Blair is weighed in the balance and found wanting

Lord Butler, behind the soft language, has coruscating criticisms. If the PM gets away with it, it w

The venerable Lord Butler has dangled Tony Blair over the precipice but declined to let him drop. Beneath the soft Whitehall language, his report contains some of the most coruscating criticism imaginable of political leadership. It confirms what almost all those intimately involved in the Iraq affair have long been saying - it is not questions of good faith that matter, it is competence. In the use of intelligence, in diplomacy and in the absence of sang-froid that is required to take the most serious decision, to go to war, this prime minister has been found wanting.

Butler went out of his way to avoid apportioning blame. However, his rigorous endorsement of John Scarlett, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and soon-to-be head of MI6, stands out from his failure similarly to support the political operators who, in his words, "put a strain" on the spooks to deliver what they needed to justify a war to which they had long before committed themselves.

Butler talked of "collective" responsibility, but he acknowledged that the Prime Minister was head of that collective. His list of criticisms is long: in translating the very patchy intelligence into the September 2002 dossier, "the limitations of the intelligence underlying the JIC's judgements were not made sufficiently clear", Butler said, concluding this to be a "serious weakness". He added that "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear". The language in the document "went to (although not beyond) the outer limits of the intelligence available". He specifically blamed Blair for telling the Commons when presenting the dossier that the picture painted by the intelligence services was "extensive, detailed and authoritative". It was anything but.

So much for that one particular dossier. In some ways Blair is right that too much attention has been paid to it. Some of the anger comes from those journalists and news organisations that allowed themselves to be sucked in by the hyperbole of the dossier at the time. The same applies to the notorious 45-minute claim that this latest inquiry - the fourth on Iraq - has confirmed to be utterly spurious from start to finish. Butler noted that the number of primary human intelligence sources was "few" and that, as a result, "intelligence reports were mainly 'inferential' ". Britain, as I disclosed in my book, had virtually nobody to rely on inside Iraq since three agents were outed by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1979 and killed.

Blair has continuously asserted that France and Russia, the countries with the best intelligence coverage, shared the British assessment that Iraq's WMD threat was real and growing. This is simply not true. Indeed Butler pointed out that the British government's conclusion in the spring of 2002 that stronger action needed to be taken "was not based on any new development in the current intelligence picture" but merely on assumptions about Saddam's recent behaviour. "There was no recent intelligence that would itself have given rise to a conclusion that Iraq was of more immediate concern than the activities of some other countries."

The question Blair has still to answer is not what happened in September 2002 but what happened in the frantic two months from January 2003. Robin Cook publicly, and other ministers privately, have made clear that the intelligence briefings they received in this period suggested that, as the threat was talked up, doubts were increasing about Saddam's possession of WMD. In other words, when Hans Blix and his UN inspectors began to worry out loud that they were not finding evidence of chemical and biological weapons, their concerns were not heeded. Rather, Downing Street and the White House suggested that Blix was "failing" in his task because he was not up to it.

Butler puts it more delphically, recording his "surprise that policy makers and the intelligence community did not, as the generally negative results of Unmovic inspections became increasingly apparent, re-evaluate in early 2003 the quality of the intelligence". That is an astonishing and damning comment. When I asked Butler at his news conference to explain this, he suggested that maybe the JIC was concentrating on other threats at the time. The answer may be more simple. Blair, having committed himself to a war that was weeks away, did not want the intelligence revisited because he feared what he might be told.

The other area where more light remains to be shed is the legal advice presented by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, days before the invasion began. On this, I am told, the Butler committee split. They heard evidence from Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who resigned as the number two in the Foreign Office legal team in protest at the judgment. They heard from Goldsmith himself, who has still to account for his apparent volte-face on the eve of war, to provide a legal justification that few in the legal world shared. Butler's report devotes considerable space to the issue, but then strangely withholds judgement, deciding, apparently at the last moment, that the merits or otherwise of Goldsmith's legal position (as distinct from the intelligence that might have informed it) fell outside the committee's remit.

Over the past few days, Blair and his entourage have not demonstrated the same swagger and blithe disdain they felt in January in the run-up to the Hutton report. They knew this one would not be a whitewash. They knew that Butler, for all the deliberate narrowness of his terms of reference, would look at some of the issues that went to the heart of the war. Early in the morning of 14 July, Blair's team - among them Jonathan Powell, Sally Morgan, David Hill and Tom Kelly - met in his flat in 11 Downing Street to prepare their response. One of those in that group was Scarlett.

In his statement to MPs, Blair resorted yet again to his "What's the problem? We've got rid of a bad man" refrain. But this time he had to temper it with an acknowledgement of "full personal responsibility". He said he had searched his conscience "not in a spirit of obstinacy but in genuine reconsideration in the light of what we now know". Then he resorted to his tried and trusted tactic of triangulation. Even though it was now clear "that the evidence of Saddam's WMD was indeed less certain", he could not go to the "opposite extreme" and conclude that he posed no danger. The logic of this is utterly flawed. This was Blair's opportunity to put his hands up and say simply that - as Butler suggests time and again - he had got the intelligence wrong, no ifs, no buts.

So far, four journalists and editors have lost their jobs but not a single politician or public official has been held to account for the botched road to war. Blair will escape not because of a lack of rigour on the part of Butler but because of a lack of political accountability. Butler highlighted that institutional failing when he criticised the "informality and circumscribed character of government procedures". He pointed out that Iraq had been discussed 24 times by the cabinet in the year before the war. However, detailed policy papers prepared by intelligence and other officials were not circulated in advance. Ministers had to rely on oral briefings from Blair, Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon. This, Butler said, "plainly reduced their ability to prepare properly for such discussions". Again we know why. Proper discussion would not, at that point, have been helpful to the Prime Minister.

Blair's lack of political accountability was also highlighted in the events immediately after publication of Butler's report. In the Commons, Michael Howard asked the right questions. Why were the caveats, the qualifications, the cautions left out of the dossier? How did qualified judgements become unqualified certainties? And the most important question for the future - if Blair had to commit British forces into action on the basis of another intelligence assessment, would anyone again believe him? Blair had no answer, but he did have the wounding riposte that Howard and the Conservatives were staunchly behind the war.

Blair had hoped Hutton would provide him with "closure" on Iraq. The sheer absurdity of that report, the one-sidedness that flew in the face of the evidence, only increased a sense of injustice. The Prime Minister did not want a new inquiry and he did not want Butler to lead it. He was forced into it when the White House peremptorily told Downing Street that, for all Britain's so-called "influence", it would allow a Congressional inquiry. "You have your politics, we have ours," Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told Blair's foreign policy aide Sir Nigel Sheinwald. The results of the first Congressional inquiry were devastating. The British one is more sotto voce. In immediate political terms, Blair has been let off the hook, but such were the terms of the inquiry no other outcome was possible. Butler could not remove Blair. But he has proved beyond all reasonable doubt that, on the biggest decision of his premiership, Blair's judgement was found wanting, woefully so.

John Kampfner's Blair's Wars is published in updated paperback (Simon & Schuster)

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