By Stephen Fidler in London and Thomas Catan in Washington
Published: July 9 2004 21:59 | Last Updated: July 9 2004 21:59
A March 2002 meeting of government officials in Downing Street decided that available intelligence was not strong enough to support the case for war in Iraq, Lord Butler's inquiry into weapons of mass destruction has found.
The existence of minutes for this meeting will add to government nervousness about the fall-out from Lord Butler's report, due on Wednesday
The report's finding bolsters the view that a political decision was made by Tony Blair to support the US policy of regime change in Baghdad even before his government decided how to justify this to the public. In a foreword to the September 2002 public dossier on Iraq's weapons programmes, the prime minister said the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's WMD was "serious and current".
As Lord Butler's five-person panel put finishing touches on the report, a Senate inquiry in Washington on Friday excoriated almost every aspect of the Central Intelligence Agency's judgments about Iraq's military capabilities.
US intelligence agencies ignored evidence that did not fit their preconceived notion that Iraq possessed WMD, the Senate intelligence committee found.
"Most, if no t all, of these problems stem from a broken corporate culture and poor management, and will not be solved by additional funding and personnel," the inquiry found.
It concluded that most salient judgments in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting".
The NIE, meant to reflect the best intelligence available, included claims that Iraq was "reconstituting its nuclear programme", "has chemical weapons" and was developing an unmanned drone "probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents".
The committee's findings represent a searing indictment of the management of George Tenet on his last working day as director of central intelligence.
Lord Butler's report is expected to be more muted than the US Senate's, with its main focus expected to be the integrity of intelligence procedures and keeping intelligence free in future from political pressures, according to people aware of the inquiry's deli berations.
It is expected to avoid much discussion of personalities. It is not thought, for example, to refer to Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's former press spokesman, who played an important part in the emergence of the September dossier.
The Butler report is believed to mention the March 2002 policy meeting in which officials from various departments discussed Iraq, though it may not emphasise it or its implications, according to one person.
In Washington, John Rockefeller, the senior Democrat on the Senate panel, expressed "real frustration" that the Senate report did not look at the White House's role in promoting the idea that Iraqi possessed WMD.
Mr Rockefeller said: "The fact is that the administration at all levels . . . used bad information to bolster its case for war . . . Congress would not have authorised that war . . . if we knew what we know now."
But Republicans claimed the report showed the blame for the faulty assessments of Iraq's illicit weapons progra mmes lay squarely with the CIA and not the White House.