Those WMDs - The blame game

John Kampfner reveals the inside story of how Blair agreed to a second inquiry on the run-up to the

In the autumn of 2002, amid the flurry of new and "compelling" reports that informants were providing from Iraq, Tony Blair asked his spy chiefs: "We are sure about the intelligence, aren't we?" They told him they were as sure as they ever could be, which was not quite the answer he wanted. For all his public assertions that the intelligence was rock solid on weapons of mass destruction, Blair had his doubts throughout. So did people around him. But they knew any hesitation in public would make war harder to sell, so they kept it to themselves. "We hoped we were right," one official confided in me immediately after the war.

Forget Andrew Gilligan. Forget questions of motive, accusations of duplicity or complaints about spinners acting against the wishes of the spooks. As Blair now tries to rewrite history, the questions remain: what did he really know at the time, what did he not know and what did he persuade himself he knew?

In his appearance on 3 February before parliament's grandees, Blair smiled his customary smile and wriggled his customary wriggle. He told the liaison committee that the testimony to the US Congress by David Kay, the former head of the Iraq Survey Group, had vindicated the case for war and that on the eve of war the rest of the world had come to the same intelligence assessment as the UK Prime Minister and US president. Each of these statements is wrong. Kay, for all the desperate spinning of the Brits, said that the stockpiles of WMDs cited by both governments as the prime example of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein had not been found, would not be found and probably had not existed for a decade. As for the assessments, the French and Germans were in the intelligence loop but drew strikingly different conclusions.

After giving Blair their usual deferential hearing, the MPs thanked him for his time and proceeded to the chamber. It was left to Jack Straw to announce details of an inquiry that the government had tried desperately to avoid. For many MPs, the composition and remit of the new committee suggested that Blair wanted a repeat of Hutton. "We can't end up having an inquiry into whether the war was right or wrong," the PM pronounced. In Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary, he has a man of implacable establishment credentials. I remember going to see plain Sir Robin Butler shortly before the Scott report on the illegal sale of arms to Iraq was released in 1996. In the grand surroundings of the Cabinet Office, he tried to persuade me, in a most gentlemanly way, that ministers had no case to answer. Technically, he was right. Scott let them off the hook in the same way that Hutton would do later.

In week one, post-Hutton, Blair received conflicting advice. The majority view in and around No 10 was to consolidate their victory and to hold firm against a WMD inquiry. That remained the case until George Bush shifted his ground - and omitted to tell the Brits. Then they argued that Blair should follow the "success" of Hutton by confining a new inquiry to the narrowest of remits, on the assumption that in July, by the time Butler duly obliged with helpful findings, the public will have moved on. The minority caucus had urged Blair to use his Hutton state- ment on 28 January to announce a WMD probe immediately. That view did not prevail, but many around Blair who were despondent at the reaction to Hutton's finding now wish it had.

Blair is in a bind. He cannot admit the blunders that led to war, in both the diplomacy and the intelligence. He cannot admit that while the British security services disparaged much of the US-inspired intelligence on Iraq, notably the non-existent link between Saddam and al-Qaeda, they were relying on the very same compromised sources for the information on which they hung their public justification for war. He cannot admit what people told me last year - that since the murder of three Secret Intelligence Service agents in Baghdad in 1979, good human intelligence had been hard to come by.

He cannot admit that although he had claimed in presenting his September 2002 dossier that for reasons of national security "we cannot publish everything we know", his agencies had, according to one senior figure intimately involved in the process, used "just about everything we had".

The root of the problems lay not just in the shortage of information about Iraq. Well before Blair came on to the scene, the intelligence services had convinced themselves that because a weapon or substance was unaccounted for, it necessarily still existed. They took Saddam's refusal to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors throughout the 1990s as proof of guilt and possession of WMDs.

This was the default position of the intelligence services by the time Blair took office in 1997. He was in no position to challenge it. He called them the "professionals", giving them the benefit of the doubt. He worked from the assumption that distrust existed between the intelligence community and an incoming Labour government, and felt the need to establish his bona fides. From an early stage, Blair was impressed by the assessments given to him by the Joint Intelligence Committee. He saw little need to treat the information with the caution that many of these assessments actually invited. The top brass at the SIS and the JIC were keen to impress the new man in charge. The Prime Minister was keen to show them how impressed he was by them. That suspension of critical faculties led them all to Iraq.

As Dr Brian Jones, the Defence Intelligence Staff official, pointed out, it was not just the politicians who were unqualified to cast a stern eye on the intelligence, it was the security services boss class as well. They took the "information" - not just the 45-minute claim, but much of the rest as well - on trust, partly because they knew no better and partly because it suited their requirements. The SIS and JIC chiefs overruled people such as Jones, people who actually knew. One does not need to lie in order to refuse to confront the more complicated truth.

Blair's first foray into Iraq should have served as a warning. Operation Desert Fox, three days of air strikes in December 1998, was designed to punish Saddam for his failure to work with the UN inspectors. The inspectors were withdrawn, removing the last reliable source of information on the ground for several years. More than 600 sorties were launched. Some 250 targets were hit with professed "pinpoint accuracy". The result? "Our idea was that if the inspectors couldn't find the stuff, we would bomb it out of existence," one senior official recalled. "Trouble is, they couldn't find it on the ground, nor could we from the air, either, because we didn't know where it was or because it wasn't there." How prescient that observation has turned out to be.

The events of 11 September 2001 exposed how unprepared the west's security agencies had been. The British had failed to heed repeated warnings from the French about the activities of Islamic militants based in the UK. We now know how little they knew about what was happening abroad as well. The US had no reliable sources within al-Qaeda or in its terrorist training camps. The CIA had one Pashto speaker operating in all of Afghanistan. It had no advance knowledge of Indian nuclear tests, nor of the African embassy bombings in 1998. It mistook a pharmaceuticals factory it bombed in Khartoum for a chemical weapons plant. It bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war in 1999, thinking it was one of Slobodan Milosevic's buildings. It underestimated North Korea's nuclear capability.

Its flaws went further back. It picked the wrong horse in restoring the shah of Iran to power, failed to foresee the Soviet atom bomb, the Chinese invasion of Korea, the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba, the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the fall of the Berlin Wall, communism's collapse and . . . Saddam's invasion of Kuwait.

The French, with their long history in the Middle East, were the most plugged-in, and the conclusions they drew from the shared raw intelligence about the threat posed by Saddam were the most circumspect. Having spent months rubbishing the French, Blair is now seeking to imply that their approach was more similar to the UK's than people realise.

Blair will want to avoid a blame game, but he won't be able to stop it. Butler and his committee are, in effect, being invited to confine their criticisms to the security services, for providing both the raw material and the assessments. As for Blair and his small coterie of officials - few of them versed in foreign affairs and even fewer in intelligence - they will try to explain away their decision to rush to war on the basis of WMDs as a "judgement call", made with the best of intentions on the basis of the information provided.

That will not wash with the intelligence world, however.