July 11 2004 Sunday Herald
Whose Head Will The Butler Serve Up?
Lord Butler’s long-awaited report is about to reveal what went wrong with intelligence on Iraq. Necks are on the block. But are they necessarily the right ones?
By Investigations Editor Neil Mackay
If the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is anything to go by then the entire Cabinet and the whole upper echelon of British intelligence should be roasted on a spit by the Butler Inquiry, which is due to report on Wednesday.
Cook says that John Scarlett told him before the war in Iraq that Saddam Hussein did not have any weapons of mass destruction that could be fired over long distances at strategic cities. Scarlett is the former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) which wrote the infamous dossier laying out the government’s case for war – and the man who is now to take over MI6 – and Cook’s recollection of his comments is in direct contradiction to the dossier’s claim that Saddam could hit UK assets with WMD within 45 minutes.
If Cook knew this, Scarlett must have told other senior government figures including Tony Blair and Scarlett’s “mate” Alastair Campbell, then Blair’s director of communications. “I still find it perplexing,” says Cook, “why Number 10 came to a different conclusion.
“The government had made up their mind that Saddam had weapons and must be a threat; they had made up their mind they were going to war. The intelligence agencies were then left in a position of having to find evidence to support a conclusion.”
Lord Butler’s inquiry into the use of intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq has also turned up proof that in March 2002 a meeting of government officials in Downing Street decided that available intelligence was not strong enough to support the case for war. Critics will seize on this as proof that the case for war was a political one.
But regardless of this evidence and Cook’s damning recollections , this morning there appear to be just three men nervously fingering their collars and wondering if they will still be in the employ of Her Majesty’s government come Wednesday evening. One of them is indeed John Scarlett. The others are Sir Richard Dearlove, the outgoing head of MI6, and Lord Goldsmith, Labour’s attorney-general and the man who ruled that it would be perfectly legal to invade Iraq. Government lawyers and ministers had agreed that the war would not be legal without a second UN resolution.
Goldsmith, Scarlett and Dearlove have all been sent preliminary letters from the Butler committee, a sure sign that castigation is to come. Goldsmith is the one most likely to escape a roasting, as Butler’s remit does not extend to the legality of the war.
This weekend Tony Blair is holed up in Chequers plotting how to deal with the Butler fallout. The Prime Minister is expected to escape pretty much unscathed, although the effect of recent pressure on him can be measured by the interjection last month of four Cabinet ministers. John Reid, Tessa Jowell, Charles Clarke and Patricia Hewitt are reported to have been so worried that he was going to resign that they personally counselled him and urged him to stay on when he was said to be “seriously reviewing his position”.
Michael Mates, one of the inquiry team, has said that the report will highlight the “limitations” of intelligence. And Peter Hain, the leader of the Commons, has already paved the way for the spies to take the brunt of the criticism, saying that MI6 did “make mistakes from time to time”.
It is Scarlett’s coat that is on the shakiest peg. It was under his leadership that the JIC metamorphosed from an outfit designed to liaise between the intelligence community and politicians into the leading element among all the British intelligence agencies. Under New Labour it went from being a body filled with policy-wonks at the bottom of the intelligence pile to an organisation that made intelligence assessments, evaluated what analysts had to say and even produced the infamous government dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The bottom line is that the JIC was elevated and politicised from 1997 onwards – and Scarlett allowed Number 10 to distort intelligence for political reasons, to the detriment of the United Kingdom.
The role of the JIC will be crucial to the Butler findings. David Kay, former head of the coalition’s Iraq Survey Group, has criticised it for failing to adopt a “zero estimate”: instead of starting with a “blank piece of paper” on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, it assumed from the start that Saddam had WMD and was working to build more. Intelligence that Iraq’s WMD capabilities were diminished was ignored to such an extent that the JIC even said Saddam would use chemical weapons if Iraq was invaded. Michael Herman, a former senior GCHQ official who gave evidence to the Butler committee, described the assessment process as “a disaster”.
Scarlett is now a liability for Blair. His recent elevation to MI6 chief is seen by many as a political “thank you” from the Prime Minister. Any criticism of him by Butler would render his new position untenable. If he goes, Blair is damaged for making a foolish, cronyistic appointment; if he stays, Blair will be accused of damaging the lead intelligence service by keeping a lame-duck friend in office.
Sir Richard Dearlove is also in line for a pasting. Under him MI6 was giving the JIC out-of-date intelligence and information gathered from unreliable exiles linked to Ahmed Chalabi’s discredited Iraqi National Congress. MI6 effectively had no informers and agents within Iraq.
The JIC and MI6 both ignored intelligence assessments which pointed towards Saddam having little or no WMD, or towards Iraq not being a threat to the West. They also ignored intelligence from France and Russia – two countries that did have agents inside Iraq – saying Saddam posed a diminishing threat.
Were it not for the US censor’s pen we would probably now know most of the damning evidence against British intelligence, as much of it was contained in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into pre-war intelligence on Iraq, published on Friday. It damned the CIA for overstating the threat from Saddam, but most of its references to UK intelligence matters were blacked out when it was published.
It is known, however, that even the CIA was critical of British intelligence. The agency was particularly disparaging of claims from British intelligence that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger in Africa, cutting a passage from a keynote speech by George Bush in October 2002 which was to read: “The regime has been caught attempting to purchase up to 500 tonnes of uranium oxide from Africa .” One CIA official wrote a memo to the National Security Council (NSC) saying: “We told Congress that the Brits exaggerated this issue.”
The line was dropped from the speech, but what remained points significantly to the way British and American politicians were intent on sexing up what intelligence they could. The same speech saw Bush say: “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Significantly, the Niger/uranium claim did return in Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2003. One CIA analyst told a member of the NSC that to remove all reference “would leave the Brits flapping in the wind”.
The Butler team visited the US to gather evidence and is thought to have been passed an early copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee report some time ago . That report criticised the “group think” that bought into the notion of Iraq possessing WMD without relying on proof , and the Butler inquiry will probably reach much the same conclusion.
Lord Hutton’s much-condemned “whitewash” report in January gave an indicator of this when it said that Scarlett might have been “subconsciously influenced” into making the September 2002 dossier stronger than it should have been. Scarlett, after all, had agreed to requests from Alastair Campbell for the JIC to toughen up the language in the dossier. It is thought that Butler will criticise such abuse and politicisation of intelligence.
The fact the British government backed the war before getting hard facts from MI6 meant intelligence officers had to go running around wildly trying to get information to support this position. As a result, Butler will say, the infamous 45-minute warning was based on vague information and should not have been presented as fact. The information came from a single source. Butler is likely to note that the claim had no caveat attached – and also that Blair asserted in the foreword of the dossier that Iraq’s continued production of WMD was “established beyond doubt”. On Tuesday, Blair told parliament: “I have to accept that we have not found [WMD]; that we may not find them.”
The Butler report might also pack a punch for Campbell, who told the Hutton inquiry that he was asked by Downing Street to bin work on a dossier into “axis of evil” states North Korea, Libya and Iran and to concentrate instead on Iraq. Lord Butler wrote to newspaper editors during his investigations, seemingly hunting for the hand of Campbell at work, asking “whether you or your reporters were briefed by representatives of the government about the dossier … and whether you were guided to report particular aspects, such as the statement that some chemical and biological weapons were deployable by Iraq within 45 minutes. ”
Blair is believed to have been told that the report will not contain a “silver bullet” which will lead to top-level government resignations. Part of Blair’s strategy to offset any criticism will be the announcement tomorrow of a hefty hike in spending on the intelligence services.
Of course, there is also the chance that a lot of the leaks about how severe the Butler report will be could be coming from the government as part of a clever spin campaign. If the report turns out to be only mildly critical, the government will appear to have come out of the experience relatively unscathed.
It is little wonder that the vengeful ex- Cabinet minister Clare Short buys this conspiracy theory. “There is lots of spin going on,” she says. “I don’t think it’s coming from Butler. It looks like it’s coming from Number 10 .”
It has also been rumoured that the report will point to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw over-ruling advice from Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who subsequently resigned as one of the Foreign Office’s most senior legal advisors. Clare Short says: “ Word went out that the attorney- general didn’t think there was legal authority and the military wouldn’t go to fight a war without it … The rumour was that he [Straw] went shopping and found the only international lawyer who thought there was authority.”
Many believe Blair should not escape his own roasting. Former JIC chair Dame Pauline Neville-Jones says the “buck must stop” with the Prime Minister and he should acknowledge his mistakes in the run-up to war. “I don’t think the political layer in any country can escape the consequences of systemic failure,” she has said, adding that Blair is “at least open to the accusation of incompetence”.
Spies on attack as Blair fights for his survival
Brown waits in wings as PM faces toughest weekJames Cusick Westminster Editor
The private war between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will reach its public climax this week as the Prime Minister battles to survive the criticisms of the Butler Inquiry and two by-elections that threaten his hold on the Labour leadership.
Even before facing these tough hurdles, Blair will tonight be accused of misleading MPs and the Hutton Inquiry. The accusations – which highlight a serious attempt to manipulate and politicise intelligence on Iraq – will be shown in a BBC Panorama programme.
In the crucial pre-war Commons debate on Iraq, Blair said that the threat from Iraq was serious and current. John Morrison, the former deputy chief of the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS, part of the Ministry of Defence) says he “could almost hear the collective raspberry going up around Whitehall” when Blair made his comments.
Morrison also said Blair’s public statements on Iraq, prior to the war, went beyond what professional analysts would have concluded from the evidence.
Dr Brian Jones, a retired branch head at the DIS, also claims the Prime Minister misled the Hutton Inquiry into the death of weapons expert David Kelly. Jones said he could not relate to the account given to Hutton by Blair, who told of the “tremendous amount” of information about Saddam’s WMD arsenal that had crossed his desk. Jones said: “No-one on my staff had any visibility of large quantities of intelligence of that sort.”
Damage to Blair’s tough leadership image was inflicted yesterday by suggestions that four cabinet ministers – John Reid, Charles Clarke, Tessa Jowell and Patricia Hewitt – had been so concerned that he was about to quit that they successfully urged him to stay. If these attacks on Blair’s integrity and leadership stamina combine with devastating by- election defeats on Thursday, Gordon Brown’s supporters will press him to begin an immediate campaign to replace Blair .
Sensing the trouble ahead, the four Cabinet members who had mounted the rescue operation engaged in a group denial yesterday that there was ever any prospect of Blair leaving Number 10.
The Prime Minister’s week of survival will begin in earnest on Wednesday with the publication of Lord Butler’s report into the calibre and standard of UK intelligence on Iraq and, crucially, how the government used this intelligence. Leaked sections of the report are said to indicate that the entire legality of the US-led war against Iraq was in doubt until almost the eve of the conflict.
The attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, is said to have bypassed the advice of Foreign Office experts that the war was not legal, and was forced to find an international lawyer in the UK who could deliver the opposite verdict demanded by both the White House and Downing Street.
The way intelligence was “politicised” and marshalled by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) – which reported to, and edited intelligence for Downing Street – is also said to be a process which comes in for heavy criticism by Lord Butler.
Although the White House claims it was given a clean bill of health last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee report which blamed all intelligence failures on the CIA, Blair’s position after Butler’s report might not be so easy. The former head of the JIC, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, said “the buck must stop” with the Prime Minister and that he should now admit his mistakes in the run-up to the war.
The former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said Blair’s response to the Butler report would be as important as its actual findings.
Cook told the BBC: “The Prime Minister needs a catharsis. He needs to say there were mistakes made, but lessons have been learned.”
Regardless of how well Blair handles the criticisms of the report, any boost will be short-lived. On Thursday, the day after Butler, there are two by-elections in Birmingham and Leicester. Both are traditionally safe Labour strongholds. If there is a repeat of last year’s by-election victory by the Liberal Democrats – who took Brent East from Labour – then doubts over Blair’s value as an electoral asset to his party will resurface among many Labour MPs.
One former minister told the Sunday Herald: “If Labour loses any one of these seats, all hell will break loose, and not just among MPs nursing small majorities.
“This is not the time to be losing safe seats, and the message going out to Gordon Brown will be clear – make up your damn mind.”
If Blair chooses to tough it out until the next general election – thought to be planned for spring next year – Brown will be urged by his supporters to rethink what he has already considered, namely the “nuclear option” of offering Blair his resignation.
Ahead of tomorrow’s three-year spending review, focusing on the period 2005 to 2008, Brown has been performing more like a statesman-in- waiting than as a Chancellor limited by his Treasury role.
In the last week Brown has made speeches to the British Council on the “distinctive value of Britishness”; given the Joseph Rowntree lecture, where he pledged to half the number of children suffering “material deprivation”; and told a conference in the Vatican of his financial vision for dealing with Third World debt and Aids.
His image as the “iron Chancellor” was also still in play when he told a CBI dinner that there would no pre-election spending spree.
A former Downing Street aide said: “Brown is clearly trying hard to show he has a vision beyond the Treasury and has the capacity to deliver the big ideas needed by a Prime Minister. That is transparent and obvious.”
11 July 2004