15 July 2004
Tony Blair was under renewed fire over Iraq last night after an official inquiry found that the intelligence on which he based his case for war was "seriously flawed", but failed to hold anyone responsible.
A committee chaired by Lord Butler of Brockwell, the former cabinet secretary, produced a hard-hitting report which criticised the Government and the intelligence services over the claims made about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction before last year's war.
The five-month inquiry concluded the infamous claim that Iraq could deploy WMD in just 45 minutes should not have been included in the dossier issued by the Government in September 2002. In a personal criticism, it said Mr Blair's language in the Commons may have reinforced the impression that the intelligence underpinning the claims was "fuller and firmer" than it actually was.
Last night Mr Blair's allies were confident he would ride out the storm, after the Butler team cleared him and other ministers of deliberately misleading the public or Parliament about the case for war. Some aides even hoped the report would help him achieve "closure" over his decision. But there was little sign of an end to the controversy at Westminster.
MPs were dismayed that the inquiry attributed "collective" rather than individual blame for the severe failings it uncovered. Many MPs were asking where the buck stops, but there were few answers. It is believed the inquiry team felt Mr Blair was ultimately responsible but decided not to say so in its report. One member said: "There is no smoking gun but it's a slow-burning fuse. It's all there in the report. It all goes back to the Prime Minister. There is only one man who is responsible: it is Blair."
But Mr Blair told the Commons the inquiry's report showed everyone had acted in good faith. "No one lied. No one made up the intelligence," he said. "That issue of good faith should now be at an end."
The Prime Minister adopted his most conciliatory tone ever on Iraq but stopped short of the apology demanded by some critics. "For any mistakes made, as the report finds, in good faith I of course take full responsibility, but I cannot honestly say I believe getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all. Iraq, the region, the wider world is a better and safer place without Saddam," he said. The Tories saw the Butler report as another blow to Mr Blair's already low trust ratings. Michael Howard contrasted Mr Blair's public comments about the threat from Iraq with the caveats in the intelligence which suggested the danger was "sporadic and patchy".
He accused the Prime Minister of turning the "qualified judgements" of the intelligence agencies into "unqualified certainties" in an effort to make the case for war. "I hope we will not face in this country another war in the foreseeable future, but if we did and you identified the threat, would the country believe you?" he demanded.
One damaging revelation buried in yesterday's report is that Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, personally warned Mr Blair that a last-minute piece of evidence which emerged 12 days before publication of the dossier - and was seized on by the Prime Minister - was "unproven" and "unvalidated".
Lord Butler criticised the way decisions on the "vital matter of war and peace" were taken by a "small circle" of key ministers and advisers around Mr Blair without properly consulting the Cabinet. Downing Street insisted the problem had already been rectified.
But most of the inquiry's fire was directed at the gathering of the intelligence by MI6 and the assessment of it by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), chaired by John Scarlett. It said it was "mistaken" for the JIC to accept ownership of the 2002 dossier because it had meant "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could actually bear". The dossier was at the "outer limits" of the available intelligence.
With pressure growing among MPs from all parties for Mr Scarlett's appointment as the next head of MI6 to be blocked, the Butler committee took the highly unusual step of declaring that his promotion should be validated. It suggested he had been too close to Downing Street, saying future JIC chairmen should be "demonstrably beyond influence" and have "experience of dealing with ministers in a very serious role".
The Prime Minister also threw a protective shield around Mr Scarlett, fuelling criticism at Westminster.
In The Independent today, Robin Cook, who resigned from the Cabinet over the war, writes: "This must be the most embarrassing failure in the history of British intelligence. Yet according to Lord Butler no one is to blame. Everyone behaved perfectly properly and nobody made a mistake.
"Poor things, they were let down by the system and institutional weaknesses. John Scarlett gets his very own specially printed get-out-of-jail-free card."
Mr Cook adds: "Tony Blair needed a catharsis if he was to put the controversy of Iraq behind him. Yet by pretending that all is well and everybody did their best, first Hutton and now Butler have denied him any opportunity for catharsis. Yesterday, the Prime Minister should have been admitting that there were serious mistakes, that lessons had been learnt, and that, above all, it will never happen again."
In another article in today's paper, Lord Wright of Richmond, a former JIC chairman, warns Mr Blair that the Butler report will not end the controversy. "The Prime Minister tried to give the impression that the arguments are now closed. I do not believe they are," he writes. Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "The buck stops with Blair. The credibility of the Prime Minister on matters of intelligence is vitally important. He never answered the questions about why he failed to include the reservations and qualifications that were made by the intelligence services. Until he does, his credibility is on trial."
Peter Kilfoyle, the Labour MP and former defence minister, said: "The buck stops with the Prime Minister. I think it is typical of the way that the establishment stick together and nobody is prepared to take the blame for the mistakes."
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrats' leader, called for a full public inquiry into the preparation for the Iraq war. He said: "We are not terribly surprised by Lord Butler's conclusions. He was asked to look at systems and institutions rather than to look at the judgements of individual political players and the interface between those players and the intelligence services, and that's what he did.
"It's these political relationships which remain the unopened Pandora's box in the middle of all this, and that continue to underline the need for a proper public inquiry into the political judgements made about this war and how they were arrived at."
Hans Blix, the United Nations' former chief weapons inspector, said the dossier on Iraq's weapons capability was "hyped and spun" to a point where the public was misled because vital caveats about the intelligence were left out. He told BBC World's Hardtalk programme: "I think it was a spin that was not acceptable. They put exclamation marks where there had been question marks and I think that is hyping, a spin, that leads the public to the wrong conclusions."