12 July 2004
Lord Butler of Brockwell will deliver his long-awaited verdict on the intelligence as the basis for going to war in Iraq on Wednesday. It comes just after the United States Intelligence Committee delivered its report, and, according to reports in the media so far, Tony Blair faces a difficult few days.
More than 16 months after the war began, we can be sure that there was, as the senate report identifies, serious intelligence failure. How else could it be when no evidence of any weapons, systems or programmes has been uncovered in that time?
This article, reviewing the crucial September 2002 dossier, is not an investigation of the gap between what intelligence was available in the months leading up to the war, and what has come to pass. Rather, it examines how the known material was treated at the time, and the impact that had in boosting the case for war.
The Prime Minister has made repeated assertions that everybody thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This broad-brush approach - the crushing of caveated information and conditional tenses into something categoric - helped persuade the nation of the case for war and also misrepresented the bigger picture. It was writ large in the 2002 dossier, and in Mr Blair's foreword.
I recall a senior foreign intelligence analyst commenting on the dossier, "We think Saddam probably has chemical and biological weapons but we cannot prove it. We are not sure." This reflected the views of the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) experts, and was the basis of the dissent I recorded at the time.
Mr Blair dismissed my concerns as "hardly earth-shattering" - he chose to distil them into the difference between the words indicate and show - but they were much more significant than that might imply.
I told Panorama last night that I was confused when Mr Blair told Lord Hutton about the "tremendous amount" of related information and evidence that had been crossing his desk in the period before the dossier was written. We had no sight of large qualities of significant intelligence of that sort.
Most of our concerns were raised in comments made by DIS expert analysts over the three weeks in which the dossier was drafted. I recounted some to Lord Hutton's inquiry but was constrained by the specific questions of counsel.
To offer a fuller explanation. I have revisited the executive summary of the September dossier, John Scarlett's two-page précis of the 40-odd pages of the main text. The latter is so dense and complex that the summary would inevitably achieve much greater impact. Unfortunately, it did not paint quite the same picture. What was uncertain and poorly defined suddenly became clearer and "presentationally" more acceptable. Intelligence no longer indicated what might be and suddenly, without substantiation, showed what was.
And the decision to use the phrase "we judge" detached from a series of bullet points, allowed those points to stand out for the lay reader as statements of fact:
* "[Iraq has] continued to produce chemical and biological agents"
*"Some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of a decision to use them"
We now know that this "shift" came about largely as a result of the interplay between the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and senior members of the Prime Minister's Office. That, in turn, enabled the Prime Minister to make the positive assertions in his foreword: "I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons ..."
"I am in no doubt the threat is serious and current ..."
I have no doubt that such positive statements had a significant impact on many of those who were previously dubious about the campaign. If the executive summary had more closely represented the expert assessments of the day, who knows what impact that might have had on the decision to go the war?
I have tried to illustrate below what I would have preferred some important parts of it to have said. This is not a case of being wise after the event or of using hindsight. It is what the dossier should have said based on the state of intelligence at that time. My revisions do not represent a wholly accurate assessment in the light of what we know now, which makes the case for war even weaker. The original or "actual" paragraphs of the dossier are also shown for ease of comparison. The words shown in italics in the "preferred" version mark my additions or changes to the words approved by the JIC.
ACTUAL: Under Saddam Hussein Iraq developed chemical and biological weapons, acquired missiles allowing it to attack neighbouring countries with these weapons, and persistently tried to develop a nuclear bomb. Saddam has used chemical weapons, both against Iran and against his own people. Following the Gulf War, Iraq had to admit to all this. And in the ceasefire of 1991 Saddam agreed unconditionally to give up his weapons of mass destruction.
PREFERRED: Under Saddam Hussein Iraq developed chemical and biological weapons and acquired missiles. In the 1980s it used chemical weapons against elements of its own population in Iraq, and against Iranian forces in its war against that country. Arguably, Iraq never used chemical weapons on territory that it did not claim was its own, and is not known to have actually used biological warfare agents. Iraq responded to attacks against its cities by Iranian Scud missiles armed with conventional explosives, by delivering similar warheads using Scud-type missiles the range of which had been extended to reach significant Iranian cities. Iraq had a programme to develop nuclear weapons that was within about two or three years of success at the time of the 1990-91 conflict. Following the Gulf War, Iraq had to admit to all this. And in the ceasefire of 1991 Saddam agreed unconditionally to give up his weapons of mass destruction.
ACTUAL: Much information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is already in the public domain from UN reports and from Iraqi defectors. This points clearly to Iraq's continuing possession, after 1991, of chemical and biological agents and weapons produced before the Gulf War. It shows that Iraq has refurbished sites formerly associated with the production of chemical and biological agents. And it indicates that Iraq remains able to manufacture these agents, and to use bombs, shells, artillery rockets and ballistic missiles to deliver them.
PREFERRED: Much information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is already in the public domain from UN reports and from Iraqi defectors. This points clearly to Iraq's continuing possession, after 1991, of chemical and biological agents and weapons produced before the Gulf War. But the current status of Iraq's offensive capability is not clear. There has been some refurbishment of sites formerly associated with the production of chemical and biological agents and, while this may improve the capability to resume such production, there is no conclusive evidence that such production has taken place, or that the refurbishment does not have a legitimate objective. There can be little doubt that Iraq retains significant potential to manufacture agents, fill them into weapons and use them to the level of capability it had developed prior to 1991. This included a demonstrated capability to deliver chemical weapons with bombs, shells and artillery rockets, but it is not clear that Iraq had a fully pr oven capability to deliver chemical or biological warheads by ballistic missile. It is doubtful that it had the opportunity to further develop and fully prove that capability since 1991.
ACTUAL: As well as the public evidence, however, significant additional information is available to the Government from secret intelligence sources, described in more detail in this paper. This intelligence cannot tell us about everything. However, it provides a fuller picture of Iraqi plans and capabilities. It shows that Saddam Hussein attaches great importance to possessing weapons of mass destruction which he regards as the basis for Iraq's regional power. It shows that he does not regard them only as weapons of last resort. He is ready to use them, including against his own population, and is determined to retain them, in breach of United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR).
PREFERRED: As well as the public evidence, however, significant additional information is available to the Government from secret intelligence sources, described in more detail in this paper. This intelligence cannot tell us about everything. However, it provides more evidence about Iraqi plans and capabilities. It suggests that Saddam Hussein attaches great importance to possessing, or maintaining the impression that he possesses chemical and biological weapons. He probably regards this as the basis for enhancing Iraq's regional power in the future. It suggests that he does not regard them only as weapons of last resort. He seems to countenance using them, including against his enemies in his own population, and appears determined to retain them, in breach of United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR).
ACTUAL: Intelligence also shows that Iraq is preparing plans to conceal evidence of these weapons, including incriminating documents, from renewed inspections. And it confirms that despite sanctions and the policy of containment, Saddam has continued to make progress with his illicit weapons programmes."
PREFERRED: Intelligence also indicates that Iraq is preparing plans to conceal evidence of these weapons, including incriminating documents, from renewed inspections. And it suggests that despite sanctions and the policy of containment, Saddam has continued to keep his ballistic missile programme alive and that some activity has been beyond that which is legal. He has at least preserved the basis for reactivating his offensive nuclear, biological and chemical warfare programmes. The extent of positive activity within the latter programmes is not clear. It cannot be discounted that weapons may have been produced but there is no firm evidence that this is the case.
Paragraph 6 was introduced by the phrase "As a result of the intelligence we judge that Iraq has:" and followed by a series of bullet points. The use of the word "judge" led to the argument that "judgements" could not be caveated in the way the DIS suggested. I would therefore have preferred the phrase, "We assess Iraq:" The bullet points I would have changed are:
ACTUAL: [has] continued to produce chemical and biological agents;
PREFERRED: has probably continued to produce chemical and biological agents, but is unlikely to have produced militarily significant quantities of CW agent or weapons;
ACTUAL: [has] military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, including against its own Shia population. Some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them;
PREFERRED: possibly has specific current military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, including against its own Shia population. A source has claimed some weapons may be deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them, but the exact nature of the weapons, the agents involved and the context of their use is not clear;
ACTUAL: [has] command and control arrangements in place to use chemical and biological weapons. Authority ultimately resides with Saddam Hussein;
PREFERRED: may have command and control arrangements in place to use chemical and biological weapons. Authority will ultimately reside with Saddam Hussein;
ACTUAL: [has] developed mobile laboratories for military use, corroborating earlier reports about the mobile production of biological warfare agents;
PREFERRED: has developed mobile laboratories for the production of biological warfare agents, but we do not know the current status of these facilities.
In the light of what we now know, it seems Iraq possessed no significant stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons. Saddam had no active major programmes or tangible plans to regenerate his chemical warfare programme, therefore there could be no meaningful command and control arrangements or plans to use them. The same is probably true of biological weapons but the nature of BW systems is such that significant capabilities are more easily concealed.
Saddam appears to have been keen to maintain at least the impression that he possessed chemical and biological weapons. In a region where several neighbours possess chemical, nuclear and possibly biological weapons Saddam probably wished to maintain the ability to deter aggression.
It is also the case that Saddam's reputation in parts of the Arab world derived from his defiance of the West in general and America in particular. A clear admission and demonstration that he had given up such capabilities and ambitions would undermine his authority.
But if Saddam had already divested himself of the weapons and programmes, it seemed incredible that such factors would outweigh the economic and conventional military advantages to the regime of removing the yoke of sanctions.
George Tenet, the outgoing director of the CIA, said last month that intelligence estimates were rarely all right, or all wrong. I would be very surprised if many of the CIA's expert analysts would have disagreed with the conclusions reflected in my "preferred" version of the dossier.
Of course, knowing what we know now would have made a case for war on the basis of Saddam's weapons capabilities a non-starter, so there is indeed a real question about the quality of intelligence. But, back in September 2002, had the executive summary been written in the way I suggest, it would have been much more difficult for the Prime Minister's foreword to make the positive assertions it did about Saddam's chemical and biological warfare capabilities and the threat they represented to Britain.
As for the impact of that exercise on the will of the British people, will Lord Butler address that on Wednesday?
Dr Brian Jones is a former head of the nuclear, chemical and biological branch of the Ministry of Defence's Defence Intelligence Staff