Blair: Serial purveyor of false information



On 31 March, Beverly Hughes resigned from the Government.  She had been a Home Office minister responsible for asylum and immigration matters.  She resigned because a couple of days earlier she had given a misleading impression in TV interviews - she denied having seen correspondence expressing concern about the operation of clearance controls from Romania and Bulgaria, when she had.


In a personal statement in the House of Commons the next day, she said:


“Although I did not intentionally mislead anyone I have decided that I cannot in conscience continue to serve as immigration Minister”.


The Prime Minister accepted her resignation and commended her for behaving “with integrity”.


Beverly Hughes did mislead, but her misleading was trivial, as well as unintentional.  And no blood was shed as a result of it.


Serial misleading

The Prime Minister told the House of Commons on 24 September 2002 on the day the Government dossier on Iraq’s so-called “weapons of mass destruction” was published:


“The intelligence picture that they [the intelligence services] paint is one accumulated over the last four years. It is extensive, detailed and authoritative. It concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes, including against his own Shia population, and that he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability.”


That is one of the numerous examples of the Prime Minister misleading the Commons and the public about Iraq’s proscribed weapons in the months before he send British troops into Iraq, to kill and be killed.


It is expressed with typical, and completely unjustified, certainty: the intelligence picture accumulated over the previous four years is, he says, “extensive, detailed and authoritative”.  The true picture was the exact opposite.  As the Butler report says:


“… after the departure of United Nations inspectors in December 1998, information sources were sparse, particularly on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programmes.” (paragraph 433)


By forcing the UN inspectors out prior to bombing Iraq in December 1998, Clinton and Blair ensured that the intelligence picture four years later was neither extensive, nor detailed, nor authoritative, and he grossly misled Parliament by saying that it was.


We now know that the information he gave about Iraq’s proscribed weapons on that and many other occasions was false information.  In September 2002, Iraq did not have chemical or biological weapons, nor was it producing more, nor had it active plans to use them, let alone plans that could be activated in 45 minutes (whatever that means), nor was it actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability.


The Prime Minister misled the Commons on 24 September 2002 and he continued to mislead it on this issue (and other issues concerning Iraq) until 18 March 2003, when it voted to take military action against Iraq.  Had he not misled it, it would not have voted to join the US in taking military action against Iraq, action in which tens of thousands of Iraqis, and 60+ British troops, have been killed.  His misleading was gross, and a great deal of blood has been spilled as a result.  But he has yet to apologise to the Commons for misleading it into war, let alone resign for misleading it.


Unintentional misleading

But, it will be said, the Prime Minister’s misleading was unintentional: he thought he was telling the truth at the time, that he was merely telling the public what the intelligence services were telling him.  That’s as maybe.  Beverly Hughes’ misleading was also unintentional (and trivial), but she behaved with “integrity”, according to the Prime Minister, and resigned.


Not only has the Prime Minister not resigned, he has yet to admit in a straightforward manner that the information he presented to Parliament and the public about Iraq’s proscribed weapons was false.  In presenting the Butler report to Parliament on 14 July, he made the unusually frank statement:


“… I have to accept that, as the months have passed, it has seemed increasingly clear that, at the time of invasion, Saddam did not have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy.”


But he went on to say that the invasion was justified anyway, since, he declared:


“On any basis, he [Saddam Hussein] retained complete strategic intent on WMD and significant capability.”


The plain fact is that the Commons would not have voted for war on 18 March 2003, if he had not misled it into believing that Saddam did have “stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy”.  Had he based his case for war on his belief, no doubt sincerely held, that Saddam Hussein “retained complete strategic intent on WMD and significant capability”, he would have been laughed at and he would have lost.  And Gordon Brown would now be Prime Minister.


WMD misleading

This brings up another aspect of the Prime Minister’s misleading the public about Iraq’s proscribed weapons – the use of the term “weapons of mass destruction”.  Unlike the US/UK (and Israel), Iraq never had any weapons of mass destruction, that is, nuclear weapons.  It had a nuclear weapons programme, but no nuclear weapons were ever produced.


To classify chemical and biological weapons as “weapons of mass destruction” is grossly misleading.  It equates chemical weapons, containing barely lethal First World War mustard gas, with nuclear weapons, which can wipe cities off the face of the earth and kill millions of people, and which cannot be warded off with a gas mask.  By this definition, Britain possessed, and used, “weapons of mass destruction” in the first World War.  It is an absurdity, but it is an absurdity that played a vital part in convincing the public that Iraq was a threat, which had to be eliminated by military action.


(The Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, told the Hutton inquiry on 23 September 2003 that 20,000 Iranians were killed or wounded by Iraq’s battlefield chemical weapons.  Since Iran suffered well over half a million casualties in total in that war, this means that over 95% of them were caused by high explosive, which, unlike chemical weapons, are never classified as “weapons of mass destruction”.  You can see the sense of it, can’t you?)


Blair admits misuse

But was the Prime Minister merely telling the public what the intelligence services were telling him?  If we are to believe John Scarlett, the answer to that is Yes.  Be that as it may, what we do know is that the September dossier, and much of what came out of the Prime Minister’s mouth, did not accurately reflect the intelligence picture at the time.  The existing (flawed) intelligence was misused to present to the public a much more threatening picture of Iraq’s proscribed weapons than was warranted.


We have known this since the Intelligence & Security Committee (ISC) reported in September 2003, and it was confirmed by the Butler report published on 14 July 2004.


Surprisingly, the Prime Minister himself admitted this misuse in introducing the Butler report to Parliament, albeit with weasel words.  He said:


“… [the report] makes specific findings that the dossier and the intelligence behind it should have been better presented, had more caveats attached to it, and been better validated. It reports doubts that have recently arisen on the 45-minute intelligence, and says that in any event that should have been included in the dossier in different terms.”




“… the evidence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction was indeed less certain and less well founded than was stated at the time.”


Speaking after him, Michael Howard focussed on a remark the Prime Minister made to the Observer in an interview published on 25 January 2004:


"The issue vis-à-vis my integrity is: did we receive the intelligence and was it properly relayed to people?"


In fact, the Prime Minister had admitted that the intelligence had not been properly relayed to the people a few minutes before Michael Howard spoke, though his admission gave a less than a full account of the misuse he was responsible for.


Examples of misuse

For example, he made extravagant claims in the foreword to the dossier (and later in Parliament) that Iraq was currently producing chemical and biological weapons, and that therefore the threat from Iraq was growing all the time.  He said that intelligence had established this “beyond doubt”, which was simply untrue: according to the ISC (and confirmed by Butler), the intelligence services didn’t know what, if anything, had been produced and in what quantities – it had merely assessed that some production of some kind had taken place.  The ISC report says (paragraph 110) that this “uncertainty” should have been “highlighted” in the dossier.


The dossier also didn’t make it clear that the 45-minute claim referred to (unidentified) battlefield weapons, not missiles capable of hitting Cyprus or London, as widely misreported in the press at the time, and not corrected by ministers.  The ISC report also says that the dossier should have “highlighted” the fact that “the most likely chemical and biological munitions to be used against Western forces were battlefield weapons, rather than missiles” capable of hitting Cyprus.  In other words, providing UK forces kept away from Iraq, they would most likely be safe from Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons.


The Butler report said (paragraph 332):


“We believe that it was a serious weakness that the Joint Intelligence Committee’s warnings on the limitations of the intelligence underlying some of its judgements were not made sufficiently clear in the dossier.”


Of course, a dossier which out of care for the intelligence evidence contained these caveats would never have been published – because it would not have provided a solid basis for the claim that Iraq was a growing threat, against which action needed to be taken urgently.


Without doubt false

There is now no doubt that the information the Prime Minister presented to Parliament and the public about Iraq’s proscribed weapons was false.  No weapons of any significance have been found in Iraq, and the best evidence is the programmes were terminated and existing agents and weapons were destroyed in 1991.


After the ISC report, and the Butler report, there is also no doubt that the false information presented to Parliament and the public was not an accurate reflection of the (albeit flawed) intelligence available at the time.  The caveats had been removed.


As Michael Howard said in the Commons when the Butler report was published:


“It is now clear that in many ways the intelligence services got it wrong, but their assessments included serious caveats, qualifications and cautions. When presenting his case to the country, the Prime Minister chose to leave out those caveats, qualifications and cautions. Their qualified judgments became his unqualified certainties …”


Claims dropped

When, after Andrew Gilligan’s Today broadcast on 29 May 2003, controversy broke out about the September dossier, the Government often pointed out the dossier was scarcely mentioned in the debates leading up to the war.  That is true.  In fact, after September 2002, the Government stopped making the claims based on intelligence, which were prominent in the dossier, and in the Prime Minister’s presentation of the dossier to the Commons, claims which were later the subject of criticism by the ISC, and later by the Butler inquiry.


Thus, for example, to the best of my knowledge, after 24 September 2002 the Government never again claimed that it was “beyond doubt” that Iraq was producing chemical and biological agents and weapons.  In fact, there was barely a mention of current weapons production at all after September 2002.  From then on, the Government’s case, such as it was, rested almost exclusively on the contention that material produced before the Gulf War was still in existence.


Nor did the Government bring up again the 45-minute claim, which appeared 4 times in the dossier and generated a bumper crop of frightening (and misleading) headlines on 24/25 September 2002, with the help of Alistair Campbell presumably. 


These claims added to the perception that Iraq was a growing threat requiring urgent attention, yet the Prime Minister dropped them from his case.  That makes sense only if it became clear to him that the continued use of these claims – which weren’t warranted by the existing intelligence – might cause a revolt in the intelligence services and result in these claims being discredited, as they deserved to be, with the risk that his whole case would be undermined.


45-minute claim

There was a particular problem with the 45-minute claim, because it had been misreported in banner headlines as applying to missiles capable of hitting Cyprus.


It was impossible for the Prime Minister to correct this.  Telling the world that the claim only applied to battlefield weapons, and that all those banner headlines were wrong, would have led to a ferocious controversy around the world, in which all the good work done by the frightening headlines would have been undone with interest.  The public might even have got the politically inconvenient impression that if British forces stayed away from Iraq, they would most likely be safe from Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons.  The drive for war against Iraq would have lost momentum – perhaps fatally.


The alternative was to sit tight and hope that nobody in the intelligence services brought to public attention the fact that all those banner headlines were wrong, and that, by failing to correct them, the Prime Minister was deceiving Parliament and the public.  That risk was kept to a minimum if the claim was never mentioned again – which is what happened.


Unaccounted for misleading

On 24 September 2002, the Prime Minister told the Commons:


“… [Saddam Hussein’s] chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programme is not an historic left-over from 1998. The inspectors are not needed to clean up the old remains. His weapons of mass destruction programme is active, detailed and growing.”


So, at that time, according to the Prime Minister, the “old remains” produced before the Gulf War were of no great importance: current production was the real problem.  But, on 18 March 2003, he didn’t mention current production at all: the “old remains” were the only problem, “old remains” which Iraq said it had destroyed.


It was not the contention of UNSCOM in December 1998, or of UNMOVIC in March 2003, that Iraq was lying when it said this, merely that Iraq should provide documentary or other proof that the material had been destroyed.  Until Iraq did so, UNSCOM inspectors deemed that material “unaccounted for”: neither UNSCOM in 1998, nor UNMOVIC in 2003, ruled out the possibility that Iraq had no proscribed weapons at all.


However, time and time again in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, the Prime Minister gave the impression that he had it on the authority of UN inspectors that Iraq had an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and weapons-related material, when all the UN inspectors had said was that material was “unaccounted for”.


On 25 February 2003, he went so far as to tell the Commons that the UN had “proved” Saddam had such material in 1999, asking:


“Is it not reasonable that Saddam provides evidence of destruction of the biological and chemical agents and weapons that the UN proved he had in 1999?”


That is in flat contradiction to what Hans Blix had told the Security Council a few weeks earlier on 27 January 2003.  Speaking of UNSCOM’s final report in January 1999 and UNMOVIC’s subsequent re-evaluation of it, he said:


“These reports do not contend that weapons of mass destruction remain in Iraq …”


On 18 March 2003, the Prime Minister reeled off a list of material deemed “unaccounted for” by UNSCOM in 1998:


“When the inspectors left in 1998, they left unaccounted for 10,000 litres of anthrax; a far-reaching VX nerve agent programme; up to 6,500 chemical munitions; at least 80 tonnes of mustard gas, and possibly more than 10 times that amount; unquantifiable amounts of sarin, botulinum toxin and a host of other biological poisons; and an entire Scud missile programme.  We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years—contrary to all history, contrary to all intelligence—Saddam decided unilaterally to destroy those weapons. I say that such a claim is palpably absurd.”


There again, the Prime Minister misled the Commons by giving the impression that when UN inspectors said that material was “unaccounted for” they actually meant it existed.  He also misled it by omitting to say that, according to UNMOVIC, much of this “unaccounted for” material would no longer be toxic in 2003.



David Morrison

August 2004




In the Commons debate on the Hutton report on 20 July, Robin Cook said:


“I saw many intelligence assessments when I was at the Foreign Office. Doubt and intelligence assessments go hand in hand; doubt is in the nature of intelligence work. One is trying to guess the secrets that somebody is trying to keep, so it inevitably follows that one is trying to carry out a task even worse than that of the Israelites: to make bricks out of straws in the wind. To be fair to the agencies, they were always absolutely frank about the limitations of their knowledge. That is why I was frankly astonished by the September dossier, which bore no relation in tone to any of the intelligence assessments that I saw. It was one-sided, dogmatic and unqualified.”


Yet he lent his name to this “one-sided, dogmatic and unqualified” document for the next six months by staying in the Cabinet.  Had he resigned in September 2002, and described the dossier as “one-sided, dogmatic and unqualified”, it would have been impossible for the Prime Minister to take Britain to war – which might have prevented the war altogether, since there was always a doubt that the US would have gone to war on its own.



Labour & Trade Union Review

August 2004