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

Page 6 of 10

What will Butler see

Lord Butler will have had access to sensitive, compartmented information to which outside observers, including BCISS, will not have had access. It is possible to argue, however, that the evidence publicly available indicates certain that internally consistent patterns can be made out, and that the closed information to which the inquiry has had access will likely remain consistent with.

Probable Finding 1: House of Cards

It is evident that the raw intelligence available was highly fragmentary, and of limited reliability in intelligence terms (see Appendix A: Forensic Analysis for some indications of how 'reliability' operates as a notion in intelligence analysis). The evidence from both Hutton and the ISC report indicates that the intelligence community was explicitly aware of the limits of its sources, and its inability to make confident judgements about the scale of Iraqi WMD programmes as possible CBW stockpiles. Hence it is relatively unlikely that the intelligence community was relying blindly on completely or probably unreliable or deceptive sources (Garbage In/Garbage Out), although the possibility of Iraqi deception (either directed externally or internally) may have been underestimated. In any event, it seems likely that Butler will find that the JIC reached overly robust conclusions about Iraqi WMD programmes and played down its own caveats, doubts and uncertainties in making its estimates. In other words, the JIC's own raw intelligence input did not justify the conclusions it reached.

If this conclusion is reached, then certain individuals, particularly John Scarlett and members of the SIS, may be liable for criticism for placing confidence in human intelligence, i.e. reports from agents or informants, disproportionate to the general reliability problems endemic to human sources. As is argued below, the reliance on human intelligence in counter-proliferation is all but unavoidable, and Ba'athist Iraq was a particularly hard target in which to try and run human operations. However, the apparent paucity of communications intercepts and unambiguous overhead imagery should have necessarily qualified the confidence possible for the JIC. Moreover, the fact that Scarlett is a former SIS officer (and appointed future Chief) means that there will be inevitable questions about a possible conflict of interest in the relative weighting given to human and technical sources in the JIC's deliberations.

Probable Finding 2: Lost in Translation:

Given the fact that the intelligence community explicitly articulated the caveats, doubts and uncertainties in its September 9 JIC report on Iraqi WMD, and still reached overconfident conclusions about Iraqi capabilities, Ministers would have benefited from advice on how to interpret and make use of intelligence in their decisions.

Historically, many, and perhaps most Prime Ministers have found the need to appoint personal advisers on intelligence. Through Sir Robert Vansittart at the Foreign Office, Neville Chamberlain came to rely on Group Captain Malcolm Christie, who acted as a link between the British Government and putative anti-Nazi Germans. Winston Churchill, for example, used Major Desmond Morton who had supplied him with first-rate intelligence on Nazi rearmament to subsequently advise him on governmental intelligence issues (at a very detailed level). He also acted as a channel of communication between the Prime Minister and 'C'. Harold Wilson appears to have relied upon the advice of former soldier George Wigg. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, relied on a former SIS officer, Airey Neave, at least on intelligence concerning Northern Ireland, until his murder by the Provisional IRA.

Who, then, was Tony Blair's Major Morton? Did he have one at all? If, as is justified, important questions are asked about the Prime Minister's judgement when intelligence issues were put on his desk, failings may have much more to do with the advice he was given about the intelligence than the accuracy of the product itself.

Did he rely on the good offices of Sir David Omand (a senior diplomat and former head of GCHQ) to explain the significance of intelligence data to him? Or did he choose one of the other players from within the inner circle of very senior intelligence sub-communities. Some suggest his advisor was choice was the outgoing 'C' Sir Richard Dearlove; others suggest nominate the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and future 'C', John Scarlett.

It is a fact that Scarlett was mildly criticised by Lord Hutton. This did not, however, prevent him from appointed to become the new Chief of SIS on 6 May 2004. However, he was not only not knighted at the time but also removed from the direct role in the Government that he possessed as JIC chair. Whilst it is possible that this removal could be taken to imply that Blair wished to use him even more extensively than he was already doing as JIC chair, it could imply the reverse and that the Prime Minister was concerned to put institutional distance between himself and Scarlett without actually in any way undermining his spy-chief's reputation. The Prime Minister has sometimes been seen as someone who is quick to move away from people who might cause him political damage. Yet Scarlett was not sacked or demoted. It would therefore seem to follow that Scarlett's move back into the hidden world from which he had come indicated that although he was an important player he was not necessarily the chosen advisor.

Given the evidence presented to the Hutton Inquiry, it would seem clear that the person of Alastair Campbell, who left the Government six months ago, may well have been Blair's core intelligence advisor. We know that much of the September Dossier owed its final and infelicitous form to the interplay not between the Prime Minister and Scarlett but between Campbell and Scarlett. We know, too, that if other Prime Ministerial advisors were thinking in terms of the headlines in the 'Evening Standard' (lines spoken by Sir David Manning) it is highly improbable that Campbell himself, the chief 'headline' thinker would not have been doing the same. Given his key role in Blair's hold on 10 Downing Street it is hard to imagine that Campbell's advice was not sought on very bit of vital evidence that came the Prime Minister's way. To a certain extent Campbell had made Blair and New Labour happen. Only a fool would have failed to exploit his extraordinary media skills. However, he was not an intelligence expert.

If Campbell did act as Blair's Major Morton, this would have been profoundly unwise of the Prime Minister. Whilst headline thinking initially enabled public support for the attack on Iraq to be rallied, it represented a mindset which was anathema to the careful processes of exegesis which is intelligence assessment. In an instant and fast-moving media world of twenty four hour news, a strong story needed to be true only for the flash of an instant for tomorrow it would be forgotten. Yet what was true for the media was absolutely untrue in the context of an unpopular war in which many lives would be lost (there are, for instance, still no casualty figures for the Iraqis who perished in 2003). This is not to deny the Prime Minister the right to declare a war on the basis of the evidence that he is presented with, nor is it our argument that the war was not justified in terms other than those presented in the Dossier. But where the case made relied on the intelligence provided, and the intelligence provided was flawed, the failure to appreciate that this might be so raises doubts about the process and the judgement of the individuals involved.

As we shall see, Butler may well conclude that British intelligence is at its best when it holds most strongly to its most celebrated single feature - the idea that intelligence vetted by committee offers policy makers the most reliable product. It seems likely that evidence given to Butler by six former JIC chairs and others connected with the JIC at various times will strongly recommend that steps be taken to prevent any JIC chair from gaining undue political influence. For the first time ever, the Prime Minister had appointed a senior SIS officer, John Scarlett, as JIC chair. This meant that of the four people shown by the Hutton evidence to be key advisors of the Prime Minister in matters to do with intelligence and policy on Iraq, two (Scarlett and Sir Richard Dearlove, the current 'C') were SIS officers. One, Sir David Omand, the Intelligence and Security Coordinator, had been a former head of GCHQ but was a senior diplomat and one, Alastair Campell, though vetted and given the highest level of security clearance (as he told Lord Hutton), had no training of any kind in the evaluation of intelligence. Campbell's role is one to which we must return.

It is clearly possible that secret intelligence, which formed the basis of the Iraq WMD claims and are known, thanks to Hutton, to have emanated from the secret intelligence community, was pushed more strongly than it should have been because two out of the four advisors had an in-built professional respect for their own product and one of the four, Campbell, had an in-built professional respect for the impact of 'killer evidence'.

It is therefore probable that Butler will decide that it will not be enough to simply re-assert the authority of the committee is that essential assessment unit of intelligence for the core policy-makers but that he will also argue that some sort of strong, independent professional advisor, perhaps not a diplomat or a spook, and possibly a senior academic scientist, should be appointed to provide any Prime Minister with an independent view of whether intelligence presented to him may be used to form high policy. What is more, Butler may well - and properly - conclude that it would be best if the Prime Minister did not appoint this individual himself but established a college of Privy Counsellors and members of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee to do it for him.

The job description might be that of the 'National Intelligence and Security Advisor' or in keeping with British traditions, the Cabinet Intelligence Advisor. In the end, of course, it is in our democracy a Prime Minister's job to make policy, whether on the basis of intelligence or anything else. No advisor could, or should, interfere with this process not least because it is on a Prime Minister's judgement that electors in part make their verdict. However, it goes without saying that the information the Prime Minister receives should be as accurate as possible at all times. Headline experts should have no part in this process. Rather, solid, reliable and senior figures, with experience and judgement are needed.

The reason also goes without saying: Blair's present advisor, or advisors, whatever the reason have simply not been good enough.

Whether, if this is what Butler concludes, all his conclusions will - or should - be followed may be a moot point. Committees (usually) operate on the basis of reasoned argument and general agreement. However, consensus does not always produce a judgement that is more than the lowest common denominator. Whilst the assessment of intelligence is a craft, it includes, according to one very senior secret intelligence official, an element of 'hunch' which makes it in part an art. If it should emerge that there was a failure to explain to the Prime Minister precisely what the '45 minute warning' referred to, it will surely be noted that Dr Brian Jones of DIS who was anxious about this very point, was overruled in committee so that his reservations never made it to Downing Street. The committee structure that the JIC encapsulated ensured that one of the few people whose dissenting views should have been put to the Prime Minister was someone of whom the Prime Minister said he had never heard.

Certainly, Butler will draw comparisons with the US intelligence community. This has operated in a different way, creating a market for intelligence products from competing sources, from which a President or a National Security Advisor may make their choice. However, only a fool could deny that this competitive environment has produced several catastrophic failures of its own (of which Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were the most horrifying). At the same time, the centralised British of organising intelligence and the primacy of the committee would, had it been adopted by the US, not necessarily have avoided these failures. What is more, a powerful committee chair can bully a committee into accepting a particular view rather more easily than is often imagined, immediately outweighing the advantages of a consensual view. Whereas in the American system, the political leadership could, if it wanted, draw on competing sources for different views, in the UK such a course would be impossible since there is neither a market nor competition for the collection and evaluation of the product.

Lord Butler may well reflect on these differences but decide there seem to be few persuasive arguments in favour of adopting the US system. It is therefore safe to assume that Butler will say the JIC approach to intelligence dissemination is the right one but that it must be made to work better. It is also possible that he will recommend the establishment of an institutional counterweight to the JIC in the form of a national security advisor who would have the authority to question assessments made by the JIC where they impacted on policy and advise the Prime Minister accordingly. Butler might even conclude that such a person should be chosen from outside the twin communities of intelligence and diplomacy.

Whilst it is probable that Butler will highlight detailed systemic shortcomings in the way in which the Prime Minister is presented with evaluated intelligence, and may possibly choose to point an accusatory finger at one or more intelligence chiefs, any changes that Butler might suggest are ultimately highly unlikely to make much difference to the actual day to day use that Prime Ministers make of secret intelligence. For one thing, intelligence has always been a source of political power and at no time more so than today. For another, history shows that within the British intelligence community, the sands continually shift to reflect changes in out political leadership. Within the community as a whole, smaller sub-communities are frequently formed, throwing up new policy relationships which could never, and would never be formalised since they would tie the hands of an increasingly presidential mode of governance.

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