Thursday, November 01, 2007

Sir Richard arises

Iraq war: too much weight on intelligence, says ex-MI6 chief

· Government 'used details to gain support for attack'
· Links between al-Qaida and Saddam 'not true'

Richard Norton-Taylor
Thursday November 1, 2007
The Guardian

The head of MI6 at the time of the invasion of Iraq said last night that the government placed too much weight on intelligence claims to help persuade opponents in parliament to support the war. Sir Richard Dearlove said Iraq demonstrated the dangers when "policy was built round intelligence and little else or when it was used for the primary justification for government action".

Policy was "over-dependent on intelligence particularly when it was presented to parliament", he said. There was a fear that what he called "other factors" might otherwise "carry the day with political opponents of the war". The episode had "highly undesirable consequences for the intelligence community".

Sir Richard also admitted that claims by neo-con elements in the Bush administration that there were links between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein were not true. "You know as well as I know there was no connection between 9/11 and Iraq," he said.

Though Sir Richard's admissions reflect those made by others since the invasion of Iraq, and notably in Lord Butler's report on the use of intelligence, it is the first time he has commented publicly on the affair. He was speaking at the London School of Economics on the subject of Intelligence and the Media at a meeting sponsored by the Polis thinktank.

Sir Richard, who retired in 2004 and rarely speaks in public, said "intelligence was expected to carry too much weight" in the formulation of policy. He described the way intelligence was used in the build-up to the war, particularly in the use the government made of its discredited Iraqi weapons dossier, as "sui generis" and "most unlikely to happen again".

However, he warned that governments might feel the need to publish intelligence to buttress support for any action against Iran. In the hypothesis of a pre-emptive attack on Iran, he suggested, there would have to be "proof positive" that "the right targets" were hit.

Sir Richard insisted that MI6 did not "set out to misinform" the government or the public over Iraq. He said: "The intelligence that was released was believed to be correct at the time it was released".

He acknowledged that over Iraq the relationship between the intelligence agencies and the media "suffered greatly" because trust was compromised. The fundamental causes of this was "not under the control of either party", he said.

Leaked minutes of a meeting on Iraq chaired by Tony Blair in Downing Street on July 23 2002 reveal that Sir Richard , reporting on his talks in Washington, warned that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy". Sir Richard is reported to have since downplayed the significance of the comment.,,2202949,00.html

Cornflakes in the wind

With Sir Richard Dearlove's comments on the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, intelligence has been put back in its rightful place.

Richard Norton-Taylor

November 1, 2007 4:30 PM

"Intelligence is a very imprecise art as a matter of fact," a senior Foreign Office diplomat told the Scott inquiry into how we were selling arms and chemicals to Iraq at the time Saddam was Britain and America's friend. Many intelligence reports, Lord Howe, Thatcher's foreign secretary, told the inquiry were not even straws in the wind. "They were cornflakes in the wind," he said.

This has not stopped ministers using intelligence as a vital tool in pursuit of their political and personal objectives. No prime minister has used it so audaciously and dishonestly, and with such catastrophic consequences, as Tony Blair in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Now the head of MI6 at the time has admitted, for the first time in public, that intelligence was abused. "Too much weight" was put on intelligence claims about Saddam's weapons programme, Sir Richard Dearlove told a meeting at the London School of Economics on Wednesday night. Intelligence, he said, was used to justify "government action" - ie joining the US in the invasion. The government was concerned, admitted Dearlove, that if it did use intelligence this way, it might not "carry the day" in parliament against opponents of the war.

As for the intelligence being so wrong, Dearlove had excuses. One of the reasons why it was what he called "so confusing" was because of the confusion among the Iraqis themselves. "There were probably no human sources in Iraq that could say authoritatively they did not have WMD," he said.

A few hours before Dearlove addressed an increasingly boisterous audience, the law lords were making yet another ruling on the government's continuing attempts to detain people without trial. A "fundamental duty of procedural fairness" required a suspect to know the key evidence against him or her, so that it could be challenged, said Lord Bingham. A normal defence case "may be impossible" if a defendant did not know the evidence against him or her.

Lord Brown went further. "I cannot accept that a suspect's entitlement to an essentially fair hearing is merely a qualified right capable of being outweighed by the public interest in protecting the state against terrorism," he said. He added: "On the contrary, it seems to me not merely an absolute right but one of altogether too great importance to be sacrificed on the altar of terrorism control."

Suspects are prevented from knowing the case against them because it is based on "secret intelligence", the disclosure of which could endanger those responsible for protecting our national security.

Dearlove has at last put these claims into perspective, and the law lords have at last confronted the government with a matter of principle. Intelligence, the last refuge of the torturer as well as a convenient weapon, has been put in its place again - for the moment.

Let there be doubt

I don't remember anyone questioning the intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. With hindsight we could have done with a heavy dose of scepticism.

John Williams
(author of the still-secret 9 September version of the 24 September 2002 Iraq WMD dossier)

November 1, 2007 7:30PM

Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, is obviously right that too much weight was put on intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq war. I wish he'd said so at the time.

I wonder what would have happened if "C" had said frankly to the prime minister: "Look, I'm sorry, but the intelligence we have just won't bear the weight that you want to place on it. This dossier is a thoroughly bad idea. I know you and Alastair Campbell are publicly committed to it, but sometimes it's best to back down gracefully rather than make a mistake you will always regret."

Perhaps Sir Richard was making that kind of argument at some level way above my pay grade, as a mere press secretary at the Foreign Office at the time. I'd be surprised if he did, because never in all the meetings and conversations I had about Iraq did I detect the slightest whiff of doubt from Sir Richard.

Instead, I found myself in meetings - catalogued by the Hutton report - at which the one question nobody ever asked was: are we sure Saddam's got this stuff? The great lesson for me, with the benefit of hindsight, is not about the use of intelligence, but about the value of doubt. Nobody ever said: what if there are no WMD?

Doubt is greatly undervalued in government. It remains seriously undervalued in the White House, to judge from what President Bush and Vice-President Cheney have had to say about Iran lately.

I don't suppose it would have made any difference actually, had we sat around in London having doubts five years ago. Looking back, I now feel I had a bit part in a tragic drama whose ending had been scripted in Washington long before people at my level got involved. Bob Woodward's account in State of Denial is a depressing read, because it makes chillingly clear that the Bush administration had made its mind up very early. All those efforts we made at the United Nations through that winter feel a bit naive now. I really thought there was a way of avoiding war, by working through the UN.

It's very frustrating, as a minor participant, to have learned afterwards that that the head of MI6 felt the intelligence was being made to fit around the policy. I took the intelligence seriously. Nobody ever cast doubt on it in my presence at the time. And those last three words are crucial - at the time. Hindsight is a luxury government doesn't have.

So here we are again, going forwards into a possible conflict, without the benefit of hindsight, this time with Iran. And it's important that we learn the lessons from Iraq.

Sir Richard must be right that intelligence is unlikely to be used in the same way. Can you imagine any advisor daring to use the word "dossier" to Gordon Brown? The dossier was a mistake. I say that not with hindsight, but having argued unsuccessfully at the time that Britain should not take on the burden of proving that a country to which we had no access was in possession of illegal weapons. It should have been for Saddam Hussein to prove that he didn't have them.

Now, it must remain Iran's duty to show that it is not trying to master the technology necessary to produce a nuclear weapon, not President Bush's to assert that it is.

The legacy of the dossier is surely that the public will never again accept a case for conflict that is based on intelligence. That may turn out to be disastrous, if one day the intelligence is sound and the threat genuine. But if it means government has to proceed with a greater degree of doubt that in 2002-3, then that's a good thing.

Would bombing Iran would be better than the continued frustration of unheroically trying to negotiate? I doubt it.


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