Thursday, July 17, 2008



Lessons we fail to learn
Brian Jones

Published 17 July 2008

Five years after the tragic death of David Kelly, little has changed. Whitehall has ducked all criticism, appearing to have learnt little from the Iraq experience

Two months before his lonely death in July 2003, international weapons inspector David Kelly spoke off the record to no fewer than three BBC journalists. He told each separately that there had been disquiet in the intelligence world about the influential September 2002 dossier and that the analysts were not responsible for the intelligence failure.

Kelly probably wanted lessons to be learned and measures taken to prevent anything like it happening again. Five years on, a number of issues remain unresolved.

Tony Blair's claim as prime minister that he knew "stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons" were held by Iraq led to an increasingly bitter dispute and an unprecedented four inquiries. The first two, one by the Foreign Affairs Committee, which the government opposed, and a second by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which it supported, arguably contributed to David Kelly's decision to take his life.

The third inquiry, by Lord Hutton, although specifically about Kelly's death, shone a spotlight on British intelligence and its interface with government. The fourth, a review chaired by Lord Butler, was the result of public pressure for better explanations than the first three had managed; its report was only partially successful in achieving this.

Suspicion has remained, fuelled by the persistence of researchers like Chris Ames who divined the existence of an earlier, concealed, draft and the New Statesman, which published his findings.

Butler's report did establish that all but the two most senior defence intelligence officers had significant doubts about the strength of the intelligence. Arguments to the contrary came from MI6 and the Cabinet Office, seemingly in response to the desire of No 10 for the case for war to be as strong as possible. However, Butler wrongly concluded that the members of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) were either unaware of these differences, or assumed matters had been resolved, when they approved the final draft of the dossier that took Britain to war.

But, as I explained in the New Statesman of 11 December 2006, five members of the JIC, almost half, including its chairman, John Scarlett, were well aware that there were unresolved differences within the intelligence committee. The Cabinet Office solution was to use new, recent, intelligence (which was seen only by a select few) to substantiate the inconclusive "45-minute" claim.

The five members who were in the picture displayed, at a minimum, poor judgement and leadership in not recognising the shortcomings of the new intelligence, and in failing to recognise their own limitations and thus the need to obtain expert advice. Butler could find no justification for the intelligence being withheld from the experts.

So why did the Butler review fail to join the dots? I have recently become aware that, from the outset, the Butler review team was determined to do what it could to preserve public confidence in British intelligence. This may explain why so many obvious conclusions and criticisms which, if boldly stated, would have grabbed the headlines, were muted by the convoluted language of the Butler report.

It may also explain why Butler himself has lately been inclined to offset criticism on Iraq by suggesting that "everybody thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD)". Both the UK and US governments have repeatedly fallen back on this simplistic and deceptive excuse over the years. But it conveniently overlooks the ISC's criticism, endorsed in the detail of the Butler report, that the government lacked knowledge of the extent of Iraq's WMD capabilities and failed to clarify that there was no direct threat to Britain.

Yet Butler was good in parts, and did make potentially valuable recommendations. It concluded, among other things, that the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) should play a more influential role in the intelligence machine and suggested two changes to help achieve this. First, that one of the DIS representatives on the JIC should be an experienced intelligence analyst. Second, that the DIS should be funded partly from the intelligence budget rather than entirely by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Despite the insistence of Tony Blair before parliament four years ago, that the Butler report was accepted in its entirety, the important recommendations have not been taken up. Gordon Brown has not yet rectified the situation. The post-Butler measures that have been implemented, worthy in themselves, are those marginal to the Iraq WMD intelligence failure.

In 2006, I wrote to Paul Murphy, chairman of the ISC, the committee responsible for seeing that Butler's proposals were implemented, drawing attention to the oversight. A slow, impersonal, half-hearted response sent by an official suggested my advice was not welcome. I was asked to await the outcome of the 2007 annual report. This arrived in 2008 but provided no answers to the questions I had raised.

Meanwhile the MoD, against the advice of intelligence analysis professionals, intends to announce significant cuts in the analytical strength of the DIS, as part of the "efficiencies" demanded of the MoD by the Treasury.

Thus, five years after the tragic death of David Kelly, little has changed. Both components of Whitehall, political and official, have ducked all criticism, appearing to have learnt little from the Iraq experience. Something similar could all too easily happen again.

Brian Jones was formerly a branch head on the DIS


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