The Foreign Affairs Select Committee Report
On 7 July 2003, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee published the report of its inquiry into The Decision to go to War in Iraq. At the time of its announcement on 3 June 2003, the objective of the inquiry was stated to be to:
“consider whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, within the Government as a whole, presented accurate and complete information to Parliament in the period leading up to military action in Iraq, particularly in relation to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”.
The Committee found the Government not guilty:
“The central charge has been that Ministers misled Parliament. … Consistent with the conclusions reached elsewhere in this Report, we conclude that Ministers did not mislead Parliament.” (Paragraph 186)
That verdict was hardly unexpected, since the Committee is chaired by a Blair loyalist, Donald Anderson, and 7 out of its 11 members are Labour MPs (though 2 of them, Fabian Hamilton and Eric Illsley, and the one Liberal Democrat member, David Chidgey, voted against military action on 18 March 2003).
The Committee found the Government not guilty without examining the factual evidence. It examined for accuracy and completeness only one source of Government information to Parliament – the dossier published on 24 September 2002 – and illogically concluded that the Government hadn’t made exaggerated claims in it. Bizarrely, everything else the Government said on Iraq in Parliament and elsewhere was ignored.
The key question in respect of the September dossier was whether claims made in it about Iraq’s proscribed weapons were justified by the intelligence available to the Government at that time.
It was, of course, impossible for the Committee to answer that question, for the simple reason that the Government denied it access to the intelligence on which the dossier was based, and to the personnel responsible for assessing that intelligence and drawing up the dossier.
The Committee honestly recognised this in paragraph 90 of its report, which said:
“We conclude that without access to the intelligence or to those who handled it, we cannot know if it was in any respect faulty or misinterpreted.”
Despite this, the Committee devoted nearly half of its Report to this dossier (paragraphs 20 to 107) and drew several sweeping conclusions about whether its contents were soundly based on the available intelligence. For example:
(1) “We conclude that the 45 minutes claim did not warrant the prominence given to it in the dossier, because it was based on intelligence from a single, uncorroborated source.” (paragraph 70)
(2) “We conclude that the claims made in the September dossier were in all probability well founded on the basis of the intelligence then available, although as we have already stated we have concerns about the emphasis given to some of them.” (paragraph 86)
(3) “We conclude that the September dossier was probably as complete and accurate as the Joint Intelligence Committee could make it, consistent with protecting sources, but that it contained undue emphases for a document of its kind.” (paragraph 184)
So, by its own admission, the Committee could not know if the intelligence on which the September dossier was based was “in any respect faulty or misinterpreted”. Nevertheless, it drew these wide-ranging conclusions that the intelligence was not misinterpreted. It doesn’t say how it achieved this impossible feat.
Furthermore, conclusion (3) is obviously self-contradictory: if the dossier had not contained the “undue emphases” complained of, it would clearly have been more “accurate and complete”.
Leaving that aside, it is simply untrue that “the September dossier was probably as complete and accurate as the Joint Intelligence Committee could make it”. As I have pointed out, the September dossier contains errors of fact (in particular, that UNSCOM inspectors were denied access to presidential sites). The dossier was therefore manifestly inaccurate.
(There was no excuse for the Committee getting this wrong, since this and other information relevant to their inquiry were submitted to the Committee in a memorandum by me).
In support of this, Youngs cites the famous testimony of Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, General Hussein Kamel, to UN inspectors, when he told them in August 1995 that he had ordered the destruction of all proscribed weapons. (See here for a facsimile of the official UNSCOM/IAEA notes of the interview).
Given the absence of weapons finds in Iraq, one might have thought that the possibility that Kamel was telling the truth deserved examination by the Committee. But the Report doesn’t examine it at all. The unanswered question is: why does the Government regard Kamel as a credible witness in most things, but not when he says that all of Iraq’s proscribed weapons were destroyed on his orders. The Committee left it unanswered.
Unaccounted for but degraded
Paragraph 39 of the Report does raise the possibility that unaccounted for material may not exist. Hans Blix’s remarks to the Security Council on 5 June 2003 are quoted:
“The first point … is that the Commission has not at any time during the inspections in Iraq found evidence of the continuation or resumption of programmes of weapons of mass destruction or significant quantities of proscribed items – whether from pre-1991 or later. I leave aside the Al-Samoud 2 missile system, which we concluded was proscribed.
“As I have noted before, this does not necessarily mean that such items could not exist. They might – there remain long lists of items unaccounted for – but it is not justified to jump to the conclusion that something exists just because it is unaccounted for.”
Paragraph 39 also mentions that chemical and biological agents may degrade over time, saying:
“… chemical precursors and other chemical and biological weapons substances degrade at varying rates over time, but some of them degrade quite swiftly, as the IISS [International Institute for Strategic Studies] pointed out in its dossier.”
But that was also left hanging in the air.
The IISS dossier was published on 9 September 2002 (and was referred to approvingly in the Government’s September dossier). It says that nerve agents (for example, sarin and VX) and botulinum toxin manufactured prior to the Gulf War would no longer be effective as warfare agents. This information is absent from Government’s dossier published a couple of weeks later. It is therefore seriously misleading about these agents. But the Committee failed to mention this.
The Committee also inquired at great length into how the so-called February dossier got produced. This document grandly entitled, Iraq - Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation, began life as a briefing note for journalists. It was originated by Alistair Campbell to, in his words to the Committee, “get our media to cover this issue of the extent to which Saddam Hussein was developing his programme of concealment and intimidation of the United Nations’ inspectors”. In reality, its purpose was to try to explain away the failure of UN inspectors to find anything incriminating in Iraq after two months of unimpeded access. There was, of course, no intimidation of UN inspectors, at least not in Iraq.
Most of the contents of the “dossier” had been taken, unacknowledged, from old public sources. However, Tony Blair introduced it to the House of Commons on 3 February 2003 in words that implied that it was, like the September dossier, based on up to date intelligence. A few days later, Dr Glen Rangwala revealed the actual sources.
All this was in the public domain long before the Committee began its investigation. The one thing of interest the Committee discovered was that even though this “dossier” was concerned with foreign affairs, the Foreign Secretary had never set eyes on it, and it wasn’t signed off by the Foreign Office. That, and the fact that the Defence & Overseas Policy Committee of the cabinet didn’t meet in the lead up to war (in fact, hadn’t met since June 2001), confirms that Jack Straw was a bit player in the decision-making about Iraq.
The February “dossier” was utterly unimportant as a source of Government information in the lead up to military action against Iraq. Nevertheless, the Committee devoted 32 paragraphs of its report to how it came about.
The shifting message
As we have said, the Committee ignored everything else that the Government said in Parliament and elsewhere. Since the Committee regarded the September dossier as the key document for their inquiry, one might have thought that it would have taken an interest in how the Government presented the dossier to Parliament and whether the message of the dossier was maintained by the Government over the following six months. In fact, as we shall see, there was a dramatic shift in the Government’s message about Iraq’s proscribed weapons between September and March.
The September dossier made extravagant claims that Iraq not only possessed chemical and biological weapons and various means of delivering them, but also that it had re-established the means of manufacturing chemical and biological agents. In other words, Iraq had currently operational weapons programmes and not just remnants of weapons and weapons-related material left over from the old programmes, which were dismantled by UNSCOM in the 1990s. The dossier also claimed that Iraq was attempting to re-establish its nuclear weapons programme. However, the claims about the re-establishment of weapons programmes were not expressed as established facts, but as judgements based on intelligence.
However, when Tony Blair presented the dossier to the House of Commons on 24 September 2002, he expressed these claims as established facts:
“… [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. The policy of containment is not working. The weapons of mass destruction programme is not shut down; it is up and running now.”
“On chemical weapons, the dossier shows that Iraq continues to produce chemical agents for chemical weapons; has rebuilt previously destroyed production plants across Iraq; has bought dual-use chemical facilities; has retained the key personnel formerly engaged in the chemical weapons programme; and has a serious ongoing research programme into weapons production, all of it well funded.”
“In respect of biological weapons, again, production of biological agents has continued; facilities formerly used for biological weapons have been rebuilt; equipment has been purchased for such a programme; and again, Saddam has retained the personnel who worked on it prior to 1991.”
Those assertions have a certainty about them which isn’t present in the dossier itself. A good case can be made for saying that the Prime Minister “sexed up” the dossier in his statement to the House of Commons on 24 September 2002.
Be that as it may, six months later on 18 March 2003 there wasn’t even a hint of a suggestion from the Prime Minister that Iraq had ongoing weapons programmes. All he spoke about then was the “old remains” from previous programmes, that is, lists of weapons and weapons-related material, which were unaccounted for in December 1998, when he and Bill Clinton forced UNSCOM to withdraw from Iraq.
Plainly, the Prime Minister did not feel able to restate the certainty of the previous September that Iraq had ongoing weapons programmes, otherwise he would have done so in an attempt to minimise the revolt on his backbenches. He was in the most difficult position of his political life with the possibility that a majority of his party would refuse to support him. If he had felt he could get away with restating that Iraq had ongoing weapons programmes, and not merely “old remains” from previous programmes, he would have done so.
So, why did the Prime Minister feel unable to restate in March 2003 his certainty of six months earlier that Iraq had “active, detailed and growing” weapons programmes? Was it because UNMOVIC inspectors had visited all the sites suspected in the September dossier of being used for the production of chemical and biological agents, and found no evidence of current, or recent, production activity? And the IAEA had confirmed that Iraq had not revived its nuclear weapons programme?
And why did the Prime Minister not inform Parliament that he was no longer able to state that Iraq had “active, detailed and growing” weapons programmes? On the basis of this, in his foreword to the September dossier, he declared Iraq to be a “current and serious threat to the UK national interest”. Could the same be said of an Iraq with merely a few “old remains” from the early 1990s? Was an Iraq with merely a few “old remains” a sufficient threat to the UK to justify pre-emptive counteraction, particularly when those “old remains” were, in large measure, no longer effective warfare agents?
(See Appendix below for Andrew Wilkie’s assessment of these “old remains”).
There could hardly be more appropriate questions for an inquiry into whether the Government presented “accurate and complete information” to Parliament in the lead up to military action against Iraq. But the Committee averted it eyes from such interesting, and relevant, questions.
Unresolved Disarmament Issues
On 6 March 2003, UNMOVIC published a 173-page document entitled Unresolved Disarmament Issues: Iraq’s Proscribed Weapons Programmes. This originated as an internal working document prepared by UNMOVIC identifying the “key remaining disarmament tasks” that Iraq had to complete. The preparation of such a document was a requirement of paragraph 7 of Security Council Resolution 1284, under which UNMOVIC was established in December 1999. Unusually, for such a document, it was declassified and published. This was done at the request of the US and the UK, presumably with the aim of bolstering their case for military action.
The document contains a comprehensive survey of Iraq’s proscribed weapons programmes (excluding its nuclear programme, which is the business of the IAEA) and the subsequent use and/or destruction of weapons and weapons-related material, based on information assembled by UN inspectors from 1991 onwards, including by UNMOVIC inspectors from December 2002. It ends with an assessment of unresolved issues for each weapon and agent, and a statement of what Iraq needs to do to resolve them.
As of early March this year, this was the most comprehensive and authoritative statement in existence about Iraq’s proscribed weapons (apart from nuclear weapons). In assessing whether Iraq posed a “serious and current” threat to the UK national interest, there wasn’t a more important document. It goes without saying, therefore, that a serious inquiry into whether the Government had presented “accurate and complete information” to Parliament would need to examine whether the Government made Parliament aware of the key information in this document. It is a measure of the seriousness of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry that its Report does not contain a single reference to this document.
A serious inquiry into the matter would have concluded that, although the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary referred to this document regularly, they misrepresented its contents, and crucially failed to mention what it said about the degradation of agents.
In the House of Commons on 18 March 2003, the Prime Minister described it as a “remarkable document” and quoted from it. It would be more accurate to say he misquoted from it. For example, he said that of mustard gas it says:
“Mustard constituted an important part . . . of Iraq's CW arsenal . . . 550 mustard filled shells and up to 450 mustard filled aerial bombs unaccounted for”
You will indeed find those words on page 76 of the document, but they do not give the sense of the text from which they were extracted. That text is as follows:
“… Judging by the quantities produced, weaponized and used, Mustard constituted an important part (about 70%) of Iraq’s CW arsenal.
“There is much evidence, including documents provided by Iraq and information collected by UNSCOM, to suggest that most quantities of Mustard remaining in 1991, as declared by Iraq, were destroyed under UNSCOM supervision. The remaining gaps are related to the accounting for Mustard filled aerial bombs and artillery projectiles. There are 550 Mustard filled shells and up to 450 mustard filled aerial bombs unaccounted for since 1998. The mustard filled shells account for a couple of tonnes of agent while the aerial bombs account for approximately 70 tonnes. According to an investigation made by the Iraqi “Depot Inspection Commission”, the results of which were reported to UNMOVIC in March 2003, the discrepancy in the accounting for the mustard filled shells could be explained by the fact that Iraq had based its accounting on approximations.”
That gives a very different impression to that conveyed by the Prime Minister’s extract, and his other extracts are equally misleading.
More crucially, he told the House of Commons that day:
“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.”
But he failed to mention that the remarkable UNMOVIC document made it clear that any unaccounted for sarin, VX and botulinum toxin would no longer be effective as warfare agents (see pages 73, 82 and 101 respectively). Would Parliament have voted for military action on 18 March 2003 if it had known that?
Drawing a veil over France
France features in the Committee’s Report once – as a (past) supplier of personnel to the Coalition Information Centre, which was first set up at the time of military action against Yugoslavia, and was the body responsible for putting together the February “dossier”. There is no mention in the Report of the rather more significant matter of France’s refusal to support military action against Iraq, or of the Government’s misrepresentation of the French position as being opposed to military action “whatever the circumstances”, when it clearly was not.
The Foreign Office supplied the Committee with a memorandum entitled Building a case against Iraq on the Government’s diplomatic activity in the six months prior to military action. France figures in this account only once – as having (unsuccessfully) proposed that resolution 1441 include a reference to the need for a further decision by the Security Council as a pre-condition for the use of force. The failure to get a second resolution, which at the time was blamed on France, is glossed over with the bland remark that:
“Unfortunately, despite the UK's efforts, a second resolution proved impossible.”
Compare that with what was said in the Government motion which the House of Commons passed on 18 March:
“That this House … regrets that despite sustained diplomatic effort by Her Majesty's Government it has not proved possible to secure a second Resolution in the UN because one Permanent Member of the Security Council made plain in public its intention to use its veto whatever the circumstances;”
Clearly, Government policy now is to draw a veil over the disagreement with France, presumably because help is needed on the ground in Iraq – and French troops would be welcome.
APPENDIX Andrew Wilkie’s assessment
Andrew Wilkie resigned from the Australian security services on 11 March 2003, because he was opposed to Australia’s support for military action against Iraq. He gave oral evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry on 19 June 2003, and he submitted a memorandum to the Committee.
The following extract from his memorandum gives his assessment of the “old remains” from Iraq’s pre-Gulf War chemical and biological weapons programmes:
23. In regard to the WMD unaccounted for, the [September] Dossier implies that Iraq could have still had up to 360 tonnes of bulk chemical agent, up to 3,000 tonnes of pre-curser chemicals, enough growth media to produce tens of thousands of litres of biological agent, and over 30,000 special munitions suitable for delivery of chemical and biological agents.
24. This list appears to me to be simply ridiculous, not least because no-one, not even the Iraqis themselves, seem to know exactly how much chemical and biological agent was ever produced by Iraq, exactly how much was used during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, or exactly how much was destroyed outside of UNSCOM control.
25. The list of unaccounted for material also seems to me to be absurd because it fails to properly consider the critical issues of agent purity and degradation over time. The simple fact of the matter is that most chemical and biological agents soon break down unless produced to a very high level of purity and then effectively stabilised. But Iraq always had great difficulties achieving high levels of agent purity, and British claims about Iraq having the knowledge and capability to add stabiliser is, in my opinion, unsubstantiated by hard intelligence.
26. The exception to all this is of course mustard gas, which can remain potent for many years. But this is a pretty crude agent that needs to be used in vast quantities, in ideal conditions, to be effective as a WMD. The limited quantities identified in the list of agents unaccounted for do not satisfy this criterion. In fact, the 550 shells mentioned by Colin Powell during his address to the UN Security Council on 5 February 2003 would between them amount to no more than a couple of tonnes of agent capable only of attacking one small military target.
27. In my opinion, the importance of this whole pre-1991 weapons issue has been a gross exaggeration. It could never have been a key component of some more recent massive WMD programme posing an imminent threat to us all.
Labour & Trade Union Review
While this inquiry was in progress, I submitted evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The Committee ignored my evidence. In November 2003, I submitted a further memorandum to the Committee pointing out the shortcomings of this report, and submitting more evidence, and in a letter to the Chairman of the Committee, Donald Anderson, I asked that the Committee reopen its inquiry in the light of this evidence. It has yet to do so.