Guilty, by implication

Print edition : August 13, 2004

The Butler inquiry avoids blaming the government for using bad intelligence to justify the war on Iraq, but Tony Blair stands accused of misleading Parliament and leading Britain into an unwanted war.

in London

IMAGINE a scandal in which the entire neighbourhood is found to be involved and yet nobody is held accountable because the investigator dismisses it as a "collective operation". In other words, while everyone was a partner in the "crime", no one actually "dunnit".

Prime Minister Tony Blair. His Labour Party suffered humiliation in two byelections on the day the Butler report was released.-RICHARD POHLE/REUTERS

This is exactly what the Butler inquiry into the British government's intelligence claims in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq has done. Five months after it was set up to examine the quality and use of Iraq-related intelligence, the committee has produced a report whose findings are dramatically at odds with its verdict. It catalogues a litany of mistakes involving everything from collection and processing of intelligence to its presentation, thereby virtually suggesting that the threat from former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was, indeed, "sexed up", as famously alleged by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in a controversial broadcast in 2003. But, in the end, it concludes that no individual or single agency is to blame as everyone acted in "good faith" - and at best it was a "collective" failure.

The front page of The Independent, the morning after the publication of the report, summed it up thus:

"The intelligence: flawed The dossier: dodgy The 45-minute claim: wrong Iraq's link to Al Qaeda: unproven The public: misled The case for the war: exaggerated And who was to blame? No one"

The inconsistency between the committee's findings and its conclusions has, inevitably, raised eyebrows. It is being asked whether the report is a whitewash job for Prime Minister Tony Blair who immediately seized on it to claim that he had been vindicated. Or is it a clever mix of expose and evasion?

Lord Butler, a former Cabinet Secretary who chaired the committee, has a reputation for being a quintessential establishment man, not known to rock the boat even if he has no love lost for the boatman. But as someone brought up on the politically neutral traditions of the British civil service, he also has an instinctive contempt for politicians and is said to be loath to be seen covering up for them - a la the BBC's fictional Sir Humphrey, adept at saying "Yes Minister" at every turn without getting his hands soiled with his political master's controversial or sordid actions.

So, caught between his instinctive loyalty to the establishment on the one hand and a regard for truth on the other, Lord Butler did what years of experience in the civil service taught him to do: walk a tight rope. He did this by laying bare the facts about the government's handling of intelligence but stopping short of passing a judgment. Unlike Lord Hutton, who investigated the circumstances that surrounded the death of Iraq arms expert Dr. David Kelly and dispensed blame selectively (hanging and flogging the BBC while exonerating the government completely), Lord Butler has let the facts speak for themselves.

And the facts are pretty brutal - damaging enough to increase the pressure on Blair to apologise and, preferably, quit for leading the country to war on a false prospectus. Call it a sheer coincidence, within hours of the publication of the report on July 14 the Labour Party suffered humiliation in two parliamentary byelections. It lost a traditionally safe seat in Leicester and barely managed to retain its once "rock solid" stronghold in Birmingham. The defeats triggered fresh calls for Blair's resignation. His own Members of Parliament (MPs) claimed that the Butler report contributed to the anti-Blair backlash over Iraq. "Clearly, the issue was Iraq. Far from drawing a line under it, everything the government does and the Prime Minister says exacerbates it," said Glenda Jackson, MP and a former Minister, urging Blair to "go and go now".

Notwithstanding Lord Butler's reluctance to apportion blame, his findings have confirmed the worst fears about the Blair government and the intelligence establishment's conduct in the build-up to the war. Even pro-war politicians and commentators say that they may not have supported the invasion if they had known then what the Butler report has disclosed. The Times called it an "indictment of our spies and their masters" and said that, judging from it, "everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong" as "bad intelligence was credulously believed and passed on to the public as - in Tony Blair's words - `extensive, detailed and authoritative'".

According to the report, the government stretched intelligence to its "limits" to make the case for invading Iraq, and the way it was presented to Parliament and the public created a misleading impression about the "threat" posed by Saddam Hussein. It sharply questioned the quality of intelligence by saying that much of it was "flawed", particularly the key claim that Iraq could deploy its weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. About the 45-minute claim, which persuaded many anti-war MPs to change their mind at the last minute, it said that it should not have been included at all in the intelligence dossier published by Downing Street in September 2002 and used by Blair to justify military intervention in Iraq.

Echoing the BBC's controversial broadcast, which had accused the Prime Minister's Office of "sexing up" the dossier, the report said that the language used in the document and, subsequently, by Blair did not reflect the "thinness" of the intelligence on the ground. And, in an attempt to present an alarming picture of the threat from Saddam Hussein, the reservations expressed by intelligence agencies about the limits of their information were ignored. The caveats that came with intelligence reports should have been made clearer in the dossier, it said.

The report, though less devastating than the recent United States Senate Committee's criticism of the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, was sufficiently scathing to provoke calls for Blair to acknowledge that his government's case for war was based on false premise. Among other things, the report criticised the "informal" style of decision-making in Downing Street, which undermined the collective principle of Cabinet government and limited the scope for debate.

While the committee said it found no evidence of political interference in intelligence gathering, it did point out that there was "strain" on intelligence chiefs as a result of the tension between the government's desire to make a case against Saddam Hussein and the Joint Intelligence Committee's "normal standards" of neutrality and objectivity.

The committee noted a "tendency" to put forward the "worst case" scenario about Iraq's weapons capability and the threat from Saddam Hussein. It was "surprised" that there was no attempt to "re-evaluate" assessments even after it was becoming increasingly clear that the initial information may have been faulty. The validation procedures were not applied with sufficient rigour, it said.

HOWEVER, the committee did not blame any individual either in the government or in the intelligence establishment for the mistakes; the report called it a "collective" failure. At a media conference, Lord Butler fobbed off persistent questions by saying that there was no evidence that Blair or his government either "deliberately" distorted intelligence or misled the country. The government, he said, acted in "good faith" - words which were seized by Blair to claim that he had been vindicated.

"No one lied, no one made up the intelligence. No one inserted things into the dossier against the advice of the intelligence services," Blair told MPs minutes after the report was released. The "issue of good faith" had been settled by the report, he declared. He accepted "full responsibility" for whatever had happened, but pointedly refused to apologise, insisting that "getting rid of Saddam" was the right decision though no weapons had been found and the "evidence of Saddam's WMDs was, indeed, less certain, less well-founded than was stated at the time".

Lord Butler releasing the report of his committee in London on July 14.-MATTHEW FEARN/AP

Blair has been accused of shifting the "goal post". "After getting Parliament to support an unnecessary and unpopular war on the plea that Saddam's alleged arsenal posed a threat to world peace, he is now saying that forcing a regime change was the real aim," said one MP, accusing Blair of misleading Parliament.

Blair's credibility is seen to have been so irreparably damaged that many in the party and the government are said to be worried about a backlash in the next general elections, barely months away. Successive opinion polls have shown that voters have little trust in him and - as the Tory leader Michael Howard pointed out in the House of Commons - the central issue was no longer one of "prime ministerial responsibility, but credibility". Howard said: "I hope we will not face another war in the foreseeable future, but if we did and this Prime Minister identified the threat, would the country believe him?"

Considering that Howard is no peacenik himself and his party MPs voted for the war with their feet, it is easy for Blair to dismiss his protests as "opportunism". But there are many Labour MPs with impeccable anti-war credentials who feel they were duped. More than 130 Labour backbenchers voted against the war but a fairly large number were persuaded to change their mind after Blair portrayed Saddam as posing a "current" threat to Britain. They now believe they were misled, and want their money back.

Geraldine Smith, an anti-war Labour MP, said: "The Prime Minister would not have got Parliament to agree to commit British troops to the war with Iraq if the true nature of the intelligence was known... I believe that I was deceived into voting for a war I was morally opposed to. I believe the Prime Minister is fatally damaged." She wants Blair to "go" before "his enemies drag him down or the electorate makes the decision for him". A warning he can ignore at his own risk.

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