Palpably absurd

by Chris Bertram on July 7, 2004

Last night’s Newsnight had a nice what-he-said-then/what-he-says-now juxtaposition, and the same quotes appear in today’s Independent:

We are asked to accept that, contrary to all intelligence, Saddam decided to destroy those weapons. I say that such a claim is palpably absurd. (Tony Blair, 18 March 2003)
I have to accept that we have not found them and we may not find them. He [Saddam] may have removed or hidden or even destroyed those weapons. (Tony Blair 6 July 2004)

{ 18 comments }

1

q 07.07.04 at 11:48 am

Blair implies that he still has reliable intelligence indicating the weapons which cannot be found did exist or still exist.

What is this evidence? Since the Iraqi regime has gone, it would seem there would be no danger in revealing his sources.

2

Barry 07.07.04 at 12:36 pm

Not to mention thousands of new sources. There are also a number of Iraqi officials, scientists and officers in US custody, subject to (how shall I phrase it) ‘stress’ for up to a year now, so absence of evidence is as close to evidence of absence as we’re likely to have.

3

chris 07.07.04 at 2:33 pm

Now I opposed the invasion of Iraq for various reasons, but even in 2003 I felt that the argument from WMD against the war was weak and diversionary. I still think so.

If Bush/Blair were given information by their intelligence services that Chemical/Biological/Nuclear development facilities existed, and they believed (how would they not believe?) that this information was given in good faith and that their intelligence services were competent, then I don’t see how they could not have acted on it.

If Blix’s team offer contrary opinions, what should Blair do? Turn round to the British intelligence presence in western Asia and say, “Look guys, I’m sorry, but I think you’re full of shit and you can’t do your job.”? Surely a government must have a presumption of competence in favour of its own agents?

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the appropriate action was a pre-emptive invasion. That’s an entirely different conversation. I happen to think it was a disastrous response. But to assume that Blair was deliberately lying about WMDs, rather than responding to honest but inaccurate reports intelligence in a fatally wrong way, is to wander offf into the hinterlands of conspiracy theory. And we all know that the cock up theory is right against the conspiracy theory 99 times out of 100.

And no, q. It would not be safe to reveal their sources now. Not unless you feel it would be wise to dissolve the British intelligence presence in western Asia for the foreseeable future, and ensure that most of its former agents are shot (if they’re lucky).

4

Matthew2 07.07.04 at 2:37 pm

Indeed, Blair’s current display of contrition, and his claim it was all an honest mistake, would be quite appropriate if he hadn’t been so arrogantly one-sided and ignoring numerous contrary opinion in the run-up to war.
Thanks for that, Chris.

5

Barry 07.07.04 at 3:25 pm

Chris, what information were they *given*? That’s ‘given’ in terms of ‘given’, not in terms of ‘lean on them until they say what we want them to say’.

6

chris 07.07.04 at 3:50 pm

Barry, if you’re talking to me rather than Cap’n Bertram, I haven’t a clue what information they were given. Perhaps our great-grandchildren will find out in a hundred years or so when/if the relevant documents are released. Equally, what is your source for the assertion that anybody was leaned on? Perhaps they were, perhaps not.

Matthew, of course Blair is arrogant. He’s CEO of “Arrogant R Us Int’l”. He probably was arrogant towards his mother when she was breastfeeding him. And he was wrong, that isn’t in dispute. He very likely panicked. He may be unfit for public office. All these are part of a different debate. But human fallibility is not proof of a conspiracy, and if people go around insisting that it is they will merely piss everybody off.

7

nofundy 07.07.04 at 5:47 pm

In that same session Blair also intimated that England was considered to be Bush’s poodle. Wrong! Only you Tony, not all the fine Brits I know of themselves.

8

Bob 07.07.04 at 8:40 pm

For any who might wish to refresh memories and files, this letter from Dr Brian Jones, the senior member of the Defence Intelligence Staff working on WMD, was submitted to the Hutton inquiry. The letter makes clear that Dr Jones had reservations about the claims made in the government’s dossier of 24 September 2002 on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction before the dossier was published: http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/evidence/2003-08-20/am/MOD_4_0011.pdf

The dossier with its claim, over Blair’s signature, that the WMD could be used within “45 minutes” can be retrieved here: http://www.official-documents.co.uk/document/reps/iraq/iraqdossier.pdf

Only in the course of oral evidence from John Scarlett during the Hutton inquiry last summer did we learn that the “45 minutes” claim related to small calibre battlefield weapons. When this came out, Blair said that he was not aware of it ..

Several sources have reported this:

“A prominent Israeli MP said yesterday that his country’s intelligence services knew claims that Saddam Hussein was capable of swiftly launching weapons of mass destruction were wrong but withheld the information from Washington.

“‘It was known in Israel that the story that weapons of mass destruction could be activated in 45 minutes was an old wives’ tale,’ Yossi Sarid, a member of the foreign affairs and defence committee which is investigating the quality of Israeli intelligence on Iraq, told the Associated Press yesterday.’ . .

“On Sunday, the former UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, told Y-Net, an Israeli newswire, that the Israeli intelligence services reached the conclusion years ago that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction.

“‘In the end, if the Israeli intelligence knew that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, so the CIA knew it and thus British intelligence too’ he said.”
– from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,2763,1140459,00.html

From this, it seems that CIA analysts never claimed that Iraq was an imminent threat:

“WASHINGTON – In his first public defense of prewar intelligence, CIA Director George Tenet said Thursday that U.S. analysts never claimed before the war that Iraq posed an imminent threat.

“Tenet said that analysts had varying opinions on the state of Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and that those differences were spelled out in a National Intelligence Estimate given to the White House in October 2002. That report summarized intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs.” – from: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4049012/

9

Bob 07.07.04 at 10:28 pm

Update:

“The claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes – seized on by Tony Blair to back the case for war with Iraq – was inadequately supported by the available intelligence, Lord Butler’s report is expected to conclude.

“The claim that Iraq could launch an attack using weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order being given was made four times in the government’s dossier on Iraq’s WMD issued in September 2002, including in Tony Blair’s foreword.

“But Lord Butler’s report into the use of intelligence material to justify the war in Iraq is said by those familiar with its contents to have examined the “45 minutes” issue in detail and found it wanting. The report, which was delivered to the printers on Wednesday and is expected to be released on July 14, is expected to conclude that the intelligence to substantiate the claim was of insufficient quality, and that the intelligence material gathered on Iraq was generally inadequate. . . “
http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&cid=1087373565577&p=1012571727085

10

q 07.08.04 at 12:44 am

Chris-
If what you say is true, all Blair needs to do is stand up in front of parliament and say exactly what you said – that some sources of infomation which MUST STILL REMAIN SECRET indicated WMD in Iraq.

Why has he not done so?

11

mm 07.08.04 at 2:21 am

This is what I find so strange about politics: Stuart Buck has piece today about how the New York Times editors now feels utterly free to disregard all that they wrote about welfare reform, and here we have this piece. I know that the same people whose blood boils at Tony Blair’s inconsistency have no concern about the Times, and vice versa. What is about this activity, politics, that exempts its participants from what would otherwise seem the elementary demands of justice?

12

Bob 07.08.04 at 3:03 am

“If what you say is true, all Blair needs to do is stand up in front of parliament and say exactly what you said – that some sources of infomation which MUST STILL REMAIN SECRET indicated WMD in Iraq. Why has he not done so?”

Because Blair is already on record as having said that Dr Brian Jones saw all the intelligence that there was to see on Iraq’s WMD.

13

q 07.08.04 at 3:49 am

bob-
can you provide a source.

14

Bob 07.08.04 at 5:30 am

Yes.

On Dr Brian Jones’ concerns about the dossier on Iraq’s WMD: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1140665,00.html

Dr Jones wrote for The Independent and was reported there at length but with this exception most is available on subscription only: http://argument.independent.co.uk/commentators/story.jsp?story=487515

Dr Jones wrote there: ” . . But we were told there was other intelligence that we, the experts, could not see, and that it removed the reservations we were expressing. It was so sensitive it could not be shown to us. . . “

HoC Debate on Hutton Inquiry Report, 4 February, as reported in Hansard:

“The Prime Minister: . . Of course that is right, but the whole point about the evidence – and I shall deal with other aspects in a moment – is that the concerns expressed by Dr. Jones were considered by the head of defence intelligence. In the end, he concluded that the way in which the dossier expressed the evidence was right. Incidentally, those concerns – again, I shall come back to them in a moment – never came to the full Joint Intelligence Committee, let alone to Downing street. I have no doubt that questions will be asked about whether that was the right way to proceed. Personally, I think that people should be allowed to manage their own departments properly. What cannot be said is that Downing street had anything to do with those concerns. They never came before the JIC, let alone Downing street. I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman that issues may arise about procedures within departments, but those are a million miles away from the allegation that was broadcast – and I think that he would accept that. . . ” http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200304/cmhansrd/cm040204/debtext/40204-06.htm

“The Prime Minister: . . I wish to deal with the story in The Independent today. Dr. Jones is an expert in his field and is highly respected. However, the newspapers today suggest that there is missing intelligence on the 45-minute issue. There is no missing intelligence on that issue. As far as I am aware, Dr. Jones saw all the intelligence that there was to see on it. So did Lord Hutton. The intelligence referred to the article that he -[Interruption.] Perhaps people could concentrate on this point – [Interruption – Sitting suspended – On resuming] I was dealing with the issue of today’s story about Dr. Jones, and I was saying that there are really two issues. One is whether there was some missing intelligence that was not seen, and the other is obviously about the evidence of Dr. Jones himself. I was saying, and I repeat, that Dr. Jones is an expert in this field and is highly respected. But on the 45 minutes there is no missing intelligence. Dr. Jones saw all the intelligence there was to see on it. So, incidentally, did Lord Hutton. The intelligence referred to in the article which he did not see was, I am told, about the production of chemical and biological warfare agents. He did not see it, because the Secret Intelligence Service put it out on a very restricted basis owing to source sensitivity. His superiors, however, were briefed on the intelligence. It does not bear on the 45-minute point at all, and the ISC itself saw this CW intelligence and was satisfied with it.” – from: http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200304/cmhansrd/cm040204/debtext/40204-06.htm

On the “45 minute” claim relating only to battlefield weapons:

“Tony Blair admitted yesterday that when he asked MPs to vote for war he had been unaware that the claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes referred only to battlefield weapons, not missiles.” – at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/02/05/nwmd05.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/02/05/ixnewstop.html

“Fears over WMD were a cornerstone of the government’s case for war with Iraq. But the prime minister said on Wednesday he had not known what sort of weapons were being referred to at the time of the Commons vote on 18 March 2003.” – at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/3460517.stm

15

q 07.08.04 at 6:02 am

_The intelligence referred to in the article which he did not see was, I am told, about the production of chemical and biological warfare agents. He did not see it, because the Secret Intelligence Service put it out on a very restricted basis owing to source sensitivity. His superiors, however, were briefed on the intelligence._

The above statement appears to be the critical one … and it seems to imply that there is still something going on …

16

Michael Otsuka 07.08.04 at 8:56 am

Cf. Monsieur Chirac’s analysis of the intelligence on WMD as reported in Hans Blix’s diary entry of Jan 17, 2003: “Chirac said France did not have any ‘serious evidence’ that Iraq retained proscribed weapons. Having met people from French intelligence and listened to them, I registered with keen interest that Chirac did not share their conclusions on Iraq. The intelligence services sometimes ‘intoxicate each other’, he said.”

17

bob 07.08.04 at 10:07 am

q: “and it seems to imply that there is still something going on”

The quote was said by Blair during the HoC debate on the Hutton Inquiry Report in February. According to Blair, what was withheld from Dr Brian Jones related to the “production” of WMD and not to their military availability. Already in February it was becoming clear that there were no WMD to be found in Iraq, certainly not on sufficient scale and dispersal to justify the claim in the dossier of 24 September 2002 that the WMD could be used within “45-miniutes”. By stages, the public rationale for the war was being morphed into “Iraq’s programme for making WMD” or an intent to have a programme or because Saddam was a tyrannt, which he was, of course, but that is not a legitimate justification for war.

michael: “Monsieur Chirac’s analysis of the intelligence on WMD as reported in Hans Blix’s diary entry of Jan 17, 2003: ‘Chirac said France did not have any “serious evidence” that Iraq retained proscribed weapons. Having met people from French intelligence and listened to them, I registered with keen interest that Chirac did not share their conclusions on Iraq. The intelligence services sometimes “intoxicate each other”, he said.'”

There is likely some substance to that observation. There are also the reports that Israeli intelligence knew Iraq had no WMD but didn’t tell Washington.

One gets the impression of multiple “games” being played by governments and by intelligence services to serve their particular agendas. What is clear is that some in Britain’s intelligence community believed the public claims made by Blair about Iraq’s WMD had been, at least, exaggerated.

Blair said he wasn’t placed to know the caveats, nor that the “45 miniutes” claim related only to battlefield weapons – all quite extraordinary. The obvious question is: How come, when John Scarlett, chairman at the time of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, and Alastair Campbell, Blair’s head of Communications, who was very active in shaping the presentation of the dossier, were portrayed in the Hutton inquiry as being “mates”? But then we also know of American polls reporting in the lead up to the war that 70% of Americans believed that Iraq/Saddam was implicated in 9-11 when there was no evidence to support that connection.

I doubt that anyone who goes through the documentation with dispassionate objectivity can resist concluding that huge efforts were directed at fooling the electorates in Britain and America. That does not imply that the war was whimsical or without a coherent rationale in terms of real politicks. I believe the war rationale was because: (a) the US needed to withdraw its bases from Saudi Arabia but couldn’t do that with Saddam left in power; (b) with bases in Iraq, the US would be better placed to exert credible military threats against Iran and Syria; (c) access to Iraq’s oil.

18

Bob 07.09.04 at 8:56 am

Update 2:

The Butler report, due out next Wednesday, on the “intelligence” justification for the Iraq war sems likely to vindicate what some of us had suspected all along:

“A high-level report into British intelligence on weapons of mass destruction will paint a picture of the country’s intelligence services rushing to justify a political decision by Tony Blair’s government to go to war in Iraq.

“A central finding of the report, according to people familiar with its contents, is that intelligence failings stemmed from the fact that Downing Street decided in 2002 to prepare for war and only later decided it should be publicly justified by the threat from Iraq’s WMD.

“The report from a five-person panel led by Lord Butler, a former senior civil servant, is due on Wednesday.

“It will conclude that MI6, Britain’s external intelligence agency, delivered inadequate intelligence on Iraq, that there were flaws in the way it was assessed and that, in some respects, the way it was presented to the public was misleading. . .

“As reported by the FT yesterday, the report is expected to say that some of the intelligence provided by MI6 was inadequately sourced. This includes one of the most highly publicised parts of a September 2002 government dossier on Iraq’s WMD: the claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes. . . ” – from:
http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&cid=1087373601959

“Lord Butler of Brockwell is to defy the Government by including personal criticism of Britain’s intelligence chiefs in his inquiry into the information they gathered about Saddam Hussein’s weapons before last year’s war.

“The Independent has learnt that the Butler inquiry has sent letters to three crucial witnesses outlining draft sections of next week’s report that will criticise them directly.

“They are John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) which assessed the evidence published in the Government’s dossier on Iraqi weapons in September 2002; Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, which gathered the material, and Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, who is believed to have amended his original legal advice on the eve of the war to give the go-ahead to military action.” – from: http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/story.jsp?story=539478

See also: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=worldNews&storyID=5625404

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