MI6 distances itself from 45-minute weapons claim
Agency backtracks ahead of expected criticism in Butler report
Monday July 12, 2004
MI6 is playing down its claim - seized on by the government before the invasion of Iraq - that Saddam Hussein's forces could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes, intelligence sources have told the Guardian.
MI6 is distancing itself from the notorious claim as Lord Butler is expected to criticise the agency, along with Whitehall's joint intelligence committee, and Downing Street, in his long-awaited report to be published on Wednesday.
Lord Butler and his team of privy counsellors are known to be concerned about how flawed intelligence and politically inspired analysis - rather than facts - were used to back up the case for military action.
Downing Street - as well as the country's spymasters - was showing signs of growing nervousness as two former senior defence intelligence officers last night joined the fray, questioning assertions made by Tony Blair about Iraq's weapons programme to MPs and at the Hutton inquiry.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, appeared to attach great importance to the 45-minute claim, which appeared, without any qualification, four times in the government's Iraqi weapons dossier published in September 2002.
He told the Hutton inquiry that it came from "an established and reliable source ... a senior Iraqi military officer". Yet intelligence officials now admit there was little new in the claim and that it was "not surprising". They say the 45-minute claim could have been deduced from what was known about Iraqi military capabilities in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.
In a little-noticed passage, the parliamentary intelligence and security committee noted in a report published after the invasion of Iraq that the claim "added nothing fundamentally new to the UK's assessment of the Iraqi battlefield capability".
However, the 45-minute claim gained added significance before the war as it was used to bolster the assertion that Iraq "has continued to produce chemical and biological agents".
That assertion, of which there is no evidence, was described in the dossier as "recent intelligence". This was wrong, intelligence officials now say. But it was backed up at the time by John Scarlett, head of Whitehall's joint intelligence committee, and subsequently repeated by Mr Blair.
The 45-minute claim is believed to be among the intelligence referred to in last night's BBC Panorama programme as having been "withdrawn" by MI6.
Brian Jones, a former defence intelligence official, told the programme, A Failure of Intelligence, he was "confused" and "couldn't relate to" Mr Blair's evidence to Hutton, notably the reference to a "tremendous amount" of information about Iraq's WMD programme.
"Certainly no one on my staff had any visibility of large quantities of intelligence," said Dr Jones, whose questioning, and that of his colleagues, about the accuracy of the dossier as it was being drawn up was ignored by more senior officials.
John Morrison, former deputy head of the defence intelligence staff, told the programme that when Mr Blair told MPs the threat from Iraq was "current and serious" he could "almost hear the collective raspberry going up around Whitehall".
He added that Downing Street's last-minute call for more intelligence to put in the dossier reeked of "scraping the barrel".
Mr Morrison also referred to operation Desert Fox, the three-day bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998. Defence intelligence officers felt pressured after the operation to sign up to the claim that targets actively involved in WMD production had been hit in the strikes when they were not certain that was the case, he said.
Blair and Scarlett told me Iraq had no usable weapons
This is the most extraordinary failure in the history of British intelligence
Monday July 12, 2004
It seems almost cruel to remind those who sold the case for the Iraq war of what they claimed at the time. But it is necessary, because they appear to be forgetting it themselves. President Bush was definite and apocalyptic: "Saddam is building and hiding weapons that could enable him to intimidate the civilised world." Donald Rumsfeld went one better: "We know where they are." On the eve of war, Tony Blair was equally specific that Saddam Hussein had the real thing: "Saddam has chemical and biological weapons." At the last minute, the title of the September dossier was changed from Saddam's Programme for Weapons of Mass Destruction to Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction to convince the reader that the weapons already existed.
Now Tony Blair tells us that he hopes to come up with not actual weapons but evidence of Saddam's intentions to develop weapon programmes. We always knew that left to himself Saddam would try to acquire any weapon system going. That, after all, is why the west put in place a strategy of containment based on a mix of sanctions and UN inspections to frustrate his intentions. We now know that containment was an unqualified success in denying Saddam a single weapon of mass destruction.
The case that George Bush and Tony Blair made for war was that containment had failed and that we must launch a pre-emptive strike before Saddam used his imaginary weapons. Indeed, the claim that Saddam already had weapons of mass destruction ready for use was central to their argument that military action must be taken urgently. As Donald Rumsfeld warned in alarmist terms, "within a week, or a month, Saddam could give his WMD to al-Qaida".
Lord Hutton was factually correct to acquit Tony Blair of lying over the intelligence on Saddam's weapons. I never imagined that Downing Street would have committed itself to a flat untruth. But neither were they candid with the British public, as the evidence paraded before the Hutton inquiry copiously demonstrated. Nor did Downing Street reveal the unfolding intelligence which cast doubt on the September dossier. Indeed, it was not until a year after the war that the government admitted a Joint Intelligence Committee assessment had warned that "intelligence on the timing of when Iraq might use CBW [chemical and biological weapons] was inconsistent and that the intelligence on deployment was sparse".
This revised assessment was dramatically different from the September claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction ready for firing in 45 minutes, but it was not shared with parliament before the vote on war. The intelligence agencies had good reason to doubt their own claims before the invasion because the leads they kept feeding the UN inspectors kept drawing a blank. Hans Blix has since observed: "This shocked me. If this was the best [intelligence], what was the rest?"
If Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, there was no urgent need to invade Iraq. George Bush and Tony Blair could have given Hans Blix the extra few months for which he pleaded to finish his job and prove Saddam was no threat. What created real urgency in Washington to start the invasion may have been the dawning realisation that Hans Blix was about to remove their pretext for war.
Unfortunately for Downing Street, the one-dimensional endorsement of the government case by the Hutton report encouraged it to be triumphant when it would have been wiser to have been conciliatory. That hubris may explain why in the Commons debate on the report Tony Blair stumbled into fresh controversy by letting slip that he had never realised before the war that the chemical weapons described as ready at 45-minutes notice in the September dossier were only battlefield munitions and not missiles.
I was astonished by his reply as I had been briefed that Saddam's weapons were only battlefield ones and I could not conceive that the prime minister had been given a different version.
My briefing took place in February at my residence at Carlton Gardens, where I was visited by John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. We spoke for almost an hour and - as always - I found him professional, dispassionate and frank in his replies. When I put to him my conclusion that Saddam had no long-range weapons of mass destruction but may have battlefield chemical weapons, he readily agreed.
When I asked him why we believed Saddam would not use these weapons against our troops on the battlefields, he surprised me by claiming that, in order to evade detection by the UN inspectors, Saddam had taken apart the shells and dispersed them -with the result that it would be difficult to deploy them under attack. Not only did Saddam have no weapons of mass destruction in the real meaning of that phrase, neither did he have usable battlefield weapons.
I put these points to the prime minister a couple of weeks later. The exchange is recorded in my diary on March 5 2003. Tony Blair gave me the same reply as John Scarlett, that the battlefield weapons had been disassembled and stored separately. I was therefore mystified a year later to hear him say he had never understood that the intelligence agencies did not believe Saddam had long-range weapons of mass destruction.
I have been told that Tony Blair does not recall me telling him that Saddam had no long-range weapons. But did nobody else tell him? How often did he meet before the war with the chief of defence staff, who would certainly have known the weapons the enemy was believed to possess? Why did Tony Blair himself never ask John Scarlett whether he was talking about long-range or battlefield weapons?
Given that the prime minister was justifying war to the nation on the grounds that Saddam was a serious threat to British interests, he showed a surprising lack of curiosity as to what that threat actually was. We are asked to accept that from September to March the prime minister was allowed to think that Saddam had long-range chemical weapons, while the intelligence agencies assessed he had only battlefield weapons, despite the Joint Intelligence Committee sending to Downing Street three separate assessments on Saddam's weapons capacity. This must represent the most extraordinary failure of communication in the history of the British intelligence agencies.
· Robin Cook was foreign secretary 1997-2001 and leader of the House of Commons 2001-03. This is an edited extract from the new and updated paperback edition of his Point of Departure, published by Pocket Books on July 29. To order a copy for £7.99, p&p free, call the Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875