It seems almost cruel to remind those who sold the case for the Iraq war of what they claimed at the time. But it is necessary, because they appear to be forgetting it themselves. President Bush was definite and apocalyptic: “Saddam is building and hiding weapons that could enable him to intimidate the civilised world.” Donald Rumsfeld went one better: “We know where they are.” On the eve of war, Tony Blair was equally specific that Saddam Hussein had the real thing: “Saddam has chemical and biological weapons.” At the last minute, the title of the September dossier was changed from Saddam’s Programme for Weapons of Mass Destruction to Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction to convince the reader that the weapons already existed.
Now Tony Blair tells us that he hopes to come up with not actual weapons but evidence of Saddam’s intentions to develop weapon programmes. We always knew that left to himself Saddam would try to acquire any weapon system going. That, after all, is why the west put in place a strategy of containment based on a mix of sanctions and UN inspections to frustrate his intentions. We now know that containment was an unqualified success in denying Saddam a single weapon of mass destruction.
The case that George Bush and Tony Blair made for war was that containment had failed and that we must launch a pre-emptive strike before Saddam used his imaginary weapons. Indeed, the claim that Saddam already had weapons of mass destruction ready for use was central to their argument that military action must be taken urgently. As Donald Rumsfeld warned in alarmist terms, “within a week, or a month, Saddam could give his WMD to al-Qaida”.
Lord Hutton was factually correct to acquit Tony Blair of lying over the intelligence on Saddam’s weapons. I never imagined that Downing Street would have committed itself to a flat untruth. But neither were they candid with the British public, as the evidence paraded before the Hutton inquiry copiously demonstrated. Nor did Downing Street reveal the unfolding intelligence which cast doubt on the September dossier. Indeed, it was not until a year after the war that the government admitted a Joint Intelligence Committee assessment had warned that “intelligence on the timing of when Iraq might use CBW [chemical and biological weapons] was inconsistent and that the intelligence on deployment was sparse”.
This revised assessment was dramatically different from the September claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction ready for firing in 45 minutes, but it was not shared with parliament before the vote on war. The intelligence agencies had good reason to doubt their own claims before the invasion because the leads they kept feeding the UN inspectors kept drawing a blank. Hans Blix has since observed: “This shocked me. If this was the best [intelligence], what was the rest?”
If Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, there was no urgent need to invade Iraq. George Bush and Tony Blair could have given Hans Blix the extra few months for which he pleaded to finish his job and prove Saddam was no threat. What created real urgency in Washington to start the invasion may have been the dawning realisation that Hans Blix was about to remove their pretext for war.
Unfortunately for Downing Street, the one-dimensional endorsement of the government case by the Hutton report encouraged it to be triumphant when it would have been wiser to have been conciliatory. That hubris may explain why in the Commons debate on the report Tony Blair stumbled into fresh controversy by letting slip that he had never realised before the war that the chemical weapons described as ready at 45-minutes notice in the September dossier were only battlefield munitions and not missiles.
I was astonished by his reply as I had been briefed that Saddam’s weapons were only battlefield ones and I could not conceive that the prime minister had been given a different version.
My briefing took place in February at my residence at Carlton Gardens, where I was visited by John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. We spoke for almost an hour and - as always - I found him professional, dispassionate and frank in his replies. When I put to him my conclusion that Saddam had no long-range weapons of mass destruction but may have battlefield chemical weapons, he readily agreed.
When I asked him why we believed Saddam would not use these weapons against our troops on the battlefields, he surprised me by claiming that, in order to evade detection by the UN inspectors, Saddam had taken apart the shells and dispersed them -with the result that it would be difficult to deploy them under attack. Not only did Saddam have no weapons of mass destruction in the real meaning of that phrase, neither did he have usable battlefield weapons.
I put these points to the prime minister a couple of weeks later. The exchange is recorded in my diary on March 5 2003. Tony Blair gave me the same reply as John Scarlett, that the battlefield weapons had been disassembled and stored separately. I was therefore mystified a year later to hear him say he had never understood that the intelligence agencies did not believe Saddam had long-range weapons of mass destruction.
I have been told that Tony Blair does not recall me telling him that Saddam had no long-range weapons. But did nobody else tell him? How often did he meet before the war with the chief of defence staff, who would certainly have known the weapons the enemy was believed to possess? Why did Tony Blair himself never ask John Scarlett whether he was talking about long-range or battlefield weapons?
Given that the prime minister was justifying war to the nation on the grounds that Saddam was a serious threat to British interests, he showed a surprising lack of curiosity as to what that threat actually was. We are asked to accept that from September to March the prime minister was allowed to think that Saddam had long-range chemical weapons, while the intelligence agencies assessed he had only battlefield weapons, despite the Joint Intelligence Committee sending to Downing Street three separate assessments on Saddam’s weapons capacity. This must represent the most extraordinary failure of communication in the history of the British intelligence agencies.
Robin Cook was the UK?s Foreign Secretary under Tony Blair?s first government, and leader of the House of Commons until he resigned over his opposition to the Iraq war.
Article courtesy of The Guardian