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Butler's Dilemma: Lord Butler's Inquiry and the Re-Assessment of Intelligence on Iraq's WMD

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The Whitewash Blues

On 14 July, Lord Butler of Brockwell will deliver his report on the intelligence that contributed to the decision to go to war in Iraq. It follows close on the heels of the Hutton Inquiry. Butler, however is likely to produce far more important conclusions than those reached by his distinguished predecessor because they will have to do with the future working of the British intelligence services and their relationship with the Government, rather than the governments presentation of intelligence product to a public audience or whether the BBC's journalism was faulty.

The need to undertake this inquiry is driven by the apparent failure of the intelligence services to provide a correct assessment of Iraqi capabilities in terms of so-called 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' (WMD). National intelligence services - and not just those of the coalition member states - and independent think tanks appear to have been convinced that the secretive and brutally authoritarian Ba'athist regime in Iraq had been successfully by-passing international sanctions after the 1998 expulsion of UN inspectors and had moved substantially along the route to restoring its WMD capabilities in terms of research and development, production and the stockpiling of weapons and 'weaponisable' chemical and biological warfare agents. In the UK in particular, the assessment of Iraqi WMD capabilities served as the prime justification for a succession of decisions and actions that led to the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003. Apart from the obvious unpopularity of the war amongst important sections of the electorate and Britain's political class, and the bitter conflict between the diplomatic and intelligence communities as to its necessity, and apart from the costly and bloody subsequent occupation, this justification for the war has come under acute scrutiny because of the apparent failure to locate the expected stockpiles of WMDs. This point has been forcibly made by Sir Jeremy Greenstock in an interview with The Times on 5 July 2004.

When we examined the management of British intelligence in the light of evidence presented to the Hutton Inquiry (Glees & Davies, 2004), we suggested that it showed clearly that the failure to find WMD in Iraq six months after Saddam was toppled was 'a failure of intelligence, not of Government'. Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had not been guilty of inventing intelligence, as had been alleged, to support a policy decision (to attack Iraq) on which he had already made up his mind. We did, however, argue that both Blair and the intelligence services had made serious mistakes over the publication of the September 2002 Dossier. To have instructed his political officials from Downing Street to interface directly with intelligence officials in the JIC over the compilation of the September 2002 Dossier on Iraq could have contaminated the intelligence product. There were other errors as well including the actual publishing of top secret materials and we concluded they had all constituted 'a failure of Government, and not intelligence'.

Where Lord Hutton's Inquiry investigated the relationship of Blair's Government to the intelligence community in the context of the claim that the Government had invented or falsified intelligence, Lord Butler's Inquiry was established as a direct result of two of Hutton's most critical verdicts and will have exploited similar areas of evidence.

The first was that the relationship between John Scarlett, a former leading SIS officer and then chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (the JIC) and Alastair Campbell (the Head of Government Communications) had been more close than was wise. This, in Hutton's view, raised the possibility that John Scarlett, had 'subconsciously' come under the influence of Alastair Campbell, providing Campbell with all the arguments to support an attack on Iraq without failing to offer any which might undermine it.

The second was that whilst it was not his, Hutton's, remit to investigate whether the intelligence that was passed to the Government in the run-up to the attack on Iraq was 'reliable', he did indicate that this was a matter which did required further investigation. It is therefore not surprising that the Prime Minister felt obliged to launch a further inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the attack on Iraq.

Despite the genuine critical content of the Hutton inquiry, and its transparently rigorous methodology, Lord Hutton was immediately attacked as doing a whitewash on the unreasonable grounds that people did not like his conclusions, no matter how much they agreed with his methods which led him to that conclusion. Likewise, Lord Butler is also likely to be the subject of similar accusations, and for very similar reasons. As a former Civil Servant, Lord Butler will most likely interpret his brief with almost pedantic precision and narrowness, and will in all likelihood frame his conclusions along similar lines, much as did Lord Hutton for legalistic reasons.

The sweeping condemnations and sententious language that characterised the recent Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on pre-war intelligence in Iraq in the United States (Senate, 2004) are singularly unlikely. We are more likely to see a careful, Civil Service 'middle path' which will not say what the more severe opponents of the war might wish to head. Ironically, even if Lord Butler were to take one of two extreme positions, i.e. that either the intelligence community had performed entirely to standard and that the politicians were entirely to blame, or that the politicians had done all they could with bad reporting from an incompetent intelligence community, he would still probably be accused of doing a whitewash. If the intelligence community is found entirely at fault, then critics of the government will conclude that the intelligence community has been made a scapegoat. Alternatively, were the politicians found to have manipulated and misused the intelligence community and its product, critics of the intelligence services on the anti-establishment left and libertarian right alike will conclude that the report is a cover up by a secretive Civil Servant protecting fellow secretive Civil Servants. As a result, despite leaked suggestions that Lord Butler is concerned that he too will be accused of a whitewash like Lord Hutton, it seems inevitable that this will be the case. It is the position of BCISS, therefore, that the consideration of whitewash accusations should be treated as an irrelevance by Lord Butler. Freedom from such a concern would give the inquiry greater freedom to reach independent and objective judgements about the intelligence situation prior to the invasion of Iraq.

This report will examine the alternative possible judgements that could be drawn from the evidence, identify the intelligence issues that Lord Butler must examine, and finally present and evaluate a number of policy options - the BCISS recommendations - that might be considered to try and address the faults in the UK intelligence system that the inquiry seems likely to identify.

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