As Britons and Americans learn more about the gravity of the disastrous adventure in Iraq, they are demanding answers to questions, not only about how the war is being handled now, but also about how we got into the mess in the first place. Almost four years on, and despite much inquisition, the main issue remains whether the legislatures and citizens of both countries were delib erately deceived by their own governments in pursuit of policies that would not otherwise have been supported. One reason interest persists may be that the public accepts some guilt for the mistakes made, given that both governments faced re-election and, despite everything, won. The “accountability moment”, as President Bush called it, came and went (though last month’s congressional elections suggest it is not forgotten).
The current swirl of interest here tempts me to rejoin the debate that so frustrated me in 2004. Early that year, I was appalled that the report of the Hutton inquiry ignored a blatant attempt to cover up the truth; and I was angry about the government’s claim to have been absolved of all criticism relating to the Iraq war. I was better placed than most to understand what had happened because, until just before the war, I had worked at the Defence Intelligence Staff in Whitehall on the subject of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). I was in no doubt that there had been deliberate deception; the difficulty was in knowing who was ultimately responsible. Overall, the issue was hugely complicated. To understand it required an appreciation of the mysterious inner workings of Whitehall and the even more mysterious world of intelligence.
After many confused and fretful hours trying to explain things to editors, producers and interviewers, I thought I had found the key – one relatively straightforward example of deliberate deception from among many – and I concentrated on that. The deception revolved around an intelligence report I had mentioned in evidence to Hutton which, for ease of reference, I will call Report X. I wrote about it in newspapers and gave interviews on television and radio. Michael Howard, then leader of the opposition, raised it in the Commons debate on the Hutton report.
A few months later, the Butler review addressed Report X in some detail, and the Labour MP Harry Cohen demanded action in the House. But the government managed to ignore the questions or bat them away and win the necessary votes. By the end of the year I had pretty much accepted that my efforts had been in vain.
There was no mention of Report X during the recent Commons debate on Iraq, but I was prompted to revisit the subject. I realised it was possible to tell a more complete and coherent tale now. New information, some leaked, has emerged since Butler reported in July 2004. In addition, it has been possible to make a more considered analysis of the welter of information arising from four complex inquiries within a short space of time.
We now know that by spring 2002, the Prime Minister recognised the danger of allowing the Americans to become isolated over Iraq and that he might wish to involve Britain in any military action Bush would take. Iraq’s record on WMD offered the only possible justification. On 8 March 2002, Cabinet Office officials conveniently offered ministers the advice that, to enforce the disarmament of Iraq, “it would be necessary to conduct a media campaign to warn the public of the dangers posed by Saddam and to prepare public opinion in the UK and abroad”.
Ten days later, the British ambassador in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, wrote secretly to Downing Street reporting that he had followed up earlier discussions between the Prime Minister’s foreign affairs adviser, Sir David Manning, and the US national security adviser, Condo leezza Rice. Using the same Downing Street “script”, Meyer had told another senior Bush administration official that a UK dossier was in “gestation”, the purpose of which would be “to make the case well enough to create a critical mass of parliamentary and public opinion that would support British participation with the US in any operation against Saddam”.
A few days later, Peter Ricketts, political director at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, advised the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, that he was pleased publication of “the unclas sified document” (or dossier) had been postponed, as it did not meet the policy requirement. He added that “to get public and parliamentary support for military operations we have to be convincing” that the threat from Iraq was “significant enough for troops to die for”.
In other words, the message the public had to hear was that Saddam Hussein had WMD and was a real threat. However, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which has the last word on such assessments, had reported on 15 March 2002 that this was not the case, and all the correspondents mentioned above were aware of it. The dossier was put on the back burner until later in the year. On 21 July, a highly restricted Cabinet Office briefing paper was written. It preceded a secret “inner-circle” meeting called by the Prime Minister. The paper noted the need to “prepare public opinion in the UK that it is necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussein” and concluded that an “information campaign” would be needed.
At the meeting itself, on 23 July, Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, stated that the mood in Washington suggested military action to achieve regime change was inevitable. The Prime Minister said that regime change was linked to weapons of mass destruction in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD. If the political context were right, people would support regime change.
By September, an American invasion of Iraq was virtually unstoppable, and the Prime Minister urgently commissioned a dossier on Iraq’s WMD. From the foregoing, and contrary to what the government has since claimed, there can be no doubt of the purpose of the dossier – it was to prepare the ground for British participation in a probable war. Parliament was recalled a day early, on 24 September, so that Tony Blair could present the dossier in a blaze of publicity.
There was still a problem with the intelligence but, in the nick of time, MI6 came up with a vague and unconfirmed claim that Iraq could use chemical and biological weapons within “45 minutes”. If that was true it meant the Iraqis had WMD, and so it was put in the draft of the dossier. On 17 September, at what had to be the final meeting of the drafting group in order to have a dossier ready for parliament a week later, Defence Intelligence insisted the uncertainty should be made clear. But that would undermine the message. Defence Intelligence would not budge. The Cabinet Office intelligence chiefs who, for whatever reason, wanted the dossier to be strong enough to support a possible case for war, could not make their argument stick with the intelligence that was on the table. However, they had an ace to play. Yet another brand-new, top-secret intelligence report, Report X, existed and they claimed that it proved Saddam had WMD. Unfortunately, Defence Intelligence analysts could not see it.
We never saw Report X
We foot soldiers were told nothing more about Report X, but our bosses barred us from further objection and, as members of the JIC, gave their support for the dossier. Before it was issued, I warned my bosses they were treading a dangerous path. The warning was not accepted.
Report X was critical in silencing dissenting intelligence experts, and allowed the dossier to be published on time and on message.
We now know that Report X came from “a new source on trial”, which means it should have been treated with suspicion. Instead, it was shown to Manning, who saw to it that the Prime Minister was told two days later, on 12 September – before most members of the JIC even knew of its existence. Clearly, policy and intelligence were hopelessly entangled at this stage. Before the chief of Defence Intelligence, who was also deputy chairman of the JIC, had even seen Report X, it was being used to silence intelligence experts and facilitate the dossier. Although the head of MI6 insisted that the unproven nature of the source had been stressed to everyone, the Butler review suspected more weight was given to Report X than was warranted because it suited the requirement of the dossier.
Butler tells us Report X stated that the production of biological and chemical agents had been speeded up by the Iraqi government. Yet his review is quite clear that it did not justify a different view being taken from the one held by intelligence experts. I have since learned that Report X was considered “crap” and that, with-in hours of seeing it, the intelligence experts rejected it. The Butler committee says it was presented with no evidence of an insuperable obstacle to allowing expert-level analysts access to Report X before the dossier was published.
Butler observes that the JIC had no reason to know that DIS experts had not seen the report when they approved the dossier. That is not strictly true, as a significant proportion of the JIC did know this. The chairman, John Scarlett, knew and, arguably, it was his responsibility to ensure his committee knew. Also in the know were Julian Miller, chief of the Assessment Staff, who chaired the dossier drafting group; Dearlove, whose MI6 had released Report X and controlled its distribution; and Air Marshall Joe French and his deputy at Defence Intelligence, Tony Cragg.
I am more convinced than ever that Report X was welcomed in September 2002, not as a particularly valuable piece of new intelligence, but as a way to finesse a “sexed-up” dossier past the experts on WMD. Thus the normal intelligence process of sceptical scrutiny was subverted. I believe there were experienced intelligence professionals on the JIC who had seen Report X and understood that it was not substantial. This means that the government’s claims post-Butler, that the intelligence process needed to be tightened up with a more critical approach to assessment, was part of a cover-up intended to blame intelligence rather than policy for the mistake that led us to war.
The House was misled
The knowledge from Butler that Report X was withdrawn as unreliable in July 2003 is the straw that breaks the back of the government’s defence. This was before the Hutton inquiry began and well before the Prime Minister was asked about it in the House. Blair said he had not been aware of the withdrawal until Butler reported, but any one of a number of officials in various government departments will have known and should have been alert to the danger of the Commons being misled. Remarkably, parliament has not reacted to questions on Report X being ignored and has accepted that no one can be held accountable for the House having been misled.
Howard’s echo of my request, that Report X be released so that parliament and the country could judge the strength of the evidence that had taken the country to war, remains valid.
There are still critical questions surrounding Report X and the attempt to keep it secret. The answers, which would probably come from among those who attended the Prime Minister’s secret meeting on 23 July 2002, could finally shed light on who was to blame for the deception.
Critical dates in a scandalous attempt to mislead
Early 2002 Blair thinks he may need to involve Britain in US-led military action in Iraq.
8 March 2002 Cabinet Office officials tell ministers a media campaign is needed to persuade public of dangers posed by Saddam Hussein.
15 March 2002 The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) concludes that WMD in Iraq are not a threat.
21 July 2002 Restricted Cabinet Office briefing paper advocates preparing public opinion for the idea of military action against Saddam.
23 July 2002 Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, says mood in Washington makes Iraq invasion inevitable.
10 September 2002 45-minute claim appears in draft dossier shown to Alastair Campbell.
12 September 2002 Blair is shown top-secret Report X, from new untested source, alleging Iraq has speeded up production of chemical and biological weapons.
17 September 2002 Defence Intelligence Staff insist doubts about dossier be made clear. Report X is cited to silence dissent but intelligence experts not allowed to see it. JIC members support dossier.
24 September 2002 Tony Blair recalls parliament a day early to present the Iraq dossier.
20 March 2003 US and Britain invade Iraq.
28 January 2004 Hutton report concludes Iraq dossier was not “sexed up”, omitting mention of Report X.
14 July 2004 Butler review concludes intelligence was not “robust”; that wording of Iraq dossier was misleading; and that Report X was given undue importance. Finds no evidence of “deliberate distortion”.
2006 Report X has still not been released.