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Focus: Blair after Butler

How intelligence was bent to one will and purpose

Anthony Sampson assesses the faults of Scarlett and Campbell over Iraq and says both were acting for one man - the Prime Minister

Sunday July 18, 2004
The Observer


It may seem surprising that the intelligence community, after the devastating criticisms in Lord Butler's report, should be relieved by its findings.

But the explanation becomes clear from an analysis of the report, and from intelligence sources. For they show clearly that the blame can be shifted, in each case, to the very top - to the Prime Minister.

John Scarlett

There is no doubt from the report about the shortcomings of John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligent Committee at the time, now promoted to be head of MI6. For it was Scarlett, who acknowledged 'ownership' of the discredited dossier which was used to justify the war, who was prepared to make significant changes, against all the traditions of the integrity of the JIC.

Many senior mandarins believe there is a strong case for Scarlett to resign his new post in MI6, including the outspoken Dame Pauline Nevile-Jones, a previous chair of the JIC. Butler's specific request that Scarlett should not resign - with the mandarin's instinct to defend colleagues - only attracted attention to his vulnerability, and was certainly not at Scarlett's request.

But Scarlett will remain in his job, unlike his CIA opposite number George Tenet; because there is no doubt who was exerting the pressure. It was the Prime Minister, who cannot now easily ask for his resignation.

Alastair Campbell

The man most directly responsible for the distortions of the dossier was Alastair Campbell - whom Butler mentions only once - who defied the traditional constraints about the handling of intelligence.

He described Scarlett as his 'mate', and had a close relationship with him. But we know from the evidence supplied by Lord Hutton how he brought the techniques of the tabloid editor into the presentation of a crucial document which would help determine whether Britain went to war. Any journalist could recognise, in the emails between Campbell and Scarlett, a strong resemblance to the process in tabloid journalism by which a careful reporter is persuaded by superiors to 'firm up' copy, to turn it into a scoop. But in a crucial official document, such a degradation of careful information was shockingly irresponsible and dangerous. It was surprising that Butler did not condemn this importing of tabloid techniques into the dossier which he analysed so carefully.

The extent of Campbell's influence was much clearer in the subsequent 'dodgy' dossier which received much less attention, and which contained a whole section written by Campbell's unit, including the notorious plagiarised thesis plucked from the internet, and doctored to strengthen the case - all presented as an intelligence document. It was, as Jack Straw later admitted, a 'complete Horlicks' but was conveniently forgotten in the subsequent row about the first dossier.

So how was Campbell allowed to wield such extraordinary power in Whitehall, as an ex-tabloid journalist with little experience of intelligence? Because the Government had asked for a special Order in Council, to enable him to give orders to civil servants. It was a much disputed precedent eventually approved by the Secretary of the Cabinet - who was then Sir Robin Butler, now Lord Butler.

But Campbell was largely exonerated from serious blame for misleading parliament, for there was no doubt who he was representing: he was intervening directly on behalf of the Prime Minister.

Tony Blair

It is now much clearer that it was the Prime Minister himself who had initiated all the main steps which led to the war. It was not the intelligence services which persuaded him, but he who needed them to justify the war.

Butler makes quite clear that when Blair was pressing for stronger action against Saddam in the spring of 2002, the move 'was not based on any new development in the current intelligence picture on Iraq'. And he spells out that 'there was no recent intelligence that would itself have given rise to a conclusion that Iraq was of more immediate concern than the activities of some other countries'.

MI6 had been worried about Saddam developing WMDs ever since he invaded Kuwait: Iraq's neighbouring countries were fearful that he would acquire nuclear and chemical weaponry to replace his weakened army, and Mossad, the Israeli secret service, was always warning of the dangers of Saddam. But MI6, with good reason, was more seriously worried about nuclear weapons in Iran or North Korea.

It remains an unsolved mystery as to why Blair, who had no personal experience of the Middle East, became so convinced about the immediate danger of Saddam, and so determined on war, against much advice from diplomats as well as military and political colleagues.

It was not just his desire to please Bush, strong though that was. Blair has described how when he first met Bush in early 2001, months before 11 September, it was he who warned Bush about the twin dangers of WMDs and terrorism. When Blair visited Bush on his Texas ranch in April 2002 some diplomats believe that he was actually stiffening Bush's resolve to go to war, if the UN route failed.

Yet none of the documents quoted by Butler or Hutton reflect that same urgency about Iraq. Instead they show that Number 10 was always making the running, encouraging the JIC to provide judgments which went (as Butler says) to 'the outer limits of the intelligence available'. The crucial dossier was carefully redrafted to satisfy the Prime Minister; and when a precious piece of evidence about the 45-minute weapon was later withdrawn (as we learnt last week) he was not even informed.

Butler, with a mandarin's instinct, naturally avoids any direct criticism of his former master. But his trenchant criticisms about the current style of government - the informal decision-making by a small circle, the bypassing of the Cabinet Secretary, the neglect of cabinet committees - all point to the one man who was responsible for those changes.

And however serious the shortcomings of the intelligence chiefs, they cannot be expected to take the ultimate blame for a war which, as we can now see more clearly after decoding the Butler Report, was brought about by a Prime Minister who was determined to overrule his colleagues.

The WMDs, about which Blair was so confident, may yet exist, buried in the desert. Many intelligence officials now look to the new Iraqi government to continue the search, with more ruthless interrogation and better sources than their own. But their discovery will not contradict the fact that Blair went to war on the basis of evidence which was manipulated, and proved false.

Anthony Sampson's 'Who Runs This Place?' is published by John Murray.


 
 
 
 
 
Letters

Misled up the war path

Monday July 19, 2004
The Guardian


Much as I welcome Geraldine Smith's admission (I was misled into voting for the war, July 17) that as a Labour MP she was misled by the prime minister - and against her better instincts - into voting in favour of war against Iraq, it leaves the poor voter in a quandary. Like millions of others, I have always voted Labour because its candidates tend to feel the same way as I do across a broad range of issues - only more so, which is why they became MPs. So what happens when they get to Westminster?

I knew in the lead-up to the invasion, as did most people I spoke to at the time, that the case for war just did not stack up. Blair could not persuade us, so how did he persuade so many Labour MPs? Nor am I convinced by Smith's solution - for Blair to bow out with dignity. The likely replacements, led by Gordon Brown, either went along with war or did not have the guts to push the case against it.
Bruce Millar
London

So MP Geraldine Smith believes she, along with many other MPs, was misled. What a shame, but by routinely playing "follow my leader" through the voting lobbies they have helped create something dangerously out of control: of cabinet, the parliamentary Labour party or parliament. Acting in good faith is a convenient but unconvincing excuse for the expanding litany of things that Tony got wrong or says he didn't know.

I have little sympathy for the claim "I was misled" - the wisdom of the cautionary approach (acting fully through the UN, allowing the weapons inspectors to finish their work, etc) was too compelling to be turned around by another display of Blair's shining sincerity.
Eddie Dougall
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Did Geraldine Smith seriously think serial offender Blair more trustworthy than the resigning Robin Cook? Had she actually looked at the two dossiers and thought: "There's so much stuff in here that I never knew and which is evidently true; I really must overcome my scruples and vote for illegal invasion?"

While I agree with Smith's conclusion: Blair's been caught out - again - and should go, I also remain certain that the dossiers made not the slightest difference to the outcome (just as UN exercises made no difference to George Bush); anyone who says their vote was swung in favour of invasion by the dossiers is either a liar or a fool.

Oh, and don't hold your breath while waiting for Blair to go. While the Tories' problem is that they always assassinate their leaders, Labour's is that they never do.
David Lewin
Oxford

So Geraldine Smith MP was misled. Well, millions of us were not and we were ignored. We marched and we wrote and all we got was Tony Blair accusing us of being pro-Saddam Hussein, which we were not.

Far from there being intelligence in this government there is an awful lot of naivity and arrogance.
Kathleen O'Neill
Croydon, Surrey

Having read Geraldine Smiths's account of how she was misled into voting for the war on Iraq I would like to suggest a course of action: resignation.

She should resign and stand as an independent "anti-war" candidate and run a negative campaign on Blair's record of deceit. If she is sincere enough to take this course of action I expect there will not be a shortage of volunteer campaigners. Come on, Ms Smith, don't torture your conscience - do something about it.
Barney Clifford
Hessle, E Yorks

 
 

 
 
 
 
 
PM admits graves claim 'untrue'

Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor
Sunday July 18, 2004
The Observer


Downing Street has admitted to The Observer that repeated claims by Tony Blair that '400,000 bodies had been found in Iraqi mass graves' is untrue, and only about 5,000 corpses have so far been uncovered.

The claims by Blair in November and December of last year, were given widespread credence, quoted by MPs and widely published, including in the introduction to a US government pamphlet on Iraq's mass graves.

In that publication - Iraq's Legacy of Terror: Mass Graves produced by USAID, the US government aid distribution agency, Blair is quoted from 20 November last year: 'We've already discovered, just so far, the remains of 400,000 people in mass graves.'

On 14 December Blair repeated the claim in a statement issued by Downing Street in response to the arrest of Saddam Hussein and posted on the Labour party website that: 'The remains of 400,000 human beings [have] already [been] found in mass graves.'

The admission that the figure has been hugely inflated follows a week in which Blair accepted responsibility for charges in the Butler report over the way in which Downing Street pushed intelligence reports 'to the outer limits' in the case for the threat posed by Iraq.

Downing Street's admission comes amid growing questions over precisely how many perished under Saddam's three decades of terror, and the location of the bodies of the dead.

The Baathist regime was responsible for massive human rights abuses and murder on a large scale - not least in well-documented campaigns including the gassing of Halabja, the al-Anfal campaign against Kurdish villages and the brutal repression of the Shia uprising - but serious questions are now emerging about the scale of Saddam Hussein's murders.

It comes amid inflation from an estimate by Human Rights Watch in May 2003 of 290,000 'missing' to the latest claims by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, that one million are missing.

At the heart of the questions are the numbers so far identified in Iraq's graves. Of 270 suspected grave sites identified in the last year, 55 have now been examined, revealing, according to the best estimates that The Observer has been able to obtain, around 5,000 bodies. Forensic examination of grave sites has been hampered by lack of security in Iraq, amid widespread complaints by human rights organisations that until recently the graves have not been secured and protected.

While some sites have contained hundreds of bodies - including a series around the town of Hilla and another near the Saudi border - others have contained no more than a dozen.

And while few have any doubts that Saddam's regime was responsible for serious crimes against humanity, the exact scale of those crimes has become increasingly politicised in both Washington and London as it has become clearer that the case against Iraq for retention of weapons of mass destruction has faded.

The USAID website, which quotes Blair's 400,000 assertion, states: 'If these numbers prove accurate, they represent a crime against humanity surpassed only by the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Pol Pot's Cambodian killing fields in the 1970s, and the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.'

It is an issue that Human Rights Watch was acutely aware of when it compiled its own pre-invasion research - admitting that it had to reduce estimates for the al-Anfal campaign produced by Kurds by over a third, as they believed the numbers they had been given were inflated.

Hania Mufti, one of the researchers that produced that estimate, said: 'Our estimates were based on estimates. The eventual figure was based in part on circumstantial information gathered over the years.'

A further difficulty, according to Inforce, a group of British forensic experts in mass grave sites based at Bournemouth University who visited Iraq last year, was in the constant over-estimation of site sizes by Iraqis they met. 'Witnesses were often likely to have unrealistic ideas of the numbers of people in grave areas that they knew about,' said Jonathan Forrest.

'Local people would tell us of 10,000s of people buried at single grave sites and when we would get there they would be in multiple hundreds.'

A Downing Street spokesman said: 'While experts may disagree on the exact figures, human rights groups, governments and politicians across the world have no doubt that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and their remains are buried in sites throughout Iraq.'

 
 
 

 
 
 

We are right to keep on questioning Blair

Sir: John Rentoul complains that "liberal, middle-class journalists" and the media in general are out to "get" Blair over the Iraq invasion, come what may (16 July). Lord Butler, he claims, has thwarted them, as Hutton did.

Mr Rentoul claims that Blair did not take us to war on a false premise - he did it, he says, because Saddam Hussein was in material breach of UN resolutions, missing the point that it is not for individual members of the UN Security Council to take it upon themselves to enforce UN resolutions.

Lord Butler says that Blair left out the caveats and qualifications that the intelligence services included in their reports to him and the Cabinet in the two dossiers and his statements to Parliament. Yet in the same report Butler says the PM acted in good faith. Closer inspection of Butler reveals that the processes of government were turned into something more akin to a banana republic than an advanced Western democracy. You do not have to be a liberal, middle-class journalist to find these contradictions frustrating and want to "get" the man responsible for it all.

Iraq has been turned from a country where al-Qa'ida could not operate into one where it is free to roam. The Middle East and the wider world is consequently less safe. The UK's relations with Europe's great powers and the UN have been gravely damaged. Our Prime Minister clearly mislead Parliament and the country at large in his determination to take the UK into a war in which British service personnel have been killed and wounded, and well over 10,000 citizens of a foreign country have been killed and countless more maimed, yet he continues in office. How does Mr Rentoul expect the media and the country at large to react?

JAMES GIBSON-WATT
Hay-on-Wye, Powys

Sir: John Rentoul's article demonstrates exactly the mindset which is bringing the governance and reputation of our country into disrepute.

I find his suggestion that getting Blair "is the only story they [the British media] really want" disrespectful to the fact that our Prime Minister entered us into a war in which tens of thousands of lives have been lost, without yet fully justifying the reason for doing so. Any media who would not be persistent in questioning a Prime Minister on such a key public interest issue where opinion is divided would be execrable.

Yet Mr Rentoul's attitude is symptomatic of what is becoming the most serious aspect of the whole affair. Bare facts have been uncovered that cast serious doubt on the Prime Minister's judgement to sacrifice life in Iraq at that time.

But our ongoing inability to officially uncover the key detail and assign specific responsibility to settle this issue is tarnishing our country's reputation. The Government wants us to accept Butler as the last word, and asks us to move on as if it is those still in pursuit of the whole truth who are displaying unnecessary "obstinacy". This is shameful.

It may now be down to the electorate to bring the ultimate rebuke. The by-elections give hope that this issue will not be forgotten, but whatever transpires from now it is unforgivable that those involved in these matters have shirked such a great responsibility.

ASHLEY KNIGHT
Southampton

Sir: That the Government lied to us to justify the war in Iraq is no longer in dispute. The shocking thing to me is that there is no consensus that this matters.

John Rentoul and several letter writers argue that people who believe such public dishonesty does matter are opportunists who are merely seizing on the escalating revelations to serve their pre-existing agendas. The implication is that nobody is really shocked or outraged by the principles at all, and that everyone is just as cynical as everyone else.

This is not a game of football; it is not a contest between card-carrying lefties and pro-war righties, between single-issue zealots of the pro-Blair and anti-Blair camps, or between any other pairs of polarised groups. Those who treat the huge historical issue of the lead-up to the war in Iraq in such simplistic, childlike terms are wrong.

By their public proclamation of their inability to make the right judgement on issues of principle they condemn themselves to the contempt of ordinary people who, to a very large extent, can make valid judgements on these issues.

JAMES A R WILLIS
Alton, Hampshire

Sir: The Prime Minister and John Scarlett acted in good faith. So did Andrew Gilligan, Greg Dyke, Gavyn Davies and David Westwood.

Is it then only when your misjudgement kills tens of thousands of men, women and children that you get to keep your job?

ROSEMARY GORDON
Bristol

Sir: With reference to Trevor Pateman's letter (16 July), surely T S Eliot had it right when he wrote (in Murder in the Cathedral) "the last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason."

KATE HARWOOD
Harpenden, Hertfordshire

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

Blair: the attacks mount up

By Kim Sengupta and Nigel Morris

19 July 2004

Tony Blair is facing fierce and sustained attacks over Iraq from opposition parties, weapons inspectors and a former intelligence chief as he prepares for a crucial Commons debate on the Butler report.

The Prime Minister was condemned yesterday by the former chief of US weapons inspections in Iraq for going to war on flawed evidence. David Kay, handpicked by the CIA to find Saddam Hussein's arsenal, said Mr Blair and President George Bush should have known that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction.

Hans Blix, the UN weapons inspector, stirred the row by describing Mr Blair's haste to war as an "error of judgement" while a former intelligence chief in Britain suggested that the evidence given to the Hutton inquiry by John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, had been "economical with the truth".

Michael Ancram, the Tory deputy leader, said that Mr Blair still had difficult questions to answer. If he did not address them in tomorrow's debate, he should "consider his position", he added. The Liberal Democrats also cranked up the pressure in the run-up to the criticial debate in the Commons.

Bill Clinton, the former US president, also intervened in the debate saying that intelligence reports he had seen from 1992 to 2000, during his period in office, did not suggest Saddam posed an imminent threat.

Last week, the Butler committee concluded the bulk of the intelligence in the September 2002 dossier was old, and almost all of the so-called new intelligence proved untrustworthy.

Mr Kay insisted there was no basis for Mr Blair to claim that Iraq had WMD or presented an imminent threat which required an invasion. The weapons inspector maintained that Mr Blair and Mr Bush had an agenda for war and were thus prepared to ignore the flaws in the WMD argument.

"I think the Prime Minister ... should have been able to tell before the war that the evidence did not exist for drawing the conclusion that Iraq presented a clear, present and imminent threat on the basis of existing weapons of mass destruction," he said. Mr Bush and Mr Blair had a "multitude" of other reasons for going to war, he added.

The Iraq Survey Group chief was backed by Mr Blix, who said Mr Blair was not "thinking with a sufficiently critical mind" when it came to judging the WMD issue. Asked on the Jonathan Dimbleby programme on ITV if Mr Blair was "on a witch hunt" and whether this was a "really important failure of political and intellectual judgement", Mr Blix replied: "I think there was an error of judgement."

Mr Scarlett, came under attack from one of his predecessors, Sir Paul Lever, over his failure to tell the Hutton inquiry that key evidence claiming Iraq had a WMD programme had been withdrawn by MI6. Sir Paul said Mr Scarlett had been "economical with the truth", adding: "I say this with sadness as a former chairman, the JIC has taken a knock."

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, declared that he would not have supported the Government in the vote on the eve of the invasion of Iraq if he had known the intelligence was so flawed. Tim Yeo, a shadow cabinet member, said: "It is a dangerous situation to have a prime minister who is now so distrusted by the public because he has been caught actually misleading people about the war."

The Government accused the Tories and Mr Howard of opportunism. Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, said: "It seems to me that he lacks any credibility whatsoever."

There was no clear response to a report that Downing Street managed to water down criticism in the Butler report, allowing the Prime Minister to say he acted in good faith.

The Tories and the Liberal Democrats warned that Mr Blair would face torrid questions at the Commons debate, especially about the failure of government witnesses to tell Lord Hutton that the key "intelligence" about Iraq's supposed WMD had been withdrawn by MI6 as untrustworthy.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said Mr Blair's fate would depend on the credibility of his answers.


 
 
 

Clare Short: There was never an honest debate in cabinet

Most ministers saw little intelligence and knew only what they read in the press

19 July 2004

The Prime Minister and those who speak for him keep telling us that the Butler report found that the prime minister acted in "good faith'' over Iraq. The report does not say this but Lord Butler said it at his press conference.

It's worth asking what good faith means. I think it means that a person was convinced that what they were doing was right. It does not mean they were right or wise or accurate in their claims. We might also ask, is it possible to lie in good faith?

When he made his statement on the Butler report to the House of Commons, the Prime Minister reiterated the twin arguments he now uses to justify his Iraq policy. The first being that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. The second that, after 11 September, there was a greatly increased danger that WMDs and terrorism would come together and he therefore had to act.

I believe the Prime Minister holds both these views in good faith. But, on both, he is wrong. The people of Iraq are overwhelmingly glad that Saddam Hussein has gone but, by big majorities, say their lives are now worse. It is also widely acknowledged at al-Qa'ida is much strengthened, the Middle East angrier and more unstable and as many as 7,000 Iraqi soldiers, 13,000 civilians and 1,000 coalition troops have so far lost their lives.

The claim that the war stopped WMD and terrorism coming together is more extraordinary. There were of course no WMDs used in the events of 11 September 2001. There is evidence that Osama bin Laden has shown an interest in obtaining chemical, biological and nuclear expertise. The Butler report summarises the evidence and concludes that there is no evidence that he has capability. But it also points out that the Joint Intelligence Committee made it clear that, although there had been contacts between al-Qa'ida and the Iraqi regime, there was no evidence of co-operation. Thus, the Prime Minister may have believed in good faith that he was preventing WMDs and terrorism coming together but such a belief has no basis in reality.

The report looks into the use of intelligence by the Attorney General to decide that there was legal authority for war. It concludes that there was no reliance on intelligence and that what Lord Goldsmith did was "require the Prime Minister, in the absence of a further United Nations Security Council resolution, to be satisfied that there were strong factual grounds for concluding that Iraq had failed to take the final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations ... and that it was possible to demonstrate hard evidence of non-compliance and non-cooperation with the requirements of UN Security Council resolution 1441''.

After negotiations on a further Security Council resolution broke down, the Attorney General wrote to the PM seeking confirmation that it was unequivocally the Prime Minister's view that Iraq was in breach of resolution 1441. The Prime Minister, without consulting the Cabinet, confirmed that this was his view shortly after Dr Blix had destroyed more than 70 ballistic missiles and reported improved co-operation from the Iraqi regime.

The Prime Minister also misled his Cabinet, Parliament and country in his claim that the French said they would veto any second resolution. In fact, Dr Blix had asked for more time and we now know that President Chirac and other Security Council members had made it clear that, if Dr Blix failed, it would be necessary to authorise war. Presumably, Lord Butler would argue that the Prime Minister engaged in this deception in good faith.

When Lord Butler asked who was responsible, he said it was a collective failure. Yet the report draws attention to the Prime Minister's very informal style of decision-making. It tells us there were papers written to inform cabinet discussion that were not circulated, therefore cabinet members were unable to take advice or reflect on issues in advance. However, we are told that the Cabinet discussed Iraq on 24 occasions. But most members of the Cabinet saw little intelligence, read no papers and knew only what they read in the press.

Mr Blair raised Iraq after the summer recess of 2002 at every cabinet meeting. He would start by saying a few words, inviting Jack Straw or Geoff Hoon to speak and then intervening repeatedly to inform the Cabinet of developments. Their advice was never sought. They were kept informed and most were willing to go along with the Prime Minister but there was no collective decision which was thrashed out in honest debate and to which the Cabinet then adhered.

In fact, since 1997, there has not been cabinet government in Britain. Power is centralised around the Prime Minister's informal entourage and patronage is used ruthlessly to keep people in line. The Prime Minister does not hold himself responsible to Cabinet or Parliament but to the media, which is why Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson have been so powerful.

Under the Blair regime, much more than under Margaret Thatcher, British constitutional arrangements are crumbling. The votes of one in four of the people in the 2001 election produced a majority of 64 per cent in the Commons. This means almost anything can be rammed through the Commons and the only resistance comes from the House of Lords. Power has been sucked into No 10 and policy is driven by headline-grabbing announcements. It means that checks and balances have broken down, and that leads to ill-considered policy - most tragically in Tony Blair's policy towards Iraq.

The author was international development secretary, 1997-2003, when she resigned from the Government.