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Socialism Today 86 - September 2004

War and truth

Bush and Blair waged a relentless propaganda onslaught in preparation for war in Iraq. Any scrap of evidence was used if it fitted their case. Counter-arguments were suppressed. The disinformation and manipulation of intelligence can be found in the Review of Intelligence of Weapons of Mass Destruction, known as the Butler report. MANNY THAIN reports.

TONY BLAIR WAS faced with mounting criticism of his pro-US stance over Iraq. Desperate to stem the mass opposition against war, he commissioned an assessment of the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). His intention was to state publicly the case for military action. The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), then chaired by Blair ally John Scarlett, delivered the goods. A false and exaggerated picture was painted of Iraq’s military capabilities: intelligence from inside the country was practically non-existent, and uncorroborated reports from discredited exile sources were spun and exaggerated.

Although Scarlett claimed ‘ownership’ of the dossier – to best portray it as independent of the government – he worked with Alastair Campbell, Blair’s chief spin-doctor, on the final draft. With deep distrust in the New Labour government, the JIC propped up Blair’s unpopular Middle East misadventure. "The advantage to the government of associating the JIC’s name with the dossier was the badge of objectivity that it brought with it and the credibility which this would give to the document". (Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction [Butler report], paragraph 323)

The government dossier, Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, was published on 24 September 2002. This was the first time the JIC had ever produced a public document. No government had ever made the case publicly for international action by explicitly drawing on a JIC publication. This shows the extent of direct government interference in the work of the intelligence services. It showed Blair’s compulsion to be in total control.

The dossier did not call specifically for war against Iraq. It strongly implied it. Blair stated his position in the foreword: "I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current, that he [Saddam] has made progress on weapons of mass destruction and that he has to be stopped". Blair highlighted the infamous ‘45-minute’ claim: "The document discloses that military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them", he wrote. It was not true.

The 45 minutes did not refer to long-range WMD but to battlefield munitions and mortars. In parliament on 4 September 2004, Blair maintained that he was unaware that the 45 minutes did not refer to long-range WMD. Blair and war minister, Geoff Hoon, said that they were also unaware that the 45-minute claim had been discredited as unreliable.

Butler saw "no evidence" that the dossier was explicitly intended to make a case for war: "The dossier was a broadly-based document which could support a range of policy options". (Paragraph 315) Although Hoon contradicts this view: "… if we are going to be able to make out a case for war against Iraq, we were going to have to publish the material".

Butler is non-committal, saying the dossier was intended "to promote domestic and international understanding of, and gain support for, the general direction in which government policy had been moving since the early months of 2002, away from containment to a more proactive approach to enforcing Iraqi disarmament". (319)

Containment meant maintaining the status quo: no-fly zones, UN weapons inspections when possible, and sanctions which crippled working-class Iraqis and were responsible for the deaths of an estimated 500,000 children. The clear direction the government was moving in, however, was towards war. That was evident from the increasingly bellicose language coming from Blair and his chief war minister, Jack Straw. Against that backdrop, a "more proactive approach" could only mean military action.

Policy shift

GOVERNMENT RHETORIC AND JIC assessments had become more strident over the past few years. Blair said in parliament: "The Saddam Hussein we face today is the same Saddam Hussein we faced yesterday. He has not changed. He remains an evil, brutal dictator". (Hansard, 24 February 1998, col 173 – Butler, paragraph 212) A brutal dictator armed and supported by the imperialist powers, the day before yesterday.

Butler studied JIC assessments "as far back as 1990", a kind of ‘year zero’ which avoided embarrassing questions on the arms and support given to Saddam before the first Gulf war by the US, Britain and other imperialist powers. Butler mentions the use of chemical weapons during the Iran/Iraq war 1980-88. That included the Halabja massacre, where thousands of Kurdish people were killed in chemical weapons attacks. At the time, the US issued mild public rebukes, while it was giving logistical support to the Iraqi army. Saddam was then an ally holding back Iran’s anti-US theocratic dictatorship.

The Butler inquiry was comprised of five Privy Counsellors, headed by Lord Butler of Brockwell, hand-picked by Blair. (The Privy Council, appointed by the prime minister, is made up of past and current cabinet members and other pillars of British capitalist society.) It interviewed Blair, Straw and Hoon, Lord Goldsmith QC (the attorney general), leading government officials, ‘the intelligence community’, Dr Hans Blix, expert witnesses, Lord Hutton and others. The role of this type of inquiry is to relieve pressure on the state. Criticism is aired in a controlled way, leaving the system as a whole intact. It is part of the so-called ‘independent’ ‘checks and balances’, providing an illusion of democracy while ensuring that real power stays in the hands of a very small, minority section, the capitalist ruling class.

Frederick Butler has had a long career minding leading politicians. He has advised five prime ministers – including as principal private secretary to Margaret Thatcher and cabinet secretary to John Major (Tory prime ministers in the 1980s and 1990s). Under Thatcher, he gave evidence to the Scott inquiry, investigating illegal arms sales to Saddam’s regime. He said at the time: "You have to be selective about the facts. It does not follow that you mislead people. You just do not give the full information… Half the picture may be true". (Financial Times, 15 July 2004) Blair, Straw, Campbell, Scarlett and others in the Iraq war inner circle appear to have taken this to heart.

The policy of the British government was shifting, shadowing the US administration: "Containment has kept the lid on Saddam… but containment has disadvantages: it does not produce rapid or decisive results; it is resource-intensive, requiring constant diplomatic efforts and a significant military presence; and it is not always easy to justify to public opinion, as criticisms of UK/US air strikes and of the humanitarian impact of sanctions has shown". (Memo from the Foreign and Defence Secretaries, May 1999 – 215)

Then came a dramatic change in the world situation: the al-Qa’ida terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 11 September 2001. Butler details a "new security challenge" after 9/11: "What has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programmes but our tolerance of them post-11 September". (284) Blair agreed with Butler that this summed up his position.

There was growing government concern in August and early September 2002 at the amount of media criticism. This reflected the mounting anger and opposition to the war throughout society. Blair told the inquiry that "the purpose of the dossier was simply to say ‘this is why we think this is important because here is the intelligence that means that this is not a fanciful view on our part, there is a real issue here’." (289)

The problem for Blair was that he had very little intelligence. He did have "a fanciful view". It was a cynical exercise in disinformation to neutralise opposition to this horrific conflict, Iraqi dead now numbering in the tens of thousands.

There were differences of opinion within the British state, and some were still being expressed. In early March 2002, government officials stated that since 1991, Iraq’s nuclear programme had been effectively frozen, it could not rebuild its chemical and biological arsenal, ballistic missile programmes had been severely restricted, and Saddam had not seriously threatened neighbouring states. (261)

Lacking intelligence

BLAIR, HOWEVER, WAS having none of it. He was locked onto war alongside Bush. Intelligence was made to fit the policy. The intelligence on ballistic missiles was woeful. The JIC spoke of "about 700" missiles, including "up to 150" of the Al Abbas model, although no Al Abbas missiles were fired in the first Gulf war and Unscom made no mention of them in its Final Report of January 1999. (192)

Iraq was described by the JIC as having "a small number", "a handful", or "some" ballistic missiles. The estimated firepower was minute: between 6-25 missiles remained unaccounted for, and one source said Iraq could assemble up to 16 more. (204)

On 10 May 2001, the JIC strengthened its language on Iraq’s nuclear plans. But: "This judgement was based on two human intelligence reports, both from new sources and neither speaking from direct, current experience. Unusually in the nuclear field we conclude that those reports were given more weight in the JIC assessments than they could reasonably bear". (225)

The same JIC report claimed "good intelligence" of chemical and biological weapons, suggesting "a continuing research and development programme". But information on weaponisation of chemical and biological agents was "less clear". All the information was three years old. (230-233)

Butler softens every blow, but there is no real escape. Members of the inquiry "were struck by the relative thinness of the intelligence base supporting the greater firmness of the JIC’s judgements on Iraqi production of chemical and biological weapons, especially the inferential nature of much of it". (304) ‘Relative thinness’ a euphemism for ‘completely groundless’.

A JIC ‘status report’ on 15 March 2002 admitted: "Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy". (270) It also said "Providing sanctions remain effective, Iraq is unlikely to be able to produce a longer-range missile before 2007". (284) All of this directly contradicted the message in the dossier and ministerial statements.

Blair told the House of Commons in September of that year that the evidence was "extensive, detailed and authoritative", words he used in the dossier. This year, he has admitted: "The evidence of Saddam’s WMD was indeed less certain, less well-founded than was stated at the time". (Financial Times, 15 July 2004) So, having gone to war on false pretences, Blair contemptuously admits, in effect, that the allegation that Saddam possessed WMD was wrong. Yet it had been central to the Bush/Blair pre-war propaganda offensive. With war looming ever closer, came the need to crank it up.

Fortuitously for the government, a JIC assessment on 28 October 2002 backed up its case: "Iraq can weaponise CBW agents into missile warheads, bombs, artillery rockets and shells". (346) The next paragraph of the Butler report states: "The judgement that Iraq was continuing to produce chemical agents was supported by one new human intelligence report received on 30 September". This sentence carries a footnote disclaimer: "This report was withdrawn when all reporting from this source was withdrawn by SIS in July 2003 as being unreliable". It was another false claim, but another opportunity to scare people into supporting the government in the short term.

Eliminate the negative

US/UK STATE PROPAGANDA consistently played down the results of UN inspections to maximise support behind the idea that Saddam was a dangerous regional and world-wide threat, and that there was no alternative to military action to force regime change.

From December 2002 to March 2003, however, Unmovic carried out 731 inspections of 411 sites, 88 of which had not been inspected before. Less than 30 biological munitions remained unaccounted for: "By the time the United Nations inspectors left on 17 March 2003 the IAEA had not found any evidence or plausible indication of the revival of Iraq’s nuclear programme". (361) Butler comments that the US-led Iraq Survey Group – sent to find WMD after ‘major combat’ allegedly ended on 1 May – has found nothing of significance.

Butler expresses surprise "that neither policy-makers nor the intelligence community, as the generally negative results of Unmovic inspection became increasingly apparent, conducted a formal re-evaluation of the quality of the intelligence and hence of the assessments made on it. We have noted in departmental papers expressions of concern about the impact on public and national opinion of the lack of strong evidence of Iraqi violation of its disarmament obligations". (363)

There was a scarcity of evidence against Iraq, yet the momentum towards war accelerated. Intelligence which put forward or implied a contrary view was suppressed. Butler wrote: "We also noted the limited time given to evaluation of the Iraqi declaration [an inventory of its weapons programmes] of 7 December". The Defence and Intelligence Staff (DIS) reported its initial findings on 18 December. But, "despite its importance to the determination of whether Iraq was in further material breach of its disarmament obligations under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 the JIC made no further assessment". (363) Butler describes this as "odd". It’s criminal.

The dossier

BEFORE THE SEPTEMBER dossier was published, it had been put through Campbell’s spinning machine. Weak and spurious claims were transformed into serious intelligence. Butler says that the "precautionary JIC judgements… were taken up in an abbreviated form in which points were run together and caveats on the intelligence were dropped. The most significant difference was the omission of the warnings included in JIC assessments about the limited intelligence base on which some aspects of those assessments were being made". (330) The dossier, in short, had been ‘sexed up’.

Butler refers to JIC reports from 15 March, 21 April and 9 September 2002 which mentioned some intelligence limitations. But no one reading the dossier would have known about them. In fact, it was designed to create precisely the opposite impression: "Readers may, for example, have read language in the dossier about the impossibility for security reasons of putting all the detail of the intelligence into the public domain as implying that there was fuller and firmer intelligence behind the judgements than was the case". Butler typically stops short of confrontation with the government: "Our view, having reviewed all of the material, is that judgements in the dossier went to (although not beyond) the outer limits of the intelligence available. The prime minister’s description, in his statement to the House of Commons on the day of publication of the dossier, of the picture painted by the intelligence services in the dossier as ‘extensive, detailed and authoritative’ may have reinforced this impression". (342) Indeed it did. The scale of the disinformation and manipulation made it impossible for the mass of the population to make an informed judgement.

There were other pre-war allegations which proved groundless. US secretary of state, Colin Powell, showed pictures at the UN purporting to show mobile chemical and biological production facilities. Not a trace of them have been found (524). It was later revealed that Powell’s photos were platforms for launching weather balloons!

It was claimed that Iraq attempted to buy uranium from Africa, in particular, Niger. An Iraqi ambassador visited Niger’s president in 1999. But there is no evidence of negotiations over uranium. France controls Niger’s uranium mines in any event. Butler accepted the government’s claim that it had access to separate, undisclosed, intelligence to the CIA. It’s inconceivable that a piece of evidence with such potential importance would not be shared with the US. The US administration has let the issue slide, although not before Bush backed the allegation by saying it was based on British intelligence.

The Iraqi regime had purchased aluminium tubes which the US/UK said were for gas centrifuges used in uranium enrichment. The dossier recognised that they could have other uses. It did not, however, explain that they would require "substantial re-engineering" (which it was doubtful Iraq could undertake). Butler says that this omission "materially strengthened the impression that they were useful for gas centrifuge use". (539)


THERE WERE LEGAL obstacles to war, too. In March, a paper by government officials "advised that regime change of itself had no basis in international law. It noted the judgement of the JIC that there was no recent evidence of Iraqi complicity with international terrorism, and thus no justification for action against Iraq based on action in self-defence to combat imminent threats of terrorism". (266) Proof of the Iraqi regime breaking its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 687 "would need to be incontrovertible and of large-scale activity. Current intelligence is insufficiently robust to meet this criterion…" (267)

It was not long before the legal advice was brought into line with the policy aims. At a meeting on 13 March, attorney general, Lord Goldsmith QC, stated that Resolution 1441 allowed for the use of force without a further Security Council resolution. (381) He set out his view to the cabinet on 17 March. He had a line of reasoning. UN Resolution 678 authorised the first Gulf war in 1990-91. Resolution 687 set out Iraq’s peace treaty obligations after the war, which mainly required the destruction of its WMD. A "material breach" of Resolution 687 revives the authority to use force under 678. Resolution 1441 says that Iraq has been and remains in material breach of Resolution 687 because it has not fully complied with the agreed terms. A failure to fully cooperate would constitute a "further material breach". Goldsmith argued that, as Iraq continued to be in material breach, the authority to use force under Resolution 678 has been revived. Finally, Resolution 1441 requires reports/discussion by the Security Council of Iraq’s failures, "but not an express further decision to authorise force". (386)

According to Goldsmith, the war was legitimate if the US/UK say it is. Philippe Sands QC, writing independently in the Guardian, disagreed: "The view is highly controversial and opens the door to manifest abuse. We learn from Butler that Blair personally made that determination and that he did so on 14 March 2003 without the benefit of additional input from the Joint Intelligence Committee beyond its initial assessment, nearly three months earlier". (19 July 2004)

Sands also adds: "Butler refers to paragraphs 22 and 24 of the ministerial code, but not paragraph 23, which states: ‘When advice from the law officer is included in… papers for the cabinet… the conclusions may, if necessary, be summarised but, if this is done, the complete text of the advice should be attached’. On this basis the cabinet will not have been aware of any caveats in the attorney general’s final view, or his earlier views".

After the dossier was published, priority was switched to looking for links "between the Iraqi regime, its chemical and biological capabilities and terrorism". (343)

On 20 March 2003, the war began. Five days later, Blair stated: "We have absolutely no doubt at all that these weapons of mass production exist". British war minister, Jack Straw, sounded less sure in a BBC radio interview on 14 May: "I hope there will be further evidence of literal finds… It certainly did exist. There is no question about that". Eighteen months later, no WMD or hard evidence of their existence have yet been found.

On 29 May, BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, named government scientist, Dr David Kelly, as his source for the allegation that the government’s dossier had been ‘sexed up’. Kelly was under extreme pressure, in the glare of the media spotlight. On 18 July, he was found dead in woods close to his home, the verdict, suicide. The Hutton inquiry was set up to look into Kelly’s death, the validity of the 45-minute claim and the September dossier.

Lord Hutton published his report on 28 January 2004. It was a total whitewash. It said it was "unfounded" that the government knew the 45-minute claim was incorrect. Yet, foreshadowing Butler, even this report questioned whether the JIC had been affected by the "subconscious influence" of Blair and Campbell.

Hutton had helped Blair by diverting attention on to Gilligan, who was hounded out of his job. Greg Dyke, then BBC director general, and Gavin Davies, chair of BBC governors, followed him out soon afterwards. This was a concerted campaign of state censorship and the suppression of independent, critical reporting, by an increasingly authoritarian government. The Butler report corroborates Gilligan’s story.

No one responsible

THE BUTLER REPORT was published on 14 July 2004. Butler’s conclusions fly in the face of the evidence presented: "we have found no evidence of deliberate distortion or of culpable negligence". (449) No individual was responsible. Blame was laid at a faceless "collective responsibility".

Nonetheless, it warns against Downing Street interference in the intelligence agencies: "The assessment process must be informed by an understanding of the policy-makers’ requirements for information, but must avoid being so captured by policy objectives that it reports the world as policy-makers would wish it to be rather than as it is". (58)

Power and influence have been concentrated in the hands of a small number of ministers and officials, even by-passing the cabinet. Blair created a new post soon after 9/11, a hand-picked security and intelligence coordinator (reducing the power of the cabinet secretary), and placed his own advisers on foreign and European affairs (taking over from civil service secretaries). Butler recognises that this "acts to concentrate detailed knowledge and effective decision-making in fewer minds at the top". (608) A Whitehall civil servant remarked: "There’s a new definition of collective cabinet responsibility: Blair takes the decision and the cabinet takes the blame". (Financial Times, 15 July)

Despite Butler’s pulled punches, it is clear: the decision to go to war was taken on the basis of false evidence. It was an executive decision by Blair and a handful of confidants. The government’s September dossier was not intended to present an objective case. It was a PR exercise, wartime jingoism. Scarlett has been rewarded for his loyalty by being made head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS – more commonly known as MI6).

Peter Hennessey, historian, likens Blair’s contempt for cabinet with Anthony Eden, prime minister at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956. Cabinet ministers had not cross-examined Eden over secret talks between Britain, France and Israel in Paris. In parliament, he denied that the talks had even taken place. Hennessey comments: "Eden left office two months after the war ended, broken in health and spirit. Sixteen months after the fall of Baghdad Blair is still in No10. But the impact of the Hutton and Butler reports means that already, in one sense, he is comparable to Eden". (Guardian, 24 July 2004)

Blair has all the appearance of someone intoxicated with power. Two massive parliamentary majorities in succession have resulted in an overbearing arrogance. But this air of invincibility is superficial. Jonathan Freedland writes: "In the Iraq case, his laser-like resolve to stand with George Bush burned through every obstacle: the JIC, the cabinet, parliament, British public opinion. He overcame them all". (Guardian, 21 July 2004)

That may have been his intention, but Blair cannot proclaim a victory yet. We have not heard the last of the Butler report – one of a long line of hard blows against Blair contributing to his eventual demise. A US inquiry is due to report early next year, conveniently for Bush after the US presidential elections. For Blair, however, the timing could be disastrously close to a general election. And he can expect increased hostility from working-class people as revelations of the discrepancies shown in Butler’s report are exposed when parliamentary sittings resume in September.

Ultimately, beneath the surface of discrete, coded language, the Butler report is a profound indictment of Blair and his government. Blair is a serious and current threat to the working class in Britain and internationally. A strong case for regime – and system – change.


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