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An elegant box of sharpened knives

Jonathan Freedland
Thursday July 15, 2004
The Guardian


The scene was quintessentially British. A tall white-haired gentleman with a grand title and mellifluous voice addressing a wood-panelled room in a fine London building. At his side, straight-backed as an officer in a box of toy soldiers, a retired colonel and, next to him, a former field marshal. Outside, the constant grey rain of an English July.

It was an appropriate atmosphere for Lord Butler of Brockwell to deliver his conclusions after a six-month investigation into the use of intelligence in the lead-up to the war against Iraq. For this was a very British report.

Less than a week ago the American equivalent of the Butler inquiry in the US Senate published its findings. They were unambiguous. "A global intelligence failure," said the inquiry chairman.

"We went into Iraq based on false claims," said fellow senator and panel member Jay Rockefeller, adding that the administration had "used bad information to bolster its case for war, and we in Congress would not have authorised that war ... if we knew then what we know now."

That was not quite Lord Butler's style. Just as a certain kind of Briton prefers circumlocution and euphemism for even everyday speech - "I wonder if I could trouble you for a glass of water?" - so his lordship chose to speak indirectly. American inquiries may talk of screw-ups and false claims, but Lord Butler would tread more lightly.

After all, this was a former cabinet secretary, an establishment insider who spent a lifetime mastering the art of the coded memo, the veiled policy paper. His report was never going to be the searing, damning indictment some had longed for. That would be far too crude.

So Lord Butler did not thrust a dagger into the prime minister or anyone else yesterday. Instead he presented parliament, press and public with an elegant, walnut-encased, velvet-lined box full of sharpened knives. "You might use these," he seemed to say. "I couldn't possibly."

His lordship was careful to supply a sheath for each blade, lest anyone suspect he was inciting their use. But the steel was there, the glint unmistakable. Knife one was the thorough discrediting of the human intelligence on Iraq. One main source was passing on hearsay. Another, on chemical and biological weapons, "must be open to doubt". Reports from a third source "have been withdrawn as unreliable." Yet another was "seriously flawed", so that the grounds for believing "Iraq had recently produced stocks of biological agent no longer exist".

A casual reader might look at all this and conclude that Britain's intelligence services had, like their US counterparts, failed and failed badly. They were sold a pup. But Butler would say nothing of the sort. While the US Senate found the CIA suffered from "a broken corporate culture and poor management", his lordship had no such hard words for their British counterparts. He had seen no evidence of "culpable negligence". No heads needed to roll. Others might read Butler's description of the flimsiness of the Iraq information and wonder how Downing Street nevertheless produced a September 2002 dossier brimming with confidence that Saddam Hussein was armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction. But having planted that thought, Butler moved quickly to snuff it out. "We have found no evidence of deliberate distortion."

His lordship's second knife picked up the notorious 45-minute claim, the one that caused so much trouble last year. Yesterday's report vindicated two important parts of Andrew Gilligan's original story. First, it said the claim was wrong and should never have been in the September dossier, certainly not in the form in which it appeared. Second, Butler nodded to suspicions that the 45-minute line was only included "because of its eye-catching character". To make the dossier sexier, as Gilligan might have put it.

Once again, though, Butler refused to push the knife in all the way. Surely, a sceptic might ask, 45 minutes was included despite its flaws because it served the government's aim of making the strongest possible case for war? You might say that, implied the peer. I couldn't possibly comment. There was "no evidence of JIC assessments and the judgments inside them being pulled in any particular direction".

Knife three was the methodical job of caveat-stripping that went into No 10's crafting of the dossier. The report includes a handy appendix laying out the raw intelligence material alongside the finished, political product. It makes clear how almost all the qualifiers - the maybes and possiblys - were removed, giving the impression the government had a much firmer fix on Saddam's arsenal than it ever did.

This was a "serious weakness", said Butler. The dossier should have made clear the limits of the knowledge that underpinned it. Many people will regard the removal of these qualifiers, turning possibilities into certainties, as a material change to the document, hardening it up, firming it up - even sexing it up.

But Lord Butler will not be among them, not explicitly at any rate. He agreed with Lord Hutton that both "allegations that the intelligence in the September dossier had knowingly been embellished" and questions "over the good faith of the government" were to be dismissed.

This was the pattern, his lordship regularly exposing a gap in the government armour, only to plug it soon afterwards. No one benefited from his approach more than John Scarlett, then head of the joint intelligence committee. The report deluged him with criticism, albeit worded in the silky prose of a veteran mandarin. Scarlett's JIC had faulty practices: overcorrecting past errors, turning worst-case scenarios into baseline expectations, misreading the nature of Iraqi society. Butler also left no doubt that he believed Scarlett had let political pressure get to him.

There was a "strain" on JIC's usual neutrality and objectivity; the pressure for a document for public, political consumption meant "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear." In future a JIC chairman should be someone "demonstrably beyond influence". To most eyes, that will read as Whitehall-speak for a statement that Scarlett did not do his job properly: he failed to keep the politicians sufficiently at bay. Surely that would disqualify him from promotion to run the Secret Intelligence Service, the SIS? But Lord Butler could not let that appear to be his conclusion. He and his colleagues "greatly hope" Scarlett will take up his new job.

The iron fist of the former cabinet secretary kept punching, forever wrapped in the same velvet glove. The prime minister was upbraided for a governing style which made collective, cabinet responsibility almost impossible: ministers never saw key papers, relying instead on oral briefings. Did that lead to bad governance? No, there was no reason to suspect the current style was "any less effective" than those that had gone before.

Perhaps most woundingly, Butler concluded that when the PM suddenly started focusing on Iraq in early 2002 the shift was not based on a change in intelligence - despite Blair's constant references to the material crossing his desk. Rather, the relevant circumstances seem to have been a change of heart in Washington: Butler even cited George Bush's "axis of evil" speech. Yet even here the former cabinet secretary gave the PM a let-out: 9/11 had changed the global climate, making proliferation of WMD a more pressing concern.

When he had finished, Butler's audience, like a school speech day dismissed by a kindly headmaster, wondered what to make of it all. It was confusing: some thought the headline was "Blair slammed", others said it was "Whitewash II". It might take a while to sink in that Lord Butler had done neither. He did not play the assassin. Instead he handed the PM a bulletproof vest, and the public a set of live bullets. That at least will ensure fair play - and what could be more British than that?


New York Times

 

British Report Faults Prewar Intelligence but Clears Blair

By ALAN COWELL

Published: July 15, 2004

LONDON, July 14 - A major British report released Wednesday found extensive failures both in intelligence gathering on illicit weapons and the government's use of that intelligence to justify the Iraq war. But it cleared Prime Minister Tony Blair of accusations that he or his government distorted the evidence to build a case for the war.

"We have no reason, found no evidence to question the prime minister's good faith," the report's author, Lord Butler, said at a news conference, "no deliberate attempt on the part of the government to mislead."

Echoing findings by a United States Senate committee last week, the report also found no evidence that Saddam Hussein had significant, if any, stocks of chemical or biological weapons before the war or that Iraq had cooperated with Al Qaeda.

Unlike the Senate Intelligence Committee report, which passed a withering verdict on the Central Intelligence Agency, the report specifically exonerated one of Britain's top spymasters, John Scarlett, sparing him the same destiny as the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, who resigned just before the Senate report was published.

The British findings departed from Senate report in several other crucial areas.

First, Lord Butler, formerly Britain's top civil servant, said Britain had received information from "several different sources" to substantiate reports that Iraq sought to purchase uranium from Niger. The Senate report found that similar claims by American intelligence, which found their way into President Bush's State of the Union address last year, were based on a single set of forged documents.

Unlike American intelligence gatherers, Lord Butler said, British intelligence agencies routinely avoided relying on Iraqi exiles as a source for information. The report showed that British intelligence had relied more than the C.I.A. did on high-level agents in prewar Baghdad, even though those agents had no direct access to information on unlawful weapons.

The Butler report was far less scathing about British failures than the Senate report was about American mistakes. But like its American counterpart, it made clear that the British government had relied heavily on "seriously flawed" intelligence gathering that was "open to doubt," and had since been proved wrong.

The report was disdainful of the evidence used to support Mr. Blair's claim that Mr. Hussein had the ability to deploy unlawful weapons within 45 minutes. That claim was contained in a British government dossier published in September 2002 that went to the "outer limits" of British intelligence available at the time.

A crucial piece of information missing from that claim, the report noted, was that it appeared to refer to Iraq's ability to move battlefield munitions, not ballistic missiles, into position. The report said the claim should not have been made in the dossier and "led to suspicions that it had been included because of its eye-catching character.''

In a speech to Parliament almost immediately after the report was published, Mr. Blair said he had to accept that "it seems increasingly clear that at the time of the invasion, Saddam did not have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy."

That represented a sharp turnaround from Mr. Blair's assertions about Iraq in the months leading up to the invasion. But in an ebullient and energetic performance before Parliament on Wednesday, Mr. Blair seemed to carry off the about-face with some aplomb.

"I accept full personal responsibility for the way the issue was presented and therefore for any errors made," he said.

At the same time, though, Mr. Blair and his aides suggested that the specific intelligence about Iraq's supposed illicit weapons was not the prime rationale for war, apparently revising their earlier arguments. Rather, Mr. Hussein's refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions was the prime justification, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said.

That assertion met with some skepticism from the government's critics. "He has changed the grounds of the argument," said Alan Beith, a legislator from the opposition Liberal Democrats.

Like an earlier inquiry led by Lord Hutton, the report exonerated the government of the charge that it deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Mr. Hussein in an effort to deceive the public and Parliament. "No single individual is to blame," Lord Butler said. "This was a collective operation."

 
 
 
 
He got it wrong
Leader
Monday 19th July 2004
The decision to take his or her country to war is the gravest that a prime minister can make. It puts at risk not only the lives of the country's troops, to say nothing of the lives of foreign nationals (civilians and conscripts), but also the country's future security and international goodwill. We have the right to expect our leaders to agonise over the decision, to consider every possible means of avoiding it, to pore over all the available evidence bearing upon it, to ask searching questions about the reasons given for going to war.

For Tony Blair now to say that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power borders on frivolity. The world would be better off without many current rulers - including, some would say, Ariel Sharon and George W Bush. The questions Mr Blair had to answer were: why this particular ruler and why now? He published a dossier on how the dictator posed an imminent threat to British interests, emphasising that publishing such intelligence material was unprecedented, and implying that it represented a fraction of what was available to him. That was the centrepiece of his case for war. It has now collapsed. The war, however virtuous its results in other respects (and even that is a matter of dispute), was unnecessary according to the criteria that Mr Blair himself set. It was the biggest decision of his period in office and he got it wrong. If a Tory premier had been responsible for misjudgement on such a scale, it is hard to believe that a Labour Party in opposition would not now demand his resignation.

Lord Butler, in the careful way of a Whitehall mandarin, has avoided denouncing individuals and, in particular, avoided impugning their integrity. That is probably right. It is up to MPs and voters to apportion blame. But Lord Butler's report provides ample evidence of what went wrong.

One of the prime functions of the intelligence services in 2002 was, as the report puts it, "to inform planning for a military campaign". Much of this intelligence was necessarily speculative, concentrating on the worst-case possibilities that could follow an invasion, and in particular on what Saddam might do if he faced defeat. A Joint Intelligence Committee assessment completed on 9 September 2002, from which Lord Butler quotes substantial extracts, was clearly written as an exploration of the risks involved in war. Some of the material turned out to be wrong, but the intelligence services were right to include it as a warning. It quite explicitly stated that Saddam was not likely to use WMDs pre-emptively. Yet two weeks later, these assessments, stripped of many caveats and of nearly all context, were translated into a dossier designed to advocate the case for war. The WMDs that Saddam might possess and might use during a war became WMDs that he almost certainly possessed and would, in time, unleash in an unprovoked act of aggression.

This was the origin of the notorious claim - which was repeated four times in the published dossier and interpreted by a tabloid paper as a potential attack on "British servicemen and tourists in Cyprus" - that Saddam could launch chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes. The 9 September assessment reported that such weapons (if they existed) "could be with military units and ready for firing within 20-45 minutes". The context and wording make it clear that the reference was to battlefield weapons. Transposed into a dossier attempting to make the case that Saddam was a dangerous aggressor, they appeared as weapons that could be used against civilians - as both Mr Blair and Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, apparently thought they could be.

It may seem astonishing that senior ministers did not grasp the nature of the material crossing their desks. But by that stage, they were viewing it through only one prism: the urgent importance of overthrowing Saddam. Mr Blair was almost certainly sincere when he said he was "in no doubt" that the threat from the Iraqi dictator was "serious and current". He had been reading, judging from the extracts published by Lord Butler, about anthrax, botulinum and sarin, free-fall bombs and airborne sprays, attacks on Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Israel and Turkey - all possibilities which, however remote, had to be considered if a war started. But Mr Blair apparently thought - or wanted to think - that these germs were ready to overwhelm the Middle East at any moment, perhaps even to strike down Londoners.

The Prime Minister's relationship with the truth has always been an uncertain one. He is a lawyer by trade, accustomed to convincing himself that a weak case can be won. He is also a politician who owes much of his success to deft presentation. As a BBC Panorama programme has recalled, Mr Blair told the Commons, during Operation Desert Fox in 1998, when cruise missiles and bombs rained down on Iraq, that the aim was "to degrade the ability of Saddam Hussein to build and use weapons of mass destruction". The operation was declared a success. Yet Brian Jones, then a member of the Defence Intelligence Staff, told Panorama that his department was not able to provide with any certainty a list of targets. John Morrison, deputy chief of Defence Intelligence from 1995-99, said that the operation wasn't "particularly effective", though he had been under pressure to say it was.

But as Nick Cohen argues (page 12), it is not feasible to prove that Mr Blair was lying, then or now. Nor is it necessary. He made a catastrophic misjudgement, which should be reason enough for a prime minister to stand down. The Butler report may be circumspect in its judgements, but it is not a whitewash. It reveals that, before he took his country to war, Mr Blair failed to do his job and, most alarmingly, seemed not to master his brief. MPs should now hold him to account.
 
 
 
 A slow-burn report to stop the rot

There will be no more politicised intelligence or dodgy dossiers

Crispin Black
Thursday July 15, 2004
The Guardian


"But I think all this is a lie, you know, I think all this is a lie ..."

Not my verdict on Lord Butler's report but a line from a Harrow School song - his alma mater and mine. But it's a relevant song nevertheless. It is the triumphant last verse riposte to the main body of the song, which laments a falling off in academic, sporting and moral standards at Harrow in the 1870s.

Spin it how you like, the affair of the dodgy dossiers and the Hutton report represent a sharp falling away in standards not only of intelligence analysis but also of the conduct of government in general. For a while, it was almost as if it were back before the great civil service reforms of the late 19th century, where the governing party or faction could do more or less what it liked with the machinery of the state - which was largely composed of its clients, or creatures, in any case. The Butler report is unlikely to satisfy the tricoteuse tendency - those who want to see heads roll in a full sacrificial ritual. But Lord Butler's report will do a great deal to bring about, once again, the high standards of collection and analysis for which the British intelligence community was previously known.

It's a slow-burning report, and its television opening had an elegance and lightness of touch and courtesy that were lacking in the US Senate intelligence committee's presentation of its report last week. But Lord Butler goes right to the heart of the matter. He would not dream of using the demotic "sexed up", but the way the evidence is presented allows us to draw our own conclusions. By publishing excerpts of the original joint intelligence committee papers and placing them alongside the dodgy dossier, he and his colleagues demonstrate the great gulf in words and tone and intended meaning between the real JIC assessments and the September dossier. Like a police chief in south-east Asia triumphantly laying out the fake Gucci handbags, the dodgy Rolex watches and pirate DVDs, he compares and contrasts the pirate dossier with the real article. It may not be damning, some people may not care, but it is effective.

Even his early defence of John Scarlett, specifically recommending that he not forgo his elevation to MI6, firmly throws the responsibility back on the shoulders of the politicians, which is where it should lie. They are the policy makers. Crucially, they have the power to set the atmosphere and environment in which intelligence is collected and analysed. And this, more than anything else, is clearly what went wrong.

Lord Butler makes clear his disdain for the 45-minutes claim. It simply should not have been there - neither in the proper JIC assessment nor in the dossier. This is an important finding, and more than anything else in the report will serve to bring back some analytical sanity to the central assessment machinery. Of course, it should not have been there. To give you an idea of what "strain" must have meant: if I had tried to include such a poorly sourced piece of intelligence while drafting a JIC paper it would have been removed at a subordinate meeting before it got into the final draft - most probably at the insistence of the Secret Intelligence Service representative, who would have understood its flimsiness. Even if no one complained during the exhaustive Whitehall drafting process, the reference would have been dismissed with puzzled disdain by the great men and women of the JIC when I took it before them for approval. They would have made a donnish joke of it perhaps, but their critical teeth would have been bared.

Lord Franks's 1982 report into the intelligence background to the Falklands changed the art and science of intelligence analysis for ever by recommending strongly that analysts do not confine their attentions to intelligence alone. They must look at open sources in order to give context to their reports. Lord Butler's report will not bring in a change of concept like that but it will go a long way to restoring the integrity and critical adeptness of British collection and analysis.

For many, the report may not go far enough. But one thing is clear: there will not be any more dodgy dossiers or politicised intelligence, even behind closed doors. The "analytical freehold" of British and other analysts has been greatly strengthened. In future, when politicians attempt to create an atmosphere of "strain", our intelligence community will be fortified to resist.

Perhaps there is something in that optimistic last verse of the Harrow song. Sadly, standards had been compromised but at least the intelligence community now has a good chance of pursuing its craft once again as it used to do - free of the strain of political influence.

Crispin Black, a former government intelligence analyst, is a director of Janusian Security Risk Management

Black@riskadvisory.net

 

 
 Questions raised over the legal backing for war

Nicholas Watt, political correspondent
Thursday July 15, 2004
The Guardian


Lord Butler raised fresh doubts about the legality of the Iraq war yesterday when he questioned an assertion by Downing Street - days before the start of the conflict - that Saddam Hussein was in breach of a UN security council resolution.

In a key finding, Lord Butler indicated that an "unequivocal" ruling by the prime minister about Saddam on March 15 2003 - three days before MPs voted in favour of the war - may have been based on out-dated information.

His remarks came in a passage of the report in which he revealed that Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, demanded a categorical assurance from No 10 that Iraq was in breach of UN security council resolution 1441 of November 2002. Lord Goldsmith demanded "hard evidence of non-compliance and non-cooperation" with resolution 1441 after Britain and the US had failed to secure a second UN resolution.

The prime minister's private secretary offered Lord Goldsmith this assurance in a letter to the attorney general's legal secretary on March 15: "It is indeed the prime minister's unequivocal view that Iraq is in further material breach of its obligations, as in operative paragraph four of UNSCR 1441, because of 'false statements or omissions in the declarations submitted by Iraq pursuant to this resolution and failure by Iraq to comply with, and cooperate fully in the implementation of, this resolution'."

Lord Butler questioned the validity of this declaration when he pointed out that only "limited time" was given to assessing Iraq's key response to resolution 1441 - the so-called Iraqi declaration of December 7 2003. A response to this was drawn up 11 days later by the joint intelligence committee (JIC) on December 18.

The Butler committee indi cated that this was inadequate when it said: "Thereafter, despite its importance to the determination of whether Iraq was in further material breach of its disarmament obligations under UNSCR 1441, the JIC made no further assessment ... We find it odd that after the initial assessment of December 18, the JIC produced no further assessment."

The committee's findings are likely to reopen the debate about the legality of the war because they will raise doubts about whether Downing Street's "unequivocal" ruling that Saddam was in breach of the UN, which allowed Lord Goldsmith to declare the war was lawful, was right.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, said: "This raises a question about the legality of the war and it emphasises the view that we were going to war come hell or high water. The attorney general is in the clear because he asked for something and he got it. But No 10 is not in the clear. It gave an ill-informed judgment to the attorney general."

In another blow for Downing Street, the report said the prime minister decided that Iraq was also in material breach of resolution 1441 because of the "overall intelligence picture and of information from a wide range of sources, including especially Unmovic [weapons inspectors] information".

The report notes that Lord Goldsmith told ministers in autumn 2002 that a war could not be launched on the basis that Britain was under threat. He had therefore based his final legal advice in March 2003 on the basis of UN resolutions and not intelligence about weapons.

A spokesman for the attorney general said: "The attorney's view is that the military action taken in Iraq was lawful. That was his independent view at the time, and it is still his view."

 
 
 
Learn the code

The Senate's report is very revealing about Bush and his apostles - but the clues are buried deep


Sidney Blumenthal
Thursday July 15, 2004
The Guardian


The Senate intelligence committee report is the Da Vinci code of the Iraq war. Some of the clues are in plain sight but unless one knows how to read them they remain cryptic. Deletions, covering one-fifth of the report, and omissions, stretching endlessly, are as significant as what's included. The storyline is jumbled into incoherence, the main characters are often spectral and it's all extremely dangerous.

By virtue of a deal struck before the committee investigated, the belligerent Republican majority got timorous Democrats to separate the inquiry into halves, leaving the question of the Bush administration's culpability for a second report, almost certainly to be filed after the election, if at all. This unholy arrangement enabled the report to put the burden of blame on the CIA. For months, Bush and his national security team escalated its rhetoric about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But there was no national intelligence estimate (NIE) until demands by Democratic senators on the intelligence committee forced its writing.

Most take months to assemble, but this one was slapped together in about three weeks. "Most of the major key judgments in the intelligence community's October 2002 NIE, Iraq's Continuing Programmes for Weapons of Mass Destruction, were either overstated, or were not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting," the report states.

The freakish cognitive dissonance at the NIE's core should have been detected at the start. It broke down its judgments into levels of confidence from high to moder ate to low. Utter absence of proof, however, did not deter the conclusion from being stamped "high confidence".

What the report does not note is the name or background of the NIE's director: Robert Walpole, a former national intelligence officer on nuclear weapons, a factotum of the secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld. Walpole had demonstrated his bona fides in an incident that prefigures the WMD debacle, the writing of the alarmist report of the Rumsfeld commission in 1998, which asserted the ballistic missile threat from "rogue states" was imminent. That claim, used to bolster the case for a Star Wars programme, had been rejected by a similar commission two years earlier.

The report also does not deal with the creation of an alternative intelligence operation inside the Pentagon, the Office of Special Plans, which bypassed regular channels to send fabricated material originating mostly in Ahmed Chalabi's disinformation factory.

But buried in the appendix, Senator John D Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, included an account of an internal operation against the CIA conducted by the under-secretary of defence, Douglas Feith, an entrenched neo-conservative.

While the CIA composed a report on the Iraq-al-Qaida connection, which the administration still trumpets, and for which the intelligence community could never find proof, Feith held briefings trashing the CIA on its impending report. Then, without informing the CIA, Feith's version was presented to the deputy national security adviser and vice-president.

Colin Powell put himself in the hands of people he hoped would protect him. Predictably, he was betrayed. Before his February 5 2002 speech to the United Nations, making the case for WMD, Powell spent days at the CIA. He was given disinformation about mobile biological weapons laboratories, which came from Iraqi exile sources that the CIA didn't trust. The day before Powell's speech, one CIA official wanted to warn him. Another replied, "As I said last night, let's keep in mind the fact that this war's going to happen regardless of what [the source] said or didn't say, and the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether [the source] knows what he's talking about." Powell was sent before the world to speak the falsehoods with CIA director George Tenet sitting behind him. Never before has a secretary of state, the highest ranking cabinet officer, been treated with such contemptuous manipulation by his own administration.

The NIE was condensed to a one-page document and sent to the White House, which still refuses to release it to the committee. The full classified version contains dissenting caveats in its footnotes. But were those included in the one-page summary? And did Bush read the NIE in any form? On July 18 2003, in an overlooked briefing to the White House press corps, "a senior administration official" explained: "I don't think he sat down over a long weekend and read every word of it. But he's familiar, intimately familiar with the case."

In the bestselling thriller The Da Vinci Code, paintings and signs contain the keys to the code. The Senate report, despite missing crucial information, still helps crack the code about Bush and his apostles. Bush is revealed as having a blithe disregard for anything that might interfere with his articles of absolute belief - a man of faith.

Sidney Blumenthal is former senior adviser to President Clinton and Washington bureau chief of salon.com

sidney_blumenthal@yahoo.com


http://www.newstatesman.com/nscoverstory.htm

Blair is weighed in the balance and found wanting

Lord Butler, behind the soft language, has coruscating criticisms. If the PM gets away with it, it will be because of failures in the British system of accountability. By John Kampfner, political editor

The venerable Lord Butler has dangled Tony Blair over the precipice but declined to let him drop. Beneath the soft Whitehall language, his report contains some of the most coruscating criticism imaginable of political leadership. It confirms what almost all those intimately involved in the Iraq affair have long been saying - it is not questions of good faith that matter, it is competence. In the use of intelligence, in diplomacy and in the absence of sang-froid that is required to take the most serious decision, to go to war, this prime minister has been found wanting.

Butler went out of his way to avoid apportioning blame. However, his rigorous endorsement of John Scarlett, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and soon-to-be head of MI6, stands out from his failure similarly to support the political operators who, in his words, "put a strain" on the spooks to deliver what they needed to justify a war to which they had long before committed themselves.

Butler talked of "collective" responsibility, but he acknowledged that the Prime Minister was head of that collective. His list of criticisms is long: in translating the very patchy intelligence into the September 2002 dossier, "the limitations of the intelligence underlying the JIC's judgements were not made sufficiently clear", Butler said, concluding this to be a "serious weakness". He added that "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear". The language in the document "went to (although not beyond) the outer limits of the intelligence available". He specifically blamed Blair for telling the Commons when presenting the dossier that the picture painted by the intelligence services was "extensive, detailed and authoritative". It was anything but.

So much for that one particular dossier. In some ways Blair is right that too much attention has been paid to it. Some of the anger comes from those journalists and news organisations that allowed themselves to be sucked in by the hyperbole of the dossier at the time. The same applies to the notorious 45-minute claim that this latest inquiry - the fourth on Iraq - has confirmed to be utterly spurious from start to finish. Butler noted that the number of primary human intelligence sources was "few" and that, as a result, "intelligence reports were mainly 'inferential' ". Britain, as I disclosed in my book, had virtually nobody to rely on inside Iraq since three agents were outed by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1979 and killed.

Blair has continuously asserted that France and Russia, the countries with the best intelligence coverage, shared the British assessment that Iraq's WMD threat was real and growing. This is simply not true. Indeed Butler pointed out that the British government's conclusion in the spring of 2002 that stronger action needed to be taken "was not based on any new development in the current intelligence picture" but merely on assumptions about Saddam's recent behaviour. "There was no recent intelligence that would itself have given rise to a conclusion that Iraq was of more immediate concern than the activities of some other countries."

The question Blair has still to answer is not what happened in September 2002 but what happened in the frantic two months from January 2003. Robin Cook publicly, and other ministers privately, have made clear that the intelligence briefings they received in this period suggested that, as the threat was talked up, doubts were increasing about Saddam's possession of WMD. In other words, when Hans Blix and his UN inspectors began to worry out loud that they were not finding evidence of chemical and biological weapons, their concerns were not heeded. Rather, Downing Street and the White House suggested that Blix was "failing" in his task because he was not up to it.

Butler puts it more delphically, recording his "surprise that policy makers and the intelligence community did not, as the generally negative results of Unmovic inspections became increasingly apparent, re-evaluate in early 2003 the quality of the intelligence". That is an astonishing and damning comment. When I asked Butler at his news conference to explain this, he suggested that maybe the JIC was concentrating on other threats at the time. The answer may be more simple. Blair, having committed himself to a war that was weeks away, did not want the intelligence revisited because he feared what he might be told.

The other area where more light remains to be shed is the legal advice presented by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, days before the invasion began. On this, I am told, the Butler committee split. They heard evidence from Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who resigned as the number two in the Foreign Office legal team in protest at the judgment. They heard from Goldsmith himself, who has still to account for his apparent volte-face on the eve of war, to provide a legal justification that few in the legal world shared. Butler's report devotes considerable space to the issue, but then strangely withholds judgement, deciding, apparently at the last moment, that the merits or otherwise of Goldsmith's legal position (as distinct from the intelligence that might have informed it) fell outside the committee's remit.

Over the past few days, Blair and his entourage have not demonstrated the same swagger and blithe disdain they felt in January in the run-up to the Hutton report. They knew this one would not be a whitewash. They knew that Butler, for all the deliberate narrowness of his terms of reference, would look at some of the issues that went to the heart of the war. Early in the morning of 14 July, Blair's team - among them Jonathan Powell, Sally Morgan, David Hill and Tom Kelly - met in his flat in 11 Downing Street to prepare their response. One of those in that group was Scarlett.

In his statement to MPs, Blair resorted yet again to his "What's the problem? We've got rid of a bad man" refrain. But this time he had to temper it with an acknowledgement of "full personal responsibility". He said he had searched his conscience "not in a spirit of obstinacy but in genuine reconsideration in the light of what we now know". Then he resorted to his tried and trusted tactic of triangulation. Even though it was now clear "that the evidence of Saddam's WMD was indeed less certain", he could not go to the "opposite extreme" and conclude that he posed no danger. The logic of this is utterly flawed. This was Blair's opportunity to put his hands up and say simply that - as Butler suggests time and again - he had got the intelligence wrong, no ifs, no buts.

So far, four journalists and editors have lost their jobs but not a single politician or public official has been held to account for the botched road to war. Blair will escape not because of a lack of rigour on the part of Butler but because of a lack of political accountability. Butler highlighted that institutional failing when he criticised the "informality and circumscribed character of government procedures". He pointed out that Iraq had been discussed 24 times by the cabinet in the year before the war. However, detailed policy papers prepared by intelligence and other officials were not circulated in advance. Ministers had to rely on oral briefings from Blair, Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon. This, Butler said, "plainly reduced their ability to prepare properly for such discussions". Again we know why. Proper discussion would not, at that point, have been helpful to the Prime Minister.

Blair's lack of political accountability was also highlighted in the events immediately after publication of Butler's report. In the Commons, Michael Howard asked the right questions. Why were the caveats, the qualifications, the cautions left out of the dossier? How did qualified judgements become unqualified certainties? And the most important question for the future - if Blair had to commit British forces into action on the basis of another intelligence assessment, would anyone again believe him? Blair had no answer, but he did have the wounding riposte that Howard and the Conservatives were staunchly behind the war.

Blair had hoped Hutton would provide him with "closure" on Iraq. The sheer absurdity of that report, the one-sidedness that flew in the face of the evidence, only increased a sense of injustice. The Prime Minister did not want a new inquiry and he did not want Butler to lead it. He was forced into it when the White House peremptorily told Downing Street that, for all Britain's so-called "influence", it would allow a Congressional inquiry. "You have your politics, we have ours," Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told Blair's foreign policy aide Sir Nigel Sheinwald. The results of the first Congressional inquiry were devastating. The British one is more sotto voce. In immediate political terms, Blair has been let off the hook, but such were the terms of the inquiry no other outcome was possible. Butler could not remove Blair. But he has proved beyond all reasonable doubt that, on the biggest decision of his premiership, Blair's judgement was found wanting, woefully so. John Kampfner's Blair's Wars is published in updated paperback (Simon & Schuster)