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Blair sexed up the evidence to justify his own decision

To put the blame for war on the intelligence services would be a travesty

David Clark
Tuesday July 13, 2004
The Guardian

On the eve of the publication of Lord Butler's report into the intelligence failure that formed the basis of the government's case for war against Iraq, the demands for answers grow louder and more insistent. How could the intelligence services have been so wrong about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction?

That question is certainly high on the list of issues that need to be resolved if the report is to succeed in drawing a line under the affair. Public confidence in the integrity and competence of our intelligence gathering and assessment process is vital to national security, yet it has never been lower than it is today. The gap between what we were told to expect and the evidence that has emerged on the ground in Iraq is simply too wide to be dismissed as an excusable margin of error. No stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons have been uncovered. The mobile weapons laboratories have turned out to be nothing more than a figment of the imagination. Even evidence of ongoing weapons of mass destruction programmes has proved elusive.

To be quite blunt, the intelligence services were wrong in just about every significant judgment they made. Given that Iraq by that stage had been one of Britain's top intelligence targets for over a decade, their performance can only be described as woefully inadequate. Without thorough-going reform, there is a risk that they will never be believed again. The conse quences of this should not be dismissed lightly. If there is one thing more dangerous than acting on a false alarm, it is the failure to act against a threat that is real. The credibility of British intelligence matters and the Butler report must set out the steps needed to restore it.

But that is not all it must do. A report that ignored the role of politicians and laid all the blame at the door of the intelligence agencies, as the Senate intelligence committee did last week, would be a travesty of justice. The faulty assessments produced by the joint intelligence committee (JIC) were not the only, or even the main, reason for the decision to go to war. For that we must look elsewhere. Consider for a moment one of the government's favourite lines of defence. Tony Blair claims that if his belief that Saddam retained a weapons of mass destruction capability was mistaken, it was one shared by many other world leaders. There is certainly truth in that argument, but it raises the obvious question of why most of them nevertheless opposed America's decision to launch an immediate, pre-emptive invasion. The answer is that the intelligence picture, distorted though it was, simply did not justify it.

What's more, evidence unearthed by the Hutton inquiry reveals that the government knew this perfectly well. An email circulated within Downing Street recorded the horrified response of one official who read an early draft of the September dossier and realised the paucity of the intelligence case for war: "Very long way to go. I think. Think we're in a lot of trouble with this as it now stands." Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, noted in another email that a later draft "does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam". These concerns were also evident in the rather desperate last-minute plea issued by Sir John Scarlett for the intelligence agencies to scrape the bottom of the barrel for anything they might have overlooked.

It was the realisation of how shaky the government's case was that led to the second, more important stage of Britain's intelligence failure on Iraq: the one that became famous over allegations of "sexing up". In part, this involved the systematic filtering out of anything that might point to a conclusion other than the one the government wanted us to reach. At Powell's behest, a key phrase revealing the JIC's assessment that Saddam would use chemical or biological weapons only in self-defence was struck. The observation that he did not have the capability to strike Britain was similarly removed.

At the same time there was intense pressure on the JIC, starting with Alastair Campbell's instruction for it to come up with something "new" and "revelatory". It was in this heightened atmosphere that the notorious 45-minute claim and other intelligence purporting to show that Iraq was continuing to produce chemical and biological weapons was passed on to Downing Street without being properly examined by the intelligence officers best placed to assess it. Much of this is now said to have been withdrawn, although ministers have yet to correct the parliamentary record. It is significant because it was this information that allowed Blair to strengthen the language in the dossier and claim in his foreword that the threat from Saddam was "current and serious".

The government's supporters argue that all Downing Street did was insist that the case against Iraq should be as strong as the JIC was willing to make it. But this misses a rather significant point. Had Blair been genuine in his belief that Iraq posed a serious threat, all he needed to do was publish a declassified version of the intelligence reports on which his conclusions were based. There would have been no need for anything "new" and "revelatory". What had convinced the prime minister ought to have been sufficient to convince the rest of us. It is the very existence of the dossier and the process that led to its publication that exposes the biggest untruth of the whole Iraq saga: the pretence that the decision to go to war was evidence led.

In order to promote a war he had decided to fight with America come what may, the prime minister and his staff took intelligence that was sketchy and circumstantial and transformed it into something that appeared compelling and definitive. He can certainly argue that it was already faulty when it reached him. What he should not be allowed to do is evade responsibility for the way it was embellished once it reached his desk. Without this final step the case for war would have collapsed.

In a strange way, the success of yesterday's spending review, far from diminishing Blair's problem, merely compounds it. All the things that are good about this government are now personally associated with his chancellor, while all the things that are bad about it are associated with him. If Labour loses one or both by-elections on Thursday, there will be little doubt about who is to blame.

The smart money still backs Tony Blair to survive this week and go on to fight the next election. But to do so in the sort of shape that would make it worth his while, he needs to drop his self-righteous pretence that he did nothing wrong over Iraq and show that he has learned from his mistake. If he refuses, the call to back him or sack him will begin to look more like an invitation than a challenge.

David Clark was a special adviser at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001