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No more inquiries, now Parliament must do its job

Simon Jenkins

The sky is darkening. Palm trees are bent double in the gale. Small boats are swamped in the harbour. Panic reigns at Government House. A towering wall of water spotted out at sea is racing towards the shore. I have sought a less pompous name for this cataclysm but must call it nothing less than the truth.
Tony Blair’s decision to support America’s invasion of Iraq was, from the start, an act of faith, not judgment. As the months passed it required him to twist evidence and abuse rhetoric to a degree admirable in a prosecuting counsel but reckless in a leader. The Downing Street e-mails left no room for doubt. The intelligence given to No 10 before the Iraq invasion — faulty as it may have been — did not justify Mr Blair’s relentless hyperbole. Britain was under no “imminent threat” from Saddam Hussein that required a pre-emptive invasion, let alone one so urgent as to defy the United Nations and preclude even the proper equipping of the Army.

Mr Blair was yesterday forced by events in America to do what he was still denying at the weekend. He has taken Lord Hutton to appeal. Found guilty of innocence, he wants a second opinion from Lord Butler. Hutton said he did not “exaggerate” the evidence of a threat posed by Saddam. At worst he may “subconsciously” have induced an exaggeration. That exoneration proved no more than raking the sand on the beach. Now comes the tidal wave.

Ministers cannot plead ignorance. They cannot plead mens rea, or “nobody told us”, or “blame the spies”. From Hans Blix to the CIA leaks, from MI6’s “nothing new” to the fiasco of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), ministers knew they were in danger. Of course Saddam was awful, but ministers denied that regime change was their goal. Only weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would pass legal muster. Mr Blair went out on a limb. He derided those who questioned his judgment as “palpably absurd”. He professed knowledge of “thousands of weapons sites”. After the invasion he reported that the ISG had found “massive evidence” of WMD. He must have known this was false.

There was no evidence of a nuclear weapons capability in Iraq in the past decade. The famous tubes were not for centrifuges. The mobile labs were not for dangerous weapons. The WMD sites on the much-publicised Pentagon maps were phoney. There were no 20 rockets capable of hitting Cyprus. Containment had worked, as the UN said it had. There was no urgent need to “disarm Saddam”. Yet Mr Blair took no prisoners. He said the sceptics would all “eat their words”. Now he must.

Nothing is more ridiculous than the bedraggled retreat of Mr Blair’s spin-doctors and cheerleaders. They squirm, feint and shout abuse at their foes like drunken football fans after a bad defeat. We are told that the lack of weapons “proves” the wisdom of invading “before Saddam could get them”. We are told that the invasion was not about WMD after all, but the routine tyrant-toppling which every superpower should do from time to time. As for the “mushroom cloud” rubbish, this was based on a small intelligence error in Niger, a trivial slip of the Blair tongue, a “Gilligan”.

I recently heard politicians as various as John Reid, Peter Hain and Tessa Jowell assert that weapons “will be found”. I wondered what spell holds power over those anointed. When even George Bush began to hedge his bets before Christmas, Mr Blair seemed in a trance. He was still “absolutely convinced” that weapons were there. His craven apparat chorused its assent. Thus did 22 bishops vote Galileo guilty and keep the Earth at the centre of the Universe.

Yesterday the British were taught a rude lesson in democracy from across the Atlantic. In the corridors and committee rooms of Washington, the bloodstained corpse of Mr Blair’s September dossier was being prepared for slaughter. A desperate Downing Street turned to Lord Butler as if pleading for him to win a stay of execution. Perhaps his lordship could prove theirs was only a little lie.

What is Lord Butler supposed to do? He is the latest victim of Mr Blair’s now Herculean effort to avoid admitting he misled his people and Parliament. Two parliamentary committees have come and gone. Lord Hutton pulled back part of the curtain and ran for the hills. Lord Butler has been told to meet in private, stick to intelligence and avoid anything political. Washington’s parallel inquiry will be massive, devastating and certainly political. Butler will be a limp hors d’oeuvre to that feast.

Lord Butler will be in a dire dilemma. He must either disregard his terms of reference, reject Hutton and blame the Campbell-Scarlett nexus for distorting intelligence. Or he must blame the intelligence community itself for an astonishing misreading of events. He is not the man to do the first.

No one of his background could brand as a liar the holder of an office which he loyally served for so long. No civil servant, present or past, has ever regarded the bringing down of a prime minister as part of his job.

Yet the alternative is no less awful. Lord Butler is a stickler for constitutional propriety. The Civil Service will be looking to him to hold ministers duly responsible for the deeds and misdeeds of officials. If Mr Blair is to escape yet again, the failure of the intelligence services must be shown to be massive and systematic. Just as Lord Hutton was expected, in effect, to blame the BBC for David Kelly’s death, so Lord Butler is expected to blame MI6 for the dodgy dossiers. But that service would be less than human if it did not retaliate. It will reveal the true hesitancy of its assessments. Every wound will reopen. There will be more demands for a “proper inquiry”. Is that what we want?

I am inclined to alter my view that any further inquiry is needed. The unfolding tragedy of post-conquest Iraq should now claim public attention. This wretched business needs no more navel-gazing by the investigatory classes. The Hutton inquiry revealed the truth. Those interested can easily read the September and February dossiers. They can compare them with Hutton’s evidence and with what we know from Iraq itself. There is no doubt what happened.

As John Keegan points out in his Intelligence in War, intelligence is always a tissue of imprecision. Downing Street’s abuse of its product was no different from that of Eden during Suez and the Pentagon during Vietnam. The only novel feature of the September dossier was its seductive by-line. To adapt Belloc, “its sins were Scarlett but its pages read”.

This whole fantasy of denial is staggering to its end. In America the agent has been congressional scrutiny. Parliament and the judiciary have exonerated the executive of all guilt, but so unconvincingly that another inquiry has proved necessary. It has been structured so as to make it unlikely to nail the executive to the wall.

Jack Straw was right when he said in the Commons yesterday that Parliament and not a “subcontracted inquiry” should be the ultimate judge of the rights and wrongs of war. Parliament calls government to account.Blame is not for retired judges and officials, or for journalists or broadcasters. If Mr Blair went to war on a falsity, Parliament must inquire and Parliament must judge.

This accountability is crucial now that governments assert the right of pre-emptive coercion. Mr Blair claims to go to war on the “intelligence of a threat” rather than on an actual one. The Home Secretary wishes to incarcerate citizens on a supposition of guilt rather than by open trial. These are major amendments to the normal practices of democracy. If they are really to form the basis of aspects of domestic and foreign policy, they require substantive changes in constitutional practices. They demand that we put extraordinary trust in the undisclosed judgments of leaders. They are a blatant departure from what most people understand as democratic accountability.

The antics of Downing Street before and after the Iraq invasion blew apart that trust. Whether “knowingly” or not, the public was told a monumental lie. Politicians constantly complain that the media usurp their proper role. Let them now do their job. Only Parliament has the final right to demand apology and redress. It can do so on the evidence already before it. There is no need for further inquiry. If Parliament funks this duty, what a pathetic and wretched institution it has become.