Blair hit by new leak of secret war planMichael Smith
A SECRET document from the heart of government reveals today that Tony Blair privately committed Britain to war with Iraq and then set out to lure Saddam Hussein into providing the legal justification. The Downing Street minutes, headed “Secret and strictly personal — UK eyes only”, detail one of the most important meetings ahead of the invasion.
It was chaired by the prime minister and attended by his inner circle. The document reveals Blair backed “regime change” by force from the outset, despite warnings from Lord Goldsmith, the attorney-general, that such action could be illegal.
The minutes, published by The Sunday Times today, begins with the warning: “This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. The paper should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know.” It records a meeting in July 2002, attended by military and intelligence chiefs, at which Blair discussed military options having already committed himself to supporting President George Bush’s plans for ousting Saddam.
“If the political context were right, people would support regime change,” said Blair. He added that the key issues were “whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan space to work”.
The political strategy proved to be arguing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) posed such a threat that military action had to be taken. However, at the July meeting Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, said the case for war was “thin” as “Saddam was not threatening his neighbours and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran”.
Straw suggested they should “work up” an ultimatum about weapons inspectors that would “help with the legal justification”. Blair is recorded as saying that “it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors”.
A separate secret briefing for the meeting said Britain and America had to “create” conditions to justify a war.
The papers, the second sensitive leak close to the election, appear to be an attempt by disaffected Whitehall insiders to attack Blair’s integrity. They are likely to fuel claims he misled the country on Iraq.
One reason for the secrecy is that the minutes record discussion of US plans for invasion; another is that at the time Blair had given no indication that plans were so advanced.
He had not revealed to MPs or the public that in April 2002 he had told Bush “the UK would support US military action to bring about regime change”, as recorded in the Foreign Office briefing paper. Both before and after the July meeting Blair insisted in public no decision had been made.
The July meeting was later mentioned by Lord Butler in his report on the use of intelligence on WMD as a “key stage” in the road to war; but its details have never been revealed until now.
The minutes show Goldsmith warned Blair eight months before war started on March 19, 2003 that finding legal justification would be “difficult”. The attorney-general only ruled unambiguously war was lawful a few days before the war started after Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the defence staff, demanded unequivocal written confirmation.
Boyce was never shown Goldsmith’s more equivocal advice to Blair of March 7, 2003, and says today ministers failed to give him protection from prosecution at the International Criminal Court. “I have always been troubled by the ICC,” he says, adding that if British servicemen are put on trial, ministers should be “brought into the frame as well”. Asked if that should include Blair and Goldsmith, he tells The Observer: “Too bloody right.”
Sir Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said the leaked minute showed Blair had “agreed to an illegal regime change with the Bush administration. It set out to create the justification for going to war. It was to be war by any means.”
Downing Street claimed the document contained “nothing new”.
The secret Downing Street memo
SECRET AND STRICTLY PERSONAL - UK EYES ONLY
From: Matthew Rycroft
Date: 23 July 2002
S 195 /02
cc: Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Attorney-General, Sir Richard Wilson, John Scarlett, Francis Richards, CDS, C, Jonathan Powell, Sally Morgan, Alastair Campbell
IRAQ: PRIME MINISTER'S MEETING, 23 JULY
Copy addressees and you met the Prime Minister on 23 July to discuss Iraq.
This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. It should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know its contents.
John Scarlett summarised the intelligence and latest JIC assessment. Saddam's regime was tough and based on extreme fear. The only way to overthrow it was likely to be by massive military action. Saddam was worried and expected an attack, probably by air and land, but he was not convinced that it would be immediate or overwhelming. His regime expected their neighbours to line up with the US. Saddam knew that regular army morale was poor. Real support for Saddam among the public was probably narrowly based.
C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.
CDS said that military planners would brief CENTCOM on 1-2 August, Rumsfeld on 3 August and Bush on 4 August.
The two broad US options were:
(a) Generated Start. A slow build-up of 250,000 US troops, a short (72 hour) air campaign, then a move up to Baghdad from the south. Lead time of 90 days (30 days preparation plus 60 days deployment to Kuwait).
(b) Running Start. Use forces already in theatre (3 x 6,000), continuous air campaign, initiated by an Iraqi casus belli. Total lead time of 60 days with the air campaign beginning even earlier. A hazardous option.
The US saw the UK (and Kuwait) as essential, with basing in Diego Garcia and Cyprus critical for either option. Turkey and other Gulf states were also important, but less vital. The three main options for UK involvement were:
(i) Basing in Diego Garcia and Cyprus, plus three SF squadrons.
(ii) As above, with maritime and air assets in addition.
(iii) As above, plus a land contribution of up to 40,000, perhaps with a discrete role in Northern Iraq entering from Turkey, tying down two Iraqi divisions.
The Defence Secretary said that the US had already begun "spikes of activity" to put pressure on the regime. No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.
The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.
The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change.
The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD. There were different strategies for dealing with Libya and Iran. If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.
On the first, CDS said that we did not know yet if the US battleplan was workable. The military were continuing to ask lots of questions.
For instance, what were the consequences, if Saddam used WMD on day one, or if Baghdad did not collapse and urban warfighting began? You said that Saddam could also use his WMD on Kuwait. Or on Israel, added the Defence Secretary.
The Foreign Secretary thought the US would not go ahead with a military plan unless convinced that it was a winning strategy. On this, US and UK interests converged. But on the political strategy, there could be US/UK differences. Despite US resistance, we should explore discreetly the ultimatum. Saddam would continue to play hard-ball with the UN.
John Scarlett assessed that Saddam would allow the inspectors back in only when he thought the threat of military action was real.
The Defence Secretary said that if the Prime Minister wanted UK military involvement, he would need to decide this early. He cautioned that many in the US did not think it worth going down the ultimatum route. It would be important for the Prime Minister to set out the political context to Bush.
(a) We should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action. But we needed a fuller picture of US planning before we could take any firm decisions. CDS should tell the US military that we were considering a range of options.
(b) The Prime Minister would revert on the question of whether funds could be spent in preparation for this operation.
(c) CDS would send the Prime Minister full details of the proposed military campaign and possible UK contributions by the end of the week.
(d) The Foreign Secretary would send the Prime Minister the background on the UN inspectors, and discreetly work up the ultimatum to Saddam.
He would also send the Prime Minister advice on the positions of countries in the region especially Turkey, and of the key EU member states.
(e) John Scarlett would send the Prime Minister a full intelligence update.
(f) We must not ignore the legal issues: the Attorney-General would consider legal advice with FCO/MOD legal advisers.
(I have written separately to commission this follow-up work.)
(Rycroft was a Downing Street foreign policy aide)