The wrong mission for our spies

By Douglas Hurd

Financial Times

Published: July 13 2004 19:49 | Last Updated: July 13 2004 19:49

Intelligence services across the western world are looking for help. Their first need is that we should understand their problem. They will anxiously scan the British report from Lord Butler on Downing Street's use of sintelligence in the run-up to war with Iraq, and last week's parallel US Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency.

During the cold war the threat from the Soviet Union was clear, more or less stationary and not widely disputed within western public opinion. Talent could be recruited and resources deployed in a predictable and logical way. Those certainties dissolved in 1989. The intelligence services, anxious not to lose strength, identified other dangers to protect us from, such as drugs and organised crime. Their political masters fell into local difficulties; there were sudden demands for Serbo-Croat speakers and people with inner knowledge of Albanian politics.

The confusion ended in 2001. As Tony Blair, UK prime minister, said in March this year: "From September 11 on, I could see the threat plainly. Here were terrorists prepared to bring about Armageddon." From the Philippines westward, groups within the Muslim world were organising to destroy the west and its influence in their countries . Slowly but with determination, the intelligence services focused on this threat and collaborated to meet it. The main danger was once again clear.

Into this effort their political masters threw the spanner of Iraq. It was not for the intelligence services to challenge the decision. Saddam Hussein was a brutal ruler who had been and might again be a danger to the west. But he had not been involved in the terrorism of September 11. He was not part of the al-Qaeda network. He belonged to a different segment of Arab political tradition. Yet the services were required urgently to direct resources away from the main threat.

The talent and resources available for immediate use in Iraq were thin. The Iraqi dictatorship guarded its secrets ruthlessly, with barbaric punishments for the disloyal. We knew less than we once had known, and much less than was needed. For what was needed became formidable. The services were required not just to provide information that would help us to protect ourselves from at tack. In Britain and the US, such intelligence as they could provide was also FFmobilised to justify an attack on a country that had not attacked us.

There is always a temptation for politicians to exaggerate the importance of intelligence reports because of the glamorous badge of secrecy they carry. Intelligence practitioners, however, know that their output should take its place among the other sources available to decision-makers. These include the ordinary flow of diplomatic reporting, past experience and information from workplaces and the media. The intelligence services do not normally take the front of the stage, preferring to hedge their conclusions with qualifications. Yet in the Iraq crisis they were pressed into the limelight.

This problem was more acute in Britain than in the US. President George W. Bush used a tangle of arguments that together were enough to rally most Americans. Only now are Congress and the public beginning to unpick this tangle. Mr Blair, faced with the House of C ommons and a sceptical public opinion, had to be more specific. He could not simply say that he intended to follow the Americans wherever they led. Nor could he follow his own instinct and justify the invasion as a straightforward humanitarian rescue of Iraq from its tyrant. The tests that he had himself defined for such intervention in Kosovo had not been fulfilled in Iraq. International negotiation had not come to an end. No proper thought had been given to what would follow the regime change. So Mr Blair had to fall back on the intelligence material, thin as it was, and present it as evidence of an imminent and mortal danger to ourselves.

Lord Hutton, inexperienced in these matters and narrowly interpreting his terms of reference, did not do justice to what followed in his January report on the events leading to the death of David Kelly, the weapons scientist. Margaret Thatcher would never have let her chief press officer attend meetings to discuss the presentation of intelligence material. She under stood that the value of such material depended on its professional integrity.

The intelligence proved wrong on some points, exaggerated on others. This has been bad for Mr Blair, who can defend himself, and for the intelligence services, which cannot. They have lost credibility at a time when the world on which they report has become more dangerous, partly because of the attack on Iraq. Our secret intelligence service would have found it easier to rebuild its credibility under a new leader not associated with the recent muddle. But its people will now hope that Lord Butler explains clearly how they were put in a position that they did not seek and for which they were inadequately equipped.

Lord Hurd, foreign secretary from 1989 to 1995, is senior adviser to Hawkpoint