks release of Iraq Cabinet Minutes for a third time

by Chris Ames

Digest contributor Chris Lamb has twice before made Freedom of Information requests for the minutes of the two Cabinet meetings that took place in the week before the invasion, on 13 and 17 March 2003. The first time the Labour government refused and took the case to the Information Tribunal, where it lost, causing Jack Straw to use the FOI veto for the first time. On the second occasion, the present government vetoed release without even taking the case to the Tribunal, knowing that it didn’t have a case. Last month, knowing that the Inquiry will release some or all of the papers eventually, Chris Lamb made a third request, which the Cabinet Office has again refused.

Ironically, the grounds for refusal are that the papers are due to be published by the Inquiry, eventually, and are therefore exempt under Section 22(1) of the FOI Act. It’s quite outrageous – and quite illogical – for a Cabinet Office that should have released the papers a long time ago to say now that we will have to wait for them, however long that takes. But the way the Cabinet Office has attempted to square the circle adds insult to insult.

In his letter to Sir Jeremy Heywood of 28 May 2014, Sir John Chilcot described this
material as “vital to the public understanding of the Inquiry’s conclusions”. He
recognised that disclosure of this material raised difficult issues of long-standing
principle. In agreeing to declassify these documents for disclosure by the Iraq Inquiry
alongside its report, the Cabinet Office recognises the wholly exceptional nature of the

The Inquiry is considering issues across a nine-year timescale. It is publishing material
from thousands of documents either within or alongside its report, including from over
200 Cabinet and Cabinet committee meetings. It is this wider context provided by the
Inquiry’s report that allows disclosure of these minutes, and mitigates against any
irreparable damage to the principle of cabinet collective responsibility.

So the Cabinet Office has agreed to declassify the minutes for publication by the Inquiry and accepts that this will not cause irreparable damage to the principle of cabinet collective responsibility, because lots of cabinet Minutes will be released at the same time! As the Cabinet Office points out, this decision has already been taken and announced publicly. But it has to maintain the charade of releasing them under that process rather than under FOI, to do so under its terms, through an establishment inquiry set up by government rather than under legislation that allows citzens to see what governments do in their name.

This is one of many cases where the Cabinet Office has cited the (eventual) publication of documents by the Inquiry as reason to block FOI disclosures. It’s important both to the government and the Inquiry that we should see any evidence that is released through the filter of the Inquiry’s interpretation rather than, god forbid, looking at the evidence and making our own minds up. As John Chilcot said last month, to publish evidence without hearing his take on it:

leaves individuals and the whole story open to every kind of out of context misunderstanding. It’s very important to add the analysis, both at strategic level and at the level of individuals on top of that account so that the whole thing can be seen in the round at the same time.


The trail goes cold – for now

by Chris Ames

When Tony Blair claimed in his foreword to the September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction that assessed intelligence had established beyond doubt that such weapons existed, he misled Parliament and the British public badly. To make this claim he had to ignore all of the caveats and qualifications in the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments he was given and overlook what the Butler review called the “relative thinness”  and “inferential nature” of the intelligence. He either blatantly lied or was so cavalier in his presentation as to have effectively lied.

Whether the Iraq Inquiry will find that Blair knowingly lied here or will pull its punches like Butler did (and subsequently regretted) depends largely on whether establishment inquiries ever say directly that people lie and partly on what other evidence they find that Blair knew that the evidence was not as watertight as he was claiming. There does appear to be evidence on this last point.

As Butler and the late Brian Jones have pointed out, what Brian called “Report x” was crucial in allowing the drafters of the dossier to reach a judgement that Iraq had wmd and was still producing them. But as witnesses to the Inquiry made clear, this intelligence report was little more than a promise that further intelligence would be provided, giving locations for wmd production. Various witnesses referred to this as a “silver bullet”, in that it would provide conclusive evidence that Iraq had wmd. This is where Blair comes in. Blair was briefed on the report by SIS/MI6 chief Richard Dearlove on 12 September 2002 and, according to Butler, told him that “the case was developmental and that the source remained unproven”. Nevertheless, according to the witness SIS4 (Mark Allen):

The Prime Minister was interested in a silver bullet. If there was a gleam of a silver bullet anywhere, he would want to know about it, and he would want to see the product.

The point is of course that if Blair truly believed that the existing “assessed intelligence” had established beyond doubt that Iraq had and was currently producing wmd, he wouldn’t be so desperate for a “silver bullet”. But clearly he didn’t believe this. According to Roderick Lyne, the Inquiry has:

a trail of papers showing the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary having conversations with the Chief about where is this [additional material] and what is holding it up.

In fact, the “additional material” never did turn up. The promise was an empty one. The dossier was sexed-up “by assertion”, following an agreement between Alastair Campbell and Dearlove over what one witness called “wishful thinking”.

But, on the assumption that the Cabinet Office would hold records of what Lyne called “a trail of papers”, I made an FOI request for any documents showing Blair and/or Straw chasing up the “additional material”. Rather surprisingly, the Cabinet Office claims not to have any such documents.

This leaves us in the unfortunate position of relying on the Inquiry to publish and/or accurately report Blair’s quest for the “silver bullet”. Which is just how Sir John Chilcot likes it.