Did Tony Blair lie about intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the run up to the Iraq war in 2003? This was always one of the key questions for the Chilcot Inquiry – and in the end, its report found the intelligence services and the government’s relationship to them to be a point of critical failure.
Two reports have directly addressed this issue before: one produced by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), and the other by an inquiry chaired by Lord Butler, both in 2004. Both found that incorrect claims made before the war were at least based on intelligence, rather than simply made up. The Butler Review asserted that while various of the government’s judgements “went to (although not beyond) the outer limits of the intelligence available”, there was no systematic attempt to distort the evidence.
The 2004 Hutton Inquiry into the death of David Kelly also concluded that allegations that the government dossier had been “embellished with intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable” were unfounded.
But Sir John Chilot’s report has gone further. By forensically examining the way intelligence was indeed misrepresented to strengthen the case for going to war it was able to conduct a more extensive review of the political context and the mindset of the individuals involved.
The report shares the view that “there is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No 10 improperly influenced the text”. On that basis, charges that Blair lied seem false. That said, it goes much further than earlier inquiries in criticising the presentation of intelligence.
Chilcot argues that the statement in the foreword to the notorious September 2002 dossier, which called Iraq “a current and serious threat to the UK national interest”, reflected Blair’s beliefs but “did not reflect the view” of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which had assessed that Iraq’s capabilities and intentions were limited to “the balance of power in the region and internal challenges”.
Similarly, the report notes that “the assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons”, contrary to the assertions of Blair’s foreword. Overall, the inquiry perceived that the threat was “presented with a certainty that was not justified”.
So who was to blame for all this?
Clearly, the inference is that Blair’s beliefs were crowding out caveats from the intelligence community. But Chilcot singles out other culprits too.
The JIC, the body which collates all the UK government’s intelligence assessments and reports to the prime minister, is criticised for not ensuring that the introduction to the 2002 dossier tallied with the main text of the dossier. The Foreign Office’s advice for Jack Straw and Tony Blair on Iraq’s WMD programmes in December 2001 is described as “couched in more definitive terms than the language used by the JIC and omitted the JIC caveats”.
Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), is also admonished for his personal intervention which pressed for the inclusion of intelligence on Iraq’s chemical weapons production that “had not been properly evaluated and would have coloured the perception of ministers and senior officials”.
The evidence the Chilcot Inquiry saw and heard implies that it wasn’t just Blair who misread Iraq’s weapons capabilities. Key figures working in government and intelligence clearly assumed that Iraq possessed WMD, intended to acquire more once sanctions were lifted, and was not in compliance with UN Security Council Resolutions demanding co-operation with inspectors.
Sir William Ehrman, then director general of intelligence at the Foreign Office, told Chilcot he and his team had not received contradictory intelligence on Iraq’s WMD capabilities until the final days prior to the invasion. UN inspections had revealed rocket motors and nuclear documents, and were still reporting non-cooperation in a number of areas. The Foreign Office’s director of counter-proliferation, Tim Dowse, saw it as a “reasonable conclusion” that Iraq would have continued to pursue their WMD programmes after 1998 in a “more uninhibited way”.
Sir John Scarlett, the chair of the JIC in 2003, stated that intelligence suggested the production of chemical and biological agents had accelerated and Iraq had a “usable chemical and biological warfare capability”.
Even Hans Blix, the head of the UN inspection team in Iraq, UNMOVIC, admitted to the inquiry that in 2003: “I, like most people at the time, felt that Iraq retains [sic] weapons of mass destruction.”
The true problem of Blair and his government that Chilcot identifies was not that they were lying; it was that they failed to subject their assumptions to proper scrutiny and reassess them in light of new evidence.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Iraq was said to have moved from number 20 on the list of priorities to number one. The fear of materials falling into the hands of terrorists led to a reassessment of the threat from various states, including Iraq, and a desire to ensure that proliferation could not extend to non-state actors, especially terrorist groups.
Having underestimated Iraq’s capabilities prior to 1991, officials overestimated them in 2003. Governments began to focus on potential risks rather than tangible threats, and so intelligence took centre stage as the primary means to identify them.
But intelligence is not the same as facts. It is information which may or may not be accurate, and which has to be interpreted in context. When UNMOVIC carried out around 700 inspections at 500 sites in Iraq and found no weapons of mass destruction, the government should have questioned what it was taking for granted.
As Dowse put it in his evidence to the inquiry: “We have to be prepared to ask difficult questions and challenge our own assumptions … in respect of Iraq that broke down.” By March 2003, Blix was indicating greater co-operation on the part of Iraq, and warning that significant WMD capabilities might never be found – but by then, Straw, Blair and others were not listening.
Ultimately, Hussein saw Iran as his primary threat and WMDs as his best form of deterrence. As a result, he was willing to risk invasion by Western countries rather than admit he did not possess them.
If one lesson is to be learned from this mistake, it’s the importance of having a “red team” of critical analysts challenging assumptions and offering alternative explanations for opponents’ behaviour. It was Blair’s failing, along with the wider intelligence community, that the intelligence was not questioned and no-one pondered why Iraq might not wish to reveal its weakness in this regard.