10 July 2004
Politicians are in a bind over the issue of pre-war intelligence in the Iraq. On the one side the public is calling for answers to the question of why we were taken to war on such faulty evidence and, more pointedly, who was responsible for getting it so wrong. On the other side politicians are anxious to shift the blame from themselves but wary of blaming the intelligence community lest the agencies bite back with complaints of undue political pressure on them to produce the results.
Yesterday's report by the US Senate Intelligence Committee is but a first salvo in a skirmish that will continue next week over here when the Butler inquiry reports. Then it will move to Washington when the Senate committee reports on the political uses to which the intelligence was put, before gathering pace as the US election campaign heats up.
Both the US Intelligence Committee report and the Butler inquiry have been restricted by terms of reference which deliberately exclude the role politicians played in the gathering and presentation. But the American investigation has the advantage that the head of the CIA, George Tenet, and James Pavitt, the agency's deputy director of operations, have already fallen on their swords.
That has left the committee relatively free to deliver some damning criticisms of the CIA for overstating the threat of Iraqi WMD, for over-reliance on defectors and for preselecting the information that fitted its prior conclusions. Yet the report - which, it has to be said, is produced by politicians with a majority Republican membership - specifically clears President Bush and his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, of pressuring the CIA to produce the evidence it says was instinctively skewed to produce the results it did.
That we got the information wrong, we all know - and this week even Tony Blair accepted it. That there was over-reliance on informers, a desperate shortage of reliable sources on the ground and a lack of analytical ability on Iraq, we also know.
But how did this come to be? Was it sheer incompetence, group thinking or, as most people suspect, an overeagerness to do the politicians' bidding? Whatever the answers, they are important because they affect the direction, and the public confidence, in the future operations of an intelligence service that has to be largely concerned with terrorism and Arab movements. Saying, as American officials tend to, "well, everyone got it wrong", or arguing as, British ministers do, that it was an unusual misjudgement by a normally superb service, just won't do. Nor is it good enough to say that it had nothing to do with political pressure from above.
Will Butler do better? We will have to wait and see. His inquiry has the advantage of being led by officials rather than politicians. But its terms of reference are narrow and, precisely because it is led by officials, it may prove reluctant to cast too critical an eye on the competence and culture of the intelligence agencies. If the US Intelligence Committee report is anything to go by, it will voice important criticisms but bring us little nearer to understanding how it all went so wrong and who was responsible.