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

Page 3 of 10

Lord Butler Walks the Cat Back[1]

It is essential to take as one's point of departure the exact brief presented to Lord Butler. This was:

'to investigate the accuracy of intelligence on WMD to March 2003 and to examine any discrepancies between the intelligence gathered, evaluated and used by the Government before the conflict and between that intelligence and what has been discovered by the Iraq Survey Group since the end of the conflict'.

There are two items that must be kept in mind when examining this brief. The first is that it is not concerned with the public use of intelligence by the government in either of its published dossiers prior to the invasion of Iraq. The second point is that the inquiry is instructed to take the findings of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) as its standard of measure against which to assess the quality of UK intelligence prior to the invasion. The significance of the first is that, as a Civil Servant, Lord Butler will probably interpret his brief in the most precise appropriate way, much as did Lord Hutton regarding the side-issues surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly. As a result, a repeat engagement concerning the rights and wrongs of using intelligence information for public persuasion in the published dossiers is highly unlikely. And the second point is important because the ISG has not yet issued a final report, and is experiencing significant difficulties and immediate danger undertaking its inquiries in Iraq. However, it is, in fact, a myth that the ISG has found no evidence of WMD at all. What it has found is substantial evidence of WMD development programmes and preparations for an aggressive restart of WMD production once sanctions were lifted (Kay, 2003; see also Appendix B). As a result, the actual findings against which Lord Butler will be assessing British intelligence will not be a complete absence of WMD but, rather, substantial evidence of WMD research and development efforts but not of any discovered stockpiles of ready-to-use weapons.

There exist only a very small number of alternative possible conclusions Lord Butler and his team can reach. In trying to diagnose any failure of intelligence it is essential to bear in mind that intelligence is not about whether or not one has complete information; the purpose of intelligence is to acquire fragments of information where otherwise there would be none. One rarely, if ever, has all of the pieces of the proverbial jigsaw puzzle. As a result, there are three main areas where the intelligence and decision-making system can have broken down: raw intelligence, that as, the basic information acquired directly from sources; finished intelligence, which is the analytical process of combining raw intelligence with additional, openly available information and then melding the whole thing together into an overall assessment of what it all means; and decision-making, in which finished intelligence (and occasionally nuggets of raw intelligence) is fed into the choices made by senior Civil Servants and Ministers. The specific mechanisms by which intelligence on Iraqi WMD may have gone wrong are examined in the Forensic Analysis section below. , The three key failures in raw intelligence, finished intelligence and decision-making can go wrong in more than one way and in combination. The most significant potential failings are:

Failure 1: Garbage In/Garbage Out:

The basic information or raw intelligence available was inaccurate, unreliable and/or possibly deceptive, and was not recognised as such when fed into the assessment process in the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Cabinet decision-making process. If the raw information made available to the JIC was misleading, the JIC could not possibly have made an accurate assessment of the Iraqi situation (except by the wildest stroke of luck), and likewise, the Cabinet and Prime Minister could not be expected to make sound decisions on that information.

In the context of Lord Butler's inquiry, this would mean that the intelligence was indeed seriously inaccurate and grossly deficient but that the Prime Minister could not possibly know this. This finding, of course, invites the questions 'why was it deficient and why was the Prime Minister not made aware that this possibility existed?' If the argument was presented to Butler that by definition no one in the intelligence community seriously suspected their product might be deficient, it would have evoked the response that the Prime Minister should have listened to the many senior voices outside the community who doubted the intelligence. The answer to this point might have been that the Prime Minister believed that his intelligence services knew best. If so, he was, of course, quite wrong.

Reasons why Blair might have been well-advised to treat the product with caution will have included SIS's unknowing use of Iraqi-controlled double-agents, their over-reliance on single sourced intelligence products (given the difficulty of penetrating Saddam's inner circle), the unwise use of intelligence collected and passed on by Iraqi exiles. There is also a significant possibility that informants were sincerely passing SIS deceptive information that was being disseminated within the Iraqi hierarchy for morale or internal political purposes.

In addition, such a finding would contradict the fact that independently other intelligence agencies produced very similar threat assessments of Saddam's regime to those produced by the JIC. We know, for example, that the German secret intelligence service came to precisely the same conclusions as those set down in the September 2002 Dossier as being drawn from JIC evaluations (Halevy, 2004; private information[2]). It would also have profound implications for the overall operation of the intelligence services which are supposed to be structured in order to separate the intelligence wheat from the chaff, and presumably have several generations of institutional experience in doing so.

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