Home > Britain’s worst intelligence failure, and Lord Butler says no one is to blame

Britain’s worst intelligence failure, and Lord Butler says no one is to blame

by Open-Publishing - Saturday 17 July 2004

Wars and conflicts International UK Robin Cook

What a shame that Anthony Eden did not have a Butler around to explain he was not responsible for Suez

By Robin Cook

What a wonderful specimen of the British establishment
is Lord Butler of Brockwell. Urbane, unflappable and
understanding. He should be put on display somewhere as
a prize example of our ruling classes. Possibly the
Victoria and Albert Museum would provide the right
grandeur and period ambiance.

There is an emotional disconnect between his measured
tones and the brutal reality of the topic he was
examining. The events on which he was reporting were the
origins of a real war. In its carnage between 10 and 30
thousand people were killed, some of them blown apart by
the largest bombs yet made from conventional explosive.
For some death would have been mercifully swift. For
others the end would have been agonisingly slow and
death welcomed as a release from unbearable pain.

Yesterday Lord Butler calmly pronounced the intelligence
on which the war was launched as hopelessly overheated.
His conclusions on this point are so irrefutable that
even Tony Blair had to admit that Saddam did not have
any WMD ready for use. Lord Butler found that
intelligence was often second-hand and, in the case of
one "dominant" stream of intelligence, came from "a sub-
sub-source". The absence of first-hand information meant
most "intelligence reports" were in reality
"inferential". The inaccuracy of the raw intelligence
was then compounded by the exaggeration of analysts
which resulted in "worst-case estimates, shorn of their
caveats, becoming the ’prevailing wisdom’."

After the Butler report, it is embarrassingly clear that
Parliament was misled into voting for war on the basis
of unreliable sources and overheated analysis, producing
between them false intelligence.

This must be the most embarrassing failure in the
history of British intelligence. Yet according to Lord
Butler, no one is to blame. Everyone behaved perfectly
properly and nobody made a mistake. Poor things, they
were let down by the system and institutional
weaknesses. John Scarlett gets his very own specially
printed Get Out of Jail Free card.

It used to be a standard mantra of Tony Blair’s speeches
that "responsibility and rights" are indissolubly
linked. It turns out that responsibility is for job-
seekers and single parents, not for our ruling classes.
Lord Butler has produced elegantly crafted paragraphs
explaining that none of them need take responsibility
for the biggest blunder in British foreign and security
policy since Suez. What a shame that at the time Anthony
Eden did not have a Lord Butler around to explain he was
not responsible for his decision to invade.

A good example of how the Butler style can magic away
blame comes in his discussion of the phantom mobile
laboratories, which formed the centrepiece of Colin
Powell’s presentation to the Security Council. Lord
Butler is obliged to report that "no evidence has been
found to support the existence of the mobile
facilities." However this does not mean anything so
crude as that the intelligence agencies got it wrong.
No, "the conclusion must be that the main grounds for
the assessment no longer exist." As Nixon might have put
it, that intelligence is now inoperative.

Lord Butler was caught off guard by one journalist
yesterday and confessed he was "surprised" that there
was no reassessment of the intelligence as it emerged
that the UN weapon inspectors could not find anything. A
less phlegmatic man might have been astounded.

In his statement to the Commons, Tony Blair stressed the
sincerity with which he believed at the time in the
September dossier. I do not doubt him. But I do doubt
whether he still believed it when he asked Parliament to
vote for war six months later. In the intervening period
he had received three further assessments warning him
that intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was
"inconsistent" and "sparse". He knew that the Joint
Intelligence Committee believed that Saddam had
dismantled his chemical weapons and dispersed them to
different locations, with the result that they could not
possibly be fired in 45 minutes. In his speech to the
Commons on the eve of war, Tony Blair did not repeat a
single one of the more lurid claims of the September
dossier, largely, I suspect, because he had been warned
by then they were unreliable.

Yesterday Tony Blair insisted that the absence of any
threat from Saddam did not mean that there was no
justification for the war. Perhaps. But it certainly
means that there was no urgent necessity for war. We
could have found the time, at no risk to ourselves, to
let Hans Blix finish his inspections and confirm that
Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. I fear that
for Bush and Blair, the real reason why invasion was
urgent was the growing realisation that Hans Blix was
about to remove their principal pretext for war.

Unfortunately for Tony Blair, the Butler report does not
offer him much comfort on any of the other
justifications for going to war. It concludes that there
was "no evidence of co-operation" with al-Qa’ida. Worse,
it reveals that the Joint Intelligence Committee warned
that occupation would result in coalition forces being
attacked by terrorists.

Far from being a victory over terrorism, the war on Iraq
has been a spectacular own goal. We have created
precisely the conditions in Iraq in which al-Qa’ida can
thrive - poor security, open borders, and a population
with a grievance. The heavy-handed military operations
by US forces and the scandal of the Abu Ghraib abuses
have presented the recruiting sergeants and fundraisers
for Osama bin Laden with a propaganda gift.

Tony Blair needed a catharsis if he was to put the
controversy of Iraq behind him. Yet by pretending that
all is well and everybody did their best, first Hutton
and now Butler have denied him any opportunity for
catharsis. Yesterday the Prime Minister should have been
admitting that there were serious mistakes, that lessons
had been learnt and that, above all, it will never
happen again.

Anyone listening to him in the Chamber could not have
left with anything other than the impression that he is
absolutely convinced he was right and that he would do
it all over again in precisely the same circumstances.
Notably there was no commitment to the more formal,
collective style of Cabinet government for which Butler
called, and I do not imagine any of its ministers are
holding their breath expecting dramatic change.

The irony is that the only ministers who have left the
Government over the chapter of errors that led us into
war in Iraq are those who could not support the war, and
the only people to be sacked are those at the BBC and
the Daily Mirror who criticised it. Everyone who
contributed to the errors of judgement is still in post
and now patted on the head by Lord Butler for doing the
best they could.

That may seem very British and very sensible to Lord
Butler. To the rest of the world it will seem barmy.

Robin Cook was Tony Blair’s first Foreign Secretary.


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