Jonathan Powell’s “bit of a problem”


How Prime Minister’s right hand man

“sexed up” the September dossier


The September dossier contains on page 19 an assessment of what it calls “Saddam’s willingness to use chemical and biological weapons”.


Until just before the dossier was published, this assessment gave the strong impression that these weapons would only be used for defensive purposes – which amounted to saying that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was no threat to anybody.


But just before the dossier was cleared for publication, the assessment was changed to remove this strong impression and, by so doing, give the impression that Saddam Hussein might use these weapons for aggressive purposes – which implied that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq constituted a threat of some kind to the outside world.


This was a fundamental change in the dossier’s message about the level of threat from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  It is of much greater importance than the 45-minute claim about which there has been so much controversy.  It was essential for making the case for taking military action against Iraq.


The change was made at the instigation of the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell.


Iraq no threat

How this change came about was revealed at the Hutton inquiry on 23 September 2003, when John Scarlett, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), was cross-examined by the BBC’s barrister, Andrew Caldecott (see transcript here).


In the 11 September draft of the dossier, prepared like other drafts under Scarlett’s direction, the assessment of the circumstances under which Saddam would use chemical and biological weapons was as follows:


“Intelligence indicates that Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat.  We also know from intelligence that as part of Iraq’s military planning, Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons against an internal uprising by the Shia population.  Intelligence indicates that the Iraqi military are able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so.” (Hutton reference BBC/29/0019)


While that formulation does not exclude the possibility that Saddam Hussein would use these weapons aggressively, it gives the strong impression that it was much more likely that he would use them as a defensive measure, that is, if his regime was under threat from either external or internal opposition.  In other words, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was little or no threat to his neighbours, and even less to Britain.


One doesn’t need to be possessed of great intelligence (of either kind) to see that this was true in September 2002, and had been true since the end of the Gulf War – since Saddam Hussein knew that an aggressive act of any kind would be used by the US/UK as an excuse to overthrow his regime.


This 11 September draft was circulated to members of the JIC, on which sit the most senior intelligence figures in the land, including the head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove.  None of them objected to this assessment that Iraq was no threat to anybody.  So it was repeated in the 16 September draft and in the draft of 19 September, without objection from any JIC member at either stage.


Powell’s “bit of a problem”

When the official deadline for comment on the dossier passed at 15:00 on 19 September, this assessment was still in place.  But 45 minutes later at 15:45, John Scarlett received an e-mail, not from a member of the JIC, but from the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell.  The e-mail was copied to Alistair Campbell and David Manning (Blair’s foreign policy adviser).  Powell wrote:


I think the statement on page 19 that ‘Saddam is prepared to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat’ is a bit of a problem. It backs up the … argument that there is no CBW threat and we will only create one if we attack him.  I think you should redraft the para. My memory of the intelligence is that he has set up plans to use CBW on Western forces and that these weapons are integrated into his military planning."  (CAB/11/0103)


Note that Powell did not challenge the assessment on the grounds that it was objectively wrong, but on the grounds that it was “a bit of a problem”, in other words, politically inconvenient for his master.  How could Parliament be persuaded to support military action against Iraq if it was no threat to anybody?


Powell was absolutely right: the current assessment, far from making a case for taking military action against Iraq, made a case for leaving Iraq alone.  Furthermore, it was incompatible with Blair’s assertion in the foreword to the dossier that Iraq was “a current and serious threat to the UK national interest”.


This was not the first time Powell had expressed worries that the dossier didn’t show that Iraq was a threat.  Two days earlier, he had e-mailed Scarlett saying:


“ … the document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein.  In other words, it shows he has the means but it does not demonstrate he has the motive to attack his neighbours, let alone the west.” (CAB/11/0077-78)


When he first gave evidence to the inquiry on 26 August 2003, Scarlett denied making any changes to the dossier as a result of receiving this e-mail.  However, two days later, he was effectively ordered to make a change, and he did: he made Powell’s “bit of a problem” go away, by the simple expedient of removing any suggestion that Saddam Hussein would use chemical and biological weapons only if he was attacked.


(Of course, Powell merely expressed the opinion that the paragraph should be redrafted, but when the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff says he has “a bit of a problem” he wants fixed, which means the Prime Minister has “a bit of a problem” he wants fixed, it is prudent to treat it as an order).


Iraq now a threat

The amended assessment, which appears in the published dossier, is:


“Intelligence indicates that as part of Iraq’s military planning Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons, including against his own Shia population. Intelligence indicates that the Iraqi military are able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so.”


The Prime Minister assured the House of Commons on 4 June 2003:


“I want to make it clear to the House—I have spoken and conferred with the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee—that there was no attempt, at any time, by any official, or Minister, or member of No. 10 Downing Street staff, to override the intelligence judgments of the Joint Intelligence Committee.”


If there was a political opposition worthy of the name in Britain, the Prime Minister would be dead in the water now that it has being revealed that his right hand was responsible for making a major change in the dossier.  True, the Prime Minister’s words were carefully chosen on 4 June 2003: no member of the Downing Street staff had attempted “to override the intelligence judgments of the Joint Intelligence Committee”, he said, knowing that Scarlett could be relied upon to say that everything in the dossier was based on his intelligence judgement, even if it was inspired by Downing Street staff.


Scarlett wriggles

Cross-examined on 23 September 2003 by Caldecott for the BBC about Powell’s request for redrafting, Scarlett performed heroically on the Prime Minister’s behalf.  Caldecott asked him:


“The suggestion there, is it not, is that the dossier should be redrafted to remove an express suggestion that Saddam Hussein is a defensive threat? … And leave an implication that, in fact, he is an offensive threat; is that right?”


Scarlett replied:


“No. It is not right. It is not to leave the implication that he is an offensive threat, it is to take away the explicit, as it were, limitation that it is a defensive -- not a defensive threat, but it is a defensive sort of point. …


“This e-mail did prompt me and the assessment staff to look again at that particular passage. Now, we were acting under the instructions from the JIC to keep what we were writing in line with standing JIC assessments and also with recent intelligence.


“As I recall this particular paragraph -- obviously this particular paragraph was under the heading of what recent intelligence was showing. Now, there had been an intelligence report which made that point, I mean a recent intelligence report which is why it was phrased like this.


“When we looked at it again, we also realised two things: first of all, that there was no standing JIC assessment which made it clear whether we were defining Saddam's threat, if you like, as defensive or CW posture as defensive or offensive. More to the point, there was recent reporting, in addition, which was not reflected here, but which was quite clear reporting, which placed his attachment to CBW and the importance that he placed on it very much in the context of his perception of his regional position, his plans to acquire and maintain regional influence and, as one report, and maybe more, put it: dominate his neighbours. In other words, the recent intelligence was more complex than that phrase implied.  Bearing those points in mind, we concluded that this was not right, the way this was phrased; and therefore we took that out. That is what I did.”


So there you have it: Powell didn’t “override” any of the judgements of the JIC.  His e-mail merely prompted Scarlett to look again at the existing intelligence – and he found that the existing intelligence justified removing the suggestion that Saddam Hussein would use chemical and biological weapons only as a defensive measure.  By sheer coincidence this change made Powell’s “bit of a problem” go away: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a threat after all.


That’s what Scarlett is asking us to believe.  He’s also asking us to believe that the members of the JIC, and their staff in the intelligence agencies, read at least three drafts of the dossier, all of which contained this seriously flawed assessment that Saddam was no threat to anybody, and not one of them noticed it.  And but for the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff having a “bit of a problem” with the paragraph, this seriously flawed piece of intelligence would have been communicated to the world as the best assessment of the UK intelligence services. 


One doesn’t need to be an intelligence professional to see that the final assessment is fairly meaningless, and deliberately so.  An assessment worthy of the name would have provided separate judgements for the two distinct circumstances (a) if the Iraqi regime was under threat, and (b) if it wasn’t.  But the assessment in the September dossier could not deal separately with those cases – because it could not have avoided the conclusion that the chances of chemical and biological weapons being used in case (a) were much greater than in case (b).  However, in that event Powell’s “bit of a problem” would have remained, and the public might have got the politically inconvenient impression feared by Powell that “there is no CBW threat and we will only create one if we attack him”.


CIA assessment

A couple of weeks after the September dossier was published, when the US Congress was debating a resolution to empower the President to take military action against Iraq, the CIA provided it with an assessment of the threat posed by Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons.  This was given in a letter dated 7 October 2002 to Senator Bob Graham, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (which is publicly available in the Congressional record, see  here, for example).


The letter declassified a small portion of CIA evidence to Graham’s committee at a closed session on 2 October 2002.  This reads as follows:


Senator Levin: . . . If (Saddam) didn't feel threatened, did not feel threatened [sic], is it likely that he would initiate an attack using a weapon of mass destruction?


Senior Intelligence Witness: . . . My judgment would be that the probability of him initiating an attack--let me put a time frame on it--in the foreseeable future, given the conditions we understand now, the likelihood I think would be low.


Senator Levin: Now if he did initiate an attack you've . . . indicated he would probably attempt clandestine attacks against us . . . But what about his use of weapons of mass destruction? If we initiate an attack and he thought he was in extremis or otherwise, what's the likelihood in response to our attack that he would use chemical or biological weapons?


Senior Intelligence Witness: Pretty high, in my view.


The British Government’s dossier should have contained something similar on “Saddam’s willingness to use chemical and biological weapons”.  Originally, it did.  But since that gave the impression that there was no threat from these weapons, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff had it excised.



Labour  & Trade Union Review

October 2003