The Intelligence and Security Committee Report
Dossier not justified by intelligence
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is not a Select Committee of the House of Commons, which reports to the House of Commons. It is a Committee appointed by the Prime Minister, which reports to the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister has the legal authority to decide whether or not its reports are published and to censor them at will prior to publication.
The members of the ISC are normally senior MPs, often ex-ministers. It is currently chaired by Labour ex-minister, Ann Taylor, and has four other Labour members (one a Lord), two Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat.
On 11 September, the Prime Minister published in full the ISC report Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction – Intelligence and Assessments. Paragraph 11 says:
“The purpose of this Report is to examine whether the available intelligence, which informed the decision to invade Iraq, was adequate and properly assessed and whether it was accurately reflected in Government publications. This Report does not judge whether the decision to invade Iraq was correct.”
One might have thought that the ISC’s report would be a whitewash, but, unlike the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report, it wasn’t. It is very revealing about the gaps and uncertainties in the intelligence about Iraq’s proscribed weapons, and the degree to which these gaps and uncertainties were glossed over in the September dossier to paint a much more coherent and threatening picture than was justified by intelligence.
Specifically, the report was critical of the way the dossier presented:
1. The 45-minute claim – the dossier didn’t say it referred to (unknown) battlefield weapons and, in any case, it was of no significance;
2. The claim that Iraq continued to produce chemical and biological weapons was based on very flimsy evidence – the intelligence services hadn’t a clue as to what agents, if any, had been produced and in what quantities, and what quantities had been put into weapons: they just thought Iraq was producing something;
3. The almost non-existent strategic threat from Iraq: the dossier failed to point out that the most likely use of chemical and biological agents was in battlefield weapons, rather than in strategic weapons that could hit Cyprus, or even London – at most Iraq had 20 al Hussein missiles which could hit Cyprus, but this was by no means certain (UN inspectors merely regarded them as unaccounted for) and, if they did exist, it was doubtful if they were functional;
A dossier which out of care for the intelligence evidence contained these doubts would never have been published – because it would have diminished the case for military action.
John Scarlett, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), insisted to the ISC, and to the Hutton inquiry, that the dossier was all his own work, and that Downing Street did not interfere (which the ISC accepts in paragraph 108 of their report). So the ISC criticism falls on him rather than his political master.
However, his political master cannot have been pleased that the ISC made public pre-war intelligence assessments that military action in Iraq would heighten the threat from al-Qaida and related groups, assessments which he kept from Parliament in the run up to war.
He could, of course, have refused to publish the report, or published it with redactions, but that would have aroused more controversy than publishing it intact.
The dossier claimed that Iraq was “able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so”. It wasn’t until the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), John Scarlett, gave evidence to the Hutton inquiry on 26 August that there was public confirmation that the claim referred to battlefield weapons, and not to strategic weapons capable of hitting, say, Cyprus.
The ISC report reveals (paragraph 49) that the claim was based on an MI6 report dated 30 August 2002, which said that on average it took 20 minutes to move chemical and biological munitions into place for attack (the maximum response time was 45 minutes). This information allegedly came from an Iraqi military officer, who was allegedly in a position to know, but MI6 received it through a third party. That was the sum total of the information: as the ISC report says:
“The JIC did not know precisely which munitions could be deployed from where to where …” (paragraph 57)
(Furthermore, unbelievably, the ISC discovered that an error crept in during the incorporation of this MI6 report into a formal JIC assessment).
On this slim foundation the 45-minute claim was included in the dossier not once, but four times, and ended up in countless newspaper headlines on 24/25 September 2002. Of this, the ISC said:
“The dossier was for public consumption and not for experienced readers of intelligence material. The 45 minutes claim, included four times, was always likely to attract attention because it was arresting detail that the public had not seen before. As the 45 minutes claim was new to its readers, the context of the intelligence and any assessment needed to be explained. The fact that it was assessed to refer to battlefield chemical and biological munitions and their movement on the battlefield, not to any other form of chemical or biological attack, should have been highlighted in the dossier. The omission of the context and assessment allowed speculation as to its exact meaning. This was unhelpful to an understanding of this issue.” (ibid, paragraph 112)
And, of course, when the press reported the claim as applying to strategic rather than battlefield weapons, Downing Street made no effort to get it corrected (see Annex A below).
The 45-minute claim was excellent for making headlines implying an imminent threat, but objectively it amounted to very little. As the ISC said:
“That the Iraqis could use chemical or biological battlefield weapons rapidly had already been established in previous conflicts and the reference to the 20–45 minutes in the JIC Assessment added nothing fundamentally new to the UK’s assessment of the Iraqi battlefield capability. “ (paragraph 56)
The ISC report also criticised the bald claim in Blair’s foreword that “Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons” (paragraph 110). This could give the impression that “Saddam was actively producing both chemical and biological weapons and significant amounts of agents”, the report said. Especially, when Government ministers are shouting it from the rooftops, they might have added.
In fact, according to the ISC, the JIC did not know what agents had been produced and in what quantities, and what quantities, if any, had been put into weapons (in paragraph 58, the report says that “there was no evidence of munitions being filled with chemical agents since the first Gulf Conflict”). The JIC had merely assessed, based on intelligence, that production of some kind had taken place.
That, plus even more doubtful intelligence on the revival of Iraq’s nuclear programme, was the flimsy basis for Blair’s unequivocal assertion to the House of Commons on 24 September 2002 that:
“… [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.”
The ISC concluded, rather mildly:
“We believe that this uncertainty should have been highlighted to give a balanced view of Saddam’s chemical and biological capacity.”
Not strategic weapons
The ISC report (paragraph 111) also criticised the dossier for not making it clear that the most likely chemical and biological munitions to be used against Western forces were battlefield weapons rather than strategic weapons, and that although there was a possibility that Cyprus could be hit, there was none at all that London could be hit.
The report reveals (paragraph 83) that the first draft of Blair’s foreword made it clear that London could not be hit (at least not with a nuclear weapon). It contained the sentence:
“The case I make is not that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on London or another part of the UK (He could not).”
That sentence did not appear in the published dossier. The ISC concludes:
“It was unfortunate that this point was removed from the published version of the foreword and not highlighted elsewhere.”
As for hitting Cyprus, Iraq had at most 20 al Hussein missiles capable of doing that. This was the number unaccounted for by UN inspectors. But, if they existed at all, they had been hidden away since 1991, and therefore there was a large question mark over their operability.
Given the US/UK domination of the skies over Iraq, there was no possibility of munitions of any kind being delivered from the air. Nowhere, in the dossier does it make that clear either.
Paragraphs 125 to 127 of the ISC report make interesting reading:
“125. The 27 November 2002 intelligence update reported that although there was no intelligence to indicate that Iraq had considered using chemical and biological agents in terrorist attacks, it could not rule out the possibility.
126. In their assessment International Terrorism:War with Iraq, dated 10 February 2003, the JIC reported that there was no intelligence that Iraq had provided CB materials to al-Qaida or of Iraqi intentions to conduct CB terrorist attacks using Iraqi intelligence officials or their agents. However, it judged that in the event of imminent regime collapse there would be a risk of transfer of such material, whether or not as a deliberate Iraqi regime policy. The JIC assessed that al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.
“127. The JIC assessed that any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, not necessarily al-Qaida.”
It is understandable that Blair kept those intelligence assessments from Parliament. The risk of chemical and biological weapons finding their way from Saddam Hussein to “terrorists” was a major part of his argument for war on 18 March 2003:
“The key today is stability and order. The threat is chaos and disorder—and there are two begetters of chaos: tyrannical regimes with weapons of mass destruction and extreme terrorist groups who profess a perverted and false view of Islam. …
“Those two threats have, of course, different motives and different origins, but they share one basic common view: they detest the freedom, democracy and tolerance that are the hallmarks of our way of life. At the moment, I accept fully that the association between the two is loose—but it is hardening. The possibility of the two coming together—of terrorist groups in possession of weapons of mass destruction or even of a so-called dirty radiological bomb—is now, in my judgment, a real and present danger to Britain and its national security.”
The impact of that argument would have been rather blunted if he had revealed to Parliament that the official intelligence assessment was that military action against Iraq would increase that possibility.
The ISC say (paragraph 128) they discussed this risk with Blair, who said that he had exercised his judgment and history will judge him on that. That is, of course, beside the point: for better or worse, he had devolved the decision on military action to Parliament, and therefore he was under an obligation to tell Parliament all the intelligence assessments relevant to the decision, not just the ones that bolstered his case.
Knowing it to be wrong:
why no correction?
Despite knowing it to be wrong, the Government made no effort to correct the widespread interpretation of the 45-minute claim in the press on 24/25 September 2002 as applying to missiles with which Iraq could hit Cyprus. This was in stark contrast to the huge amount of time and energy applied in attempting to correct the alleged misreporting of Andrew Gilligan.
At the Hutton inquiry, the BBC were keen to highlight the fact that the Government complained about misreporting when it suited them, not out of a devotion to informing the public accurately. Geoff Hoon was cross-examined by Andrew Caldicott for the BBC on 22 September 2003 (transcript here). The portion concerned with this issue is reproduced below.
Hoon admitted that he knew at the time that the claim referred to battlefield weapons, but that neither he, nor anybody else in the Government, had made any effort to correct press reports that it referred to missiles. He said:
“… I was not aware of whether any consideration was given to such a correction. All that I do know from my experience is that, generally speaking, newspapers are resistant to corrections. That judgment may have been made by others as well.”
Why Hoon felt obliged to make a fool of himself by uttering this nonsense, and much more on the same lines, is a mystery. It was definitely the time for him to pass the buck to Downing Street since they, and not the MoD, were responsible for the dossier.
Caldicott suggested that the reason why a correction wasn’t issued was:
“It would have been politically highly embarrassing because it would have revealed the dossier as published was at least highly capable of being misleading.”
True, it would. But my guess is that the real reason is much simpler: it is that Downing Street fed them the line in the first place. The fact that so many papers carried it is evidence for this.
(The line that Brits in Cyprus could be annihilated by Saddam within 45 minutes of him deciding to do so has Alistair Campbell’s prints all over it. In an e-mail to Campbell on 19 September 2002 (CAB/11/0103), Blair’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, asked what do we want the headline in the Standard on the day of publication, though unfortunately there is no public record of Campbell’s reply. Asked at the Hutton inquiry on 19 August 2003 if he had any hand in the Standard headline “45 Minutes From Attack”, Campbell said, modestly, that he didn’t write the headlines for the Standard.)
Caldicott also asked Scarlett (on 23 September 2003, transcript here) if he had been concerned about press misinterpretation of the 45-minute claim. Scarlett wriggled uncomfortably, saying first that it only went on for a couple of days in a few newspapers, then that battlefield weapons killed a lot of people too and he ended by saying that it wasn’t his job to correct press misrepresentation.
In the course of suggesting that battlefield weapons were lethal too, he cited the Iran/Iraq war, where, he said, 20,000 Iranians were killed or wounded by 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 not classified as “weapons of mass destruction”. You can see the sense of it, can’t you?
Jones the metal
Dr Brian Jones gave evidence to the Hutton Inquiry on 3 September 2003 (transcript here). He is a scientist, by training a metallurgist. At the time the dossier was drawn up last year, he was a branch head in the Defence Intelligence Staff in the MoD, but he has since retired from the civil service. He held that position since 1996, when analysis activities on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons were drawn together in one branch. He appeared before the inquiry because two people in his branch had complained in writing about aspects of the dossier at the time of its preparation.
Prompted by James Dingemans for the inquiry and by Lord Hutton himself, he made interesting remarks on what weapons could reasonably be termed “weapons of mass destruction”. It is not clear why the inquiry pursued this line, since it has no relevance to the death of Dr Kelly, but it did.
Here is what Dr Jones was prompted to say:
“My personal opinion is that almost all -- almost all -- nuclear weapons truly fit this concept of being a weapon of mass destruction, that some biological weapons are perhaps reasonably described in that way because they could be used to produce very large numbers of casualties on the same sort of scale perhaps even as nuclear weapons, but there are many biological weapons that struggle to fit into that. Some are incapacitants for example rather than lethal. …
“I think chemical weapons almost [all] struggle to fit into that category. There are certain agents and certain scenarios where I would think that chemical weapons truly are describable as weapons of mass destruction. … I think the sort of scenarios where I think that chemical weapons might be described as a weapon of mass destruction are where they might be used in enclosed spaces.
“An example might be the somewhat unsuccessful attempt to use them in that way by Aum Shinri-kyo on the Tokyo underground in the mid 1990s, where if large amounts of the nerve agent they tried to use had entered the atmosphere then many more people would have died. But it is rather more difficult to think of them in those terms really on the battlefield perhaps where to produce large numbers of casualties you need very large amounts of material.
Asked if he would term a battlefield chemical shell as a weapon of mass destruction, he said:
“No, I think personally I would struggle to make that particular scenario really fit into an equivalence of them facing a nuclear blast.”
Such a balanced perspective on “weapons of mass destruction” was noticeable by its absence in the September dossier, and in the Government’s case for military action against Iraq in general. Understandably so, since you could hardly make Iraq out to be a threat by saying that it had first World War weapons, which had merely been relabelled “weapons of mass destruction”.
Hutton Inquiry, 22 September 2003
Q. So you knew, did you, that the munitions referred to were
only battlefield munitions?
A. I was certainly aware that that was one suggestion, yes.
Q. Was there any other suggestion that they were not battlefield munitions but strategic munitions?
A. I recall asking what kind of weapons would be deployable within 45 minutes; and the answer is the answer that I have just given to you.
Q. Which was shells, battlefield mortars, tactical weapons of that kind?
Q. Would your Department be responsible for correcting any false impression given by the press on an issue of this importance?
A. I think on an issue of this importance it would not simply have been the Ministry of Defence that was solely responsible. There would have been an effort across Government.
Q. Are you aware that on 25th September a number of newspapers had banner headlines suggesting that this related to strategic missiles or bombs?
A. I can recall, yes.
Q. Why was no corrective statement issued for the benefit of the public in relation to those media reports?
A. I do not know.
Q. It must have been considered by someone, must it not?
A. I have spent many years trying to persuade newspapers and journalists to correct their stories. I have to say it is an extraordinarily time consuming and generally frustrating process.
Q. I am sorry, are you saying that the press would not report a corrective statement that the dossier was meant to refer, in this context, to battlefield munitions and not to strategic weapons?
A. What I am suggesting is that I was not aware of whether
any consideration was given to such a correction. All that I do know from my
experience is that, generally speaking, newspapers are resistant to
corrections. That judgment may have been made by others as well.
Q. But, Mr Hoon, you must have been horrified that the dossier had been misrepresented in this way; it was a complete distortion of what it actually was intended to convey, was it not?
A. Well, I was not horrified. I recognised that journalists occasionally write things that are more dramatic than the material upon which it is based.
Q. Can we forget journalists for the moment and concentrate on the members of the public who are reading it? Will they not be entitled to be given the true picture of the intelligence, not a vastly inflated one?
A. I think that is a question you would have to put to the journalists and the editors responsible.
Q. But you had the means
to correct it, not them. They could not correct it until they were told, could
A. Well, as I say, my experience of trying to persuade newspapers to correct false impressions is one that is not full of success.
Q. Do you accept that on this topic at least you had an absolute duty to try to correct it?
A. No, I do not.
Q. Do you accept that you had any duty to correct it?
A. Well, I apologise for repeating the same answer, but you are putting the question in another way. I have tried on many, many occasions to persuade journalists and newspapers to correct stories. They do not like to do so.
Q. Can I suggest to you a reason why this was not done? It would have been politically highly embarrassing because it would have revealed the dossier as published was at least highly capable of being misleading.
A. Well, I do not accept that.
Q. So your suggestion is that this was a disgraceful exaggeration by the press of what was clear in the dossier as a reference to battlefield munitions?
A. I am certainly suggesting that it was an exaggeration,
but it is not unusual for newspapers to exaggerate.
Q. Can you tell me, if you happen to have it to hand, where in the dossier it is made clear that the CBW weapons which were the subject of the 45 minute claim were only battlefield munitions
A. Well, I do not have it to hand; and I do not know whether it was made clear.
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