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

Page 5 of 10

Failure 3: Lost In Translation:

The final main possibility, and one often overlooked even in the specialist literature on intelligence, is that even provided with good raw intelligence and sound, well-considered assessments, decision-makers may fail to understand the information they have before them. This can arise from two directions. The most commonly referenced failure of this type is what is referred to as the 'deaf captain syndrome' or 'Comrade Stalin is always right'. In this circumstance, decision-makers ignore or refuse to believe intelligence reporting that conflicts with their preconceived notions or a partisan agenda. In a subtler fashion, they may refuse to take on board the entire intelligence picture and selectively note and refer to only that product which supports their preconceptions or agenda. This is generally referred to as cherry-picking, and has been the diagnosis of American intelligence on Iraq proposed by The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh (Hersh, 2003). Both of these involve a conscious and intentional failure to fully appreciate what intelligence is telling them. Another possibility, however, is that one is confronted with policy-makers who have a weak understanding of what intelligence is and how it works. They may, as a result interpret intelligence in ways that the intelligence does not warrant, and come to erroneous policy decisions even in possession of good intelligence.

This possibility would raise serious questions concerning the presentation of intelligence to Ministers by the Intelligence Community. For the most part, the intelligence community means aspects of the Civil Service and defence community talking amongst themselves. Intelligence agencies circulate raw information to Departments and Ministries where it is factored into the daily task of assessment and advice to Ministers. The JIC produces what one former practitioner has described as 'high-powered reports for high-powered people', and most of its consumers are senior Civil Servants (although Ministers also received its reports). Within the JIC, the Intelligence and Security Co-ordinator is answerable in the first instance to the Cabinet Secretary, but there is reason to believe that under the present government the Cabinet Secretary has been increasingly sidelined in the intelligence process (private information). The Chairman of the JIC may have the right of direct access to the Prime Minister, and to the heads of the operational Intelligence and Security Agencies, but his/her task is primarily the coordination of the intelligence community and overseeing the joint analytical process through which the JIC formulates its assessments. As it stands, there is no individual person or position at the JIC and Cabinet Office who is directly responsible for advising Ministers on intelligence matters. It is a serious question, therefore, whether or not politicians, reading intelligence reports, will fully appreciate the significance of the qualifications and cautions intrinsic to intelligence assessment. In which case, while no member of the community might be individually to blame, collectively the intelligence community could be judged responsible for having failed to ensure that Ministers understood what intelligence was, or was not, telling them. In which case, it becomes increasingly possible that the government took the UK to war on mistaken rather than false premises. Of all of the possible conclusions Lord Butler might reach, this may be the most problematic.

It is significant that the public and the media may assume that the biggest issue of accuracy concerns the failure to discover WMD. The term WMD is a misleading one, however, as conventional weapons can be used to achieve mass destruction (e.g. the firebombing of Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo in the Second World War) while what are more accurately described as non-conventional weapons - nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological - have often proven less than massively destructive (witness the very few fatalities during the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack on the Tokyo subway, or the fact that battlefield chemical weapons were no more lethal than conventional artillery barrages after their initial surprise uses in both the First World War and the Iran-Iraq war). Indeed, after the successful dismantling of Iraq's clandestine nuclear programme after the previous 1991 Gulf War, the recent concern was purely with a limited subset of 'WMD', that is, chemical and biological weapons (CBW). This is not merely a syntactical nicety. Much of what the intelligence indicated was that the Iraqi regime was still pursuing research programmes in chemical and biological weapons, and had a nuclear research programme in paper but held in abeyance until a lifting or loosening of sanctions allowed its reactivation. The greatest uncertainty, as the ISC report noted, was about the scale of these activities and whether or not they were confined to R&D programmes or if there existed actual and sizeable CBW stockpiles.

In other words, the question of accuracy may prove in Butler's eyes be more a question of detail, and a question of the ability of Britain's political leadership to understand that detail than a blanket indictment for a failure to find the weaponry, the alleged existence of which had propelled the UK and the USA to war in March 2003. What everyone agrees has not been found are the expected stockpiles of WMD. This, in anybody's language is a devastating failure - devastating more because of the political consequences it has now assumed than any actual military repercussions at the time. It is not hard to see why at least one ex-insider has called this 'the biggest intelligence failure since 1945'.

Furthermore the public and the media are going to be most taken with a rather different take on the concept of 'accuracy'. It is whether the 'discrepancies' which everyone accepts existed were injected into the Government's September 2002 Dossier because of failures on the part of British intelligence, or because the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, asked them to provide intelligence to support a policy which he had already decided upon. If Butler were to find that the inaccuracies had stemmed from Prime Ministerial enthusiasm for war, rather than convincing intelligence on which he was bound to act, this would do critical damage to the credibility and legitimacy of the present government, and put in question its ability to plausibly remain in office.

On the other hand, were Butler to conclude that the inaccuracies were the outcome of failures, probably detailed, on the part of British intelligence, or that the Prime Minister was not properly instructed on the limitations implicit in the intelligence product, Blair's judgement could not be called into question and he would be in the clear.

There are those who have been very senior diplomats who argued consistently that - to quote one of them: 'Saddam was no threat to the West. He may have had weapons but I knew he had no means of delivery. More important, he had not motive: no ideological dispute with the West - and not suicidal (even in his bunker!). In my view all the Campbell inspired papers - the 45 minute claim etc. - were material cooked up to try to provide a rationale for the Prime Minister's decision to back Bush. I don't know how the Prime Minister has been allowed to get away with the statement [on 4 February 2004] that he did not know that the 45 minutes applied only to battlefield weapons. He was either duplicitous or really incompetent' (confidential letter, 11 May 2004).

It will certainly be a matter of concern to Butler's team that the Prime Minister seems somewhat unclear about what he now expects to find. Having repeatedly insisted (most recently on 19 June 2004) that although he was not aware of the significance of detailed pieces of intelligence (for example the '45 minute claim', which he told Parliament he had not understood properly), he got 'the pattern right' and that the public should 'wait' for deciding there was no evidence of WMD in Iraq. He stated unequivocally: 'when I take decisions [of high policy] it is on the basis of intelligence [rather than politics]', implicitly rejecting the charge that the war against Iraq was a case of 'policy-led intelligence' (asking British intelligence to supply the evidence to fit the case) usurping the primacy of 'intelligence-led policy'. On 8 July, however, the Prime Minister told Parliament that he believed the evidence of WMD might never be discovered, although - significantly in terms of his own political future - he added that this was because they might have been 'hidden, removed or destroyed' but not that 'they had never existed'. Butler will be entitled to be confused about what this adds up to.


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