A lot of sand in the Whitehall machine


Financial Times

Published: July 15 2004 5:00 | Last Updated: July 15 2004 5:00

After the sound and fury of the US Senate's report on intelligence about Iraq comes the robust but ultimately unthreatening emollience of the Whitehall mandarin. And yet, Lord Butler's examination of the quality of intelligence that led Britain to war is telling despite its we-just-want-to-be-helpful tone. It makes clear the case for war was misleading, even if it found that Tony Blair acted in good faith.

By assigning blame for this flawed intelligence to "collective responsibility", however, Lord Butler manages to avoid blaming anyone at all.

While the report finds no evidence that intelligence was tailored to support already decided policy, items of evidence in its 196 pages are susceptible to a different judgment. What emerges clearly is that Iraq was an intelligence fiasco and that the "informality" of the Blair governing style is likely to produce flawed decisions.

The report says the controversial September 2002 dossier laying out the threat posed by Saddam Hussein pushed the available intelligence to "the outer limit" of interpretation. This is unsurprising. We know, from the Hutton report into the death of scientist David Kelly, that, in the run-up to publishing the dossier, aides to Mr Blair were unhappy they had not made the case that the Iraqi dictator was any threat, let alone an imminent one.

It is in that light that some observations in this report should be judged. The sensational claim that Saddam could deploy WMD in 45 minutes - suggesting these were ballistic rather than battlefield weapons - should not have been included "without stating what it was believed to refer to".

Late-arriving informati on from "an untried source", enabling harder assertions in the dossier on chemical and bio-weapons, should have been vetted by defence scientists. The report claims British intelligence was not influenced by the now clearly bogus claims fed to the US by favoured Iraqi exile groups; maybe not, but the government certainly was. Lord Butler also expressed surprise that the government did not review its intelligence, when ostensibly reliable information it passed to UN inspectors kept leading nowhere.

What was reliably known about Iraq's weapons was discovered by the UN inspectorate in the 1990s, and the report recommends building up and supporting such international organisations, as well as strengthening human intelligence gathering and assessment. Another sensible recommendation is that the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee should be "very senior" and "demonstrably beyond influence". This sits oddly with Lord Butler's championing of John Scarlett, the current JIC chief who some will fee l did not match that standard.

On governance itself, Lord Butler scores a palpable hit. The closely-held, document-lite Blair style reduces "the scope for informed collective political judgment" by leaving all but close aides out of the loop. Iraq is as good a case-study as any to prove that.