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Hidden Truths

The Report of the Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Dr. David Kelly, CMG

by Lord Hutton
Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 740 pp., £70.00

The first four years of the twenty-first century have produced enough strange and unsettling developments to haunt a far longer period. They include the September 11 attacks and widespread terrorism by suicide bombing; the descent into savage despair of that wellspring of hatred and violence, the Israeli–Palestinian problem; the opening of a dangerous gulf of misunderstanding between the United States and much of the rest of the world; the growing, and terrifying, threat of nuclear proliferation; and the proclamation by the United States of the policy of preventive and preemptive war and at least one questionable experiment with it. The relative optimism that attended the beginning of the century has largely evaporated.

That the actual threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was, as it turns out, flagrantly misrepresented continues to preoccupy the Western press and to erode the reputations of several Western leaders. The two books under review are both retrospective studies of aspects of this complex subject, the one a memoir of the attempt to deal with the Iraqi threat by inspection and disarmament, the other an inquiry into a single tragic episode that transfixed the United Kingdom and threatened the career of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both books raise important questions about the conduct of national as well as international affairs in the future.

1.

Hans Blix is a seventy-five-year-old Swedish lawyer and public servant, who for sixteen years until 1997 was director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In March 2000 he was called out of retirement—he was on his way to Antarctica with his wife—to lead the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), which was created by the UN Security Council in 1999 to resume weapons inspections in Iraq. Blix, before he was vindicated by the postwar search for weapons in Iraq, was systematically treated with contempt by leading members of the Bush administration. In view of this, his book is remarkably even-tempered and magnanimous. He has no doubt that without the American military buildup his inspectors would never have been allowed to return to Iraq, and under far better working conditions than the previous UN inspectors. He makes no secret of the fact that until a late stage he was himself inclined to believe that Iraq might still be concealing some stocks of chemical and biological weapons, as well as some illegal missiles.

Saddam Hussein agreed to let the UNMOVIC inspectors back into Iraq on September 16, 2002, when the American and British military buildup in Kuwait and elsewhere was already well under way. The conclusions of Western intelligence agencies at the time were generally hedged. The agencies said that they were “inclined to believe” weapons existed or that the evidence “strongly suggests” their presence. Such qualified claims nevertheless were the basis for the dogmatic statements pouring out of Washington and London about the monstrous and imminent threat of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs—statements “as firm as [they were] unfounded,” as Blix puts it. UNMOVIC’s mission was to find hard evidence of Iraq’s suspected WMDs.

After September 11, strategies for containment and deterrence were unpopular in Washington, as was the United Nations, so Blix’s mission was unlikely to be welcome there. In the last, vitriolic debates in the Security Council before the war, Blix himself was resented and criticized by some US officials and commentators. “It is an interesting notion,” he comments on these debates, “that when a small minority has been rebuffed by a strong majority, it is the majority that has failed the test.”

Blix was aware from the beginning that he was caught in a paradoxical situation. The US buildup was undoubtedly the reason why Saddam Hussein agreed to let the inspectors return on September 16, 2002. But by the time the inspectors could actually start work, the beginning of the hot season in Iraq—and the presumed deadline for starting military operations—would be only four months away and would put an impossible time limit on their mission, which might provide an alternative to military action. Sometimes Blix could not avoid the suspicion that UNMOVIC’s work was intended largely to fill in the time until the military buildup was complete; the unfinished work of his inspectors would then be used—as in fact it was—as the pretext for military action.

The comments of leaders in Washington were not reassuring. Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld lost no opportunity to say that UNMOVIC was useless. Rumsfeld was quoted as saying that “things have been found [in Iraq] not by discovery, but through defectors.” The chief witness for this simplistic statement was, ironically, Hussein Kamal, Saddam’s son-in-law, who had defected in 1995 and had told his interrogators that he had ordered the destruction of all Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in 1991. The belatedly discovered truth of Hussein Kamal’s assertion became one of Blix’s main problems, because the Iraqis had not kept records of the 1991 destruction of WMD stocks; the stocks could not be found by the inspectors since they no longer existed; and the 12,000-page Iraqi declaration to the Security Council in December 2002 that there were no longer any weapons did not describe the stocks or their destruction, and was therefore denounced as incomplete and duplicitous.

If further proof of antipathy to UNMOVIC was needed, The Washington Post reported that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had requested a CIA investigation of Blix’s performance at IAEA and had “hit the ceiling” when nothing could be found to undermine Blix and the inspection program. According to the Post, Wolfowitz allegedly feared that the inspections could “torpedo” plans for military action against Saddam Hussein.

As director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Blix had been responsible for the IAEA team that worked on nuclear sites with UNSCOM, the original UN inspection group.1 Blix believed that what he regarded as the Rambo tactics of some UNSCOM inspectors had, on balance, antagonized the Iraqis and, by humiliating them, made them more obstinate.2 The IAEA team in Iraq had called the UNSCOM inspectors “cowboys” and in turn were christened “bunny-huggers” by the UNSCOM people. Before UNSCOM was withdrawn from Iraq in 1998, its integrity and international credibility had been badly damaged because, contrary to UN practice, US intelligence agencies had exploited its information.3 Still, before it left, UNSCOM succeeded in destroying chemical warfare stocks, missiles, and other illegal weapons. The IAEA team had also effectively countered a possible nuclear threat by destroying installations at which nuclear weapons development may have been pursued and flying all fissionable material out of the country.

Blix was determined to heed the lessons of UNSCOM. He told the UNMOVIC inspectors, he writes, to be dynamic in their approach but not angry, firm but correct, ingenious but not deceptive. They were to be calm but somewhat impatient, keeping some distance but not arrogant or pompous, respectful of those they dealt with but also demanding respect for themselves. Unlike UNSCOM, whose inspectors were loaned to the UN by a few governments, Blix’s team was on the UN payroll and was drawn from a far wider group of countries. Blix was determined that UNMOVIC should remain a UN mission under his control and avoid the exploitation by Western intelligence agencies of privileged information obtained by UNSCOM. He soon found that the resulting paucity of US intelligence was not a disadvantage. “Considering,” he writes, “how misleading much of the intelligence given us eventually proved to be, it was a blessing that we did not get more. What we came to discover was that no sites given to us by intelligence were ever found to harbor weapons of mass destruction.” Not coincidentally, UNMOVIC was routinely referred to in the US press and in Washington as being notably inferior to UNSCOM.

Although UNMOVIC had an exceptionally strong Security Council mandate for its inspections in Iraq, the Iraqis were slow to seize the opportunity to avert disaster that it offered them. In Baghdad, Blix was at first referred to as a spy when he took a firm line about the way UNMOVIC would work. However, his chief interlocutor, General Amir al-Saadi, who later on would be the first senior Iraqi to give himself up to the coalition, soon realized the necessity, and the difficulty, of proving the nonexistence of things that either had never existed or did not now exist. These included Colin Powell’s favorite, mobile biological warfare units (which al-Saadi said would have been an unjustifiable danger on the roads), as well as the fictitious yellowcake from Niger and the stocks that had been destroyed in 1991. For once in agreement with Donald Rumsfeld, Blix quotes his quip, “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” That, in brief, was UNMOVIC’s dilemma.

If illegal Iraqi activities or materials still existed, they had to be found and eliminated, and this would inevitably take time. Even so, with its staff of 260 people from sixty countries, UNMOVIC made three hundred inspections at 230 sites. They turned up some probably illegal missiles, which were destroyed, some old cluster bombs that conceivably could have been loaded with tiny amounts of chemical weapons, a rudimentary experimental drone aircraft that the New York Times Baghdad correspondent called “farcical.” Blix’s staff laboriously assessed this very meager harvest of information, while the United States desperately seized on it as evidence of Iraqi “noncompliance,” on occasion accusing Blix of trying to conceal it. Of the people Blix talked to, President Jacques Chirac of France was almost alone in believing that the UN inspections had disarmed Iraq long ago. Intelligence services “intoxicate each other,” Chirac told Blix.

Saddam Hussein refused to see Blix and his IAEA colleague Mohamed ElBaradei, and, until it was much too late, the Iraqis continued to haggle over matters like U-2 flights and producing Iraqis for unmonitored interviews by UNMOVIC. Blix was exasperated and puzzled. Was Saddam Hus- sein’s reluctance to provide proof that Iraq had no weapons a matter of self-respect, national pride, a reaction to feelings of humiliation, or just a dangerous and self-destructive lack of common sense?4

On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell made his now famous statement to the UN Security Council. At the time it was almost universally hailed as convincing, and at least it omitted the fraudulent claim that Iraq had obtained yellowcake from Niger. Blix wondered, he writes, how there could be “100-percent certainty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but zero percent knowledge about their location,” and he felt obliged to caution the Council about the evidence coming in from US and other intelligence services.5 UNMOVIC had found nothing at any of the sites pointed out by US intelligence. Blix comments that if intelligence agencies “fail to report something that later turns out to pose a danger or result in disaster, they will be faulted. If they overreport, on the other hand, they are not likely to be criticized.” He quotes, as a typical result of this tendency, Powell’s remarks to the Senate Budget Committee: “This is not just an academic exercise…. We’re talking about real weapons. We’re talking about anthrax. We’re talking about botulinum toxin. We’re talking about nuclear weapons programs.” None of which, of course, existed. On the other hand, the destruction of a number of al- Samoud 2 missiles under UNMOVIC’s supervision was later characterized by Powell as a sham.

Time was running out. Blix felt obliged to report to the Security Council that the Iraqis were being more cooperative and was warned by Tony Blair that his report had “undermined [United States] faith in the UN process. Well, yes, I thought, their faith that the UN process would lead to the authorization of the military route might have been undermined.” Blair further warned against “the UN being marginalized and the international community split.” Spain, Britain, and the US held that Iraqi noncompliance was a threat to international peace and security; France, Russia, Germany, and many other countries believed that full and effective disarmament by peaceful means was still the best approach. France suggested another 120 days for the inspections, a proposal that other European nations and members of the Security Council would have supported; but the US refused. The weather in Iraq was already getting warmer, and Washington was fed up with Blix for refusing to play the part that was expected of him. He was no help in rounding up votes in the Security Council, a senior US official commented to The New York Times. As Blix put it, “The witches exist; you are appointed to deal with these witches; testing whether there are witches is only a dilution of the witch hunt.”

Blix still did not know for certain that Iraq had got rid of all its illegal weapons, but he saw no evidence whatever that it still had them. No one was pleased with him. He writes that he was not bothered by differences, often insultingly expressed by US representatives, over UNMOVIC’s assessment of such matters as rudimen-tary drones or old cluster bombs. But, he writes, “I still find it insulting if they believed that our assessments were prompted by a wish to avoid finding incriminating evidence.” The US postwar inquiry in Iraq seems to have vindicated him handsomely on this score.

On March 17, the United States asked Blix to withdraw the inspectors in preparation for the coalition attack. Despite the intensifying heat, the troops wore protective gear against chemical and biological attack. The United States had evidently given no credence either to the reports of UNSCOM and UNMOVIC or to the statements of the Iraqis themselves about the destruction of their WMDs. Later, on handing himself over to the coalition forces, General al-Saadi told them, “There are no weapons of mass destruction and time will bear me out.” Blix concludes that “the UN and the world had succeeded in disarming Iraq without knowing it.”

Blix can be forgiven for quoting in his conclusion a statement of July 9, 2003, by Joseph Cirincione, one of the authors of the Carnegie Endowment’s magisterial report, WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications:

In the light of the last three months of fruitless searches by US, British, and Australian experts, the UNMOVIC inspection process in Iraq now looks much better than critics at the time claimed. It appears that the inspection process was working, and if it had been given enough time and enough resources, could have continued to work and effectively stymied and prevented any new Iraqi efforts on weapons of mass destruction. Never have so few been criticized by so many with so little justification.

But then, of course, we must remember Paul Wolfowitz’s statement to Vanity Fair that the WMDs were just the most convenient “bureaucratic” reason for selling the war to the public. The question that has gone unasked since the US case for war has been exposed as lacking in evidence is what would have happened if the inspectors had continued their work and if UNMOVIC had stayed on indefinitely in Iraq. It is hard to believe that this would have had no effect on the Iraqi regime.

The proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is now one of the world’s most frightening concerns. Blix’s book shows just how valuable well-run international inspections, backed by international political, economic and, if necessary, military pressure, can be.

2.

Hans Blix, in looking for reasons for the monumental intelligence failure over the Iraqi WMDs, writes that it was a question of “We know the answers; give us the intelligence to support those answers.” This is very much the unstated theme of the Hutton Report, in which Lord Hutton, a seventy-two-year-old appeals court justice, describes a personal tragedy that resulted from the political fantasies about Iraq’s alleged weapons. Appearing at the same time as David Kay’s devastating “We were all wrong” statement to the US Congress, Hutton’s report could have destroyed the career of Tony Blair, who appointed Hutton to make it. When it completely exonerated him from lying to the public and harshly took the BBC to task, many people in England, not surprisingly, cried whitewash. It is necessary to read the 740 pages of the report—no hardship, incidentally—to make a reasonable judgment on its treatment of its most controversial themes, the reporting and other conduct of the BBC concerning the question whether the British government unduly pressured the intelligence agencies.

Hutton makes it clear at the outset that his inquiry will deal exclusively with the “circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly” and will on no account deal with wider questions such as whether the UK was justified in going to war in Iraq. This narrow focus has had the effect of protecting Blair; but it also gives the report a novelistic character, reminiscent of a work by Trollope, and it is full of characters with Trollopian names—John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intel- ligence Committee, Sir Richard Dearlove of the Secret Intelligence Service, Defense Minister the Rt. Hon. Geoffrey Hoon, MP, and many other Establishment figures, including, of course, Judge Hutton himself, the former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

Hutton is courteous but relentless, meticulous and elegant in his determination to establish the truth about Kelly’s death as far as possible, and he is articulate, almost to the point of caricature, in his conclusions. One of the main charges made by the BBC’s reporter, Andrew Gilligan, was that the government had ordered the intelligence dossier on Iraq that it was about to publish to be “sexed-up,” particularly in the claim that some of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction could be readied for war in “45 minutes.” Here is Hutton’s account:

The term “sexed-up” is a slang expression, the meaning of which lacks clarity in the context of a discussion of the dossier. It is capable of two different meanings. It could mean that the dossier was embellished with items of intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable to make the case against Saddam Hussein stronger, or it could mean that whilst the intelligence contained in the dossier was believed to be reliable, the dossier was drafted in such a way as to make the case against Saddam Hussein as strong as the intelligence contained in it permitted. If the term is used in this latter sense then, because of the drafting suggestions made by 10 Downing Street for the purpose of making a strong case against Saddam Hussein, it could be said that the Government “sexed-up” the dossier.

However, having regard to the other allegations made in Mr. Gilligan’s broadcasts of 29 May, I consider that those who heard the broadcasts would have understood the allegations of “sexing-up” to be used in the first sense which I have described, namely that the Government ordered that the dossier be embellished with false or unreliable intelligence. Thus Mr. Gilligan reported that the source said that: “…the government probably erm,6 knew that that the forty-five minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in,” that “…the dossier, as it was finally published, made the Intelligence Services unhappy, erm, because to quote erm the source he said, there was basically, that there was, there was, there was unhappiness because it didn’t reflect the considered view they were putting forward, that’s a quote from our source and essentially, erm, the forty-five minute point er, was, was probably the most important thing that was added.” …Therefore, in the context of Mr.Gilligan’s broadcasts, I [Lord Hutton] consider that the allegation that the Government ordered the dossier to be “sexed-up” was unfounded.

Dr. David Kelly, a scientist specializing in chemical and biological weapons, had a distinguished career in the British Ministry of Defense and as a UN inspector in Iraq in the 1990s. He had also worked in Iraq periodically after the occupation in 2003, and when he committed suicide he was due to return to Baghdad in a few days. Kelly was used to briefing journalists on technical matters and he liked talking to them. This was his undoing.

On May 22, 2003, in the Charing Cross Hotel in London, Kelly met Andrew Gilligan, whom Kelly had met before. Gilligan had just returned from Iraq. Kelly, who was himself about to leave for Iraq, apparently wanted to hear Gilligan’s account of his visit, but, as he later told his supervisors, “I might have been led on.” It will never be known exactly what Kelly said to Gilligan, but he certainly mentioned the doubts of responsible intelligence officials about some of the material in the dossier—which itself reads very quaintly now, most of its claims having been shown to be false—and the pressure from Downing Street to make it striking enough to impress the public. The central example of the alleged “sexing-up” was a report from a single source, an unidentified defector, which was mentioned four times in the dossier, that Iraq could make some WMDs “operational” within forty-five minutes. The dossier did not specify whether they were short-range battlefield weapons and not strategic weapons capable of reaching distant targets, the British troops in Cyprus, for instance; so the claim was indeed a sensational one.

Whatever Kelly said, it was the principal source for Gilligan’s story, which he said was based on his talk with a “British official who was involved with the preparation of the dossier.” Gilligan also reported that Downing Street was aware of the unreliability of the forty-five-minute story when they insisted on including it in the dossier. Tony Blair’s office was quick to react. Gilligan’s broadcast was at 6:07 AM on May 29, 2003; before 8 AM the prime minister’s office had issued a stinging denial. Downing Street soon demanded a retraction and an apology from the BBC. A letter, released to the press, from Blair’s press chief, Alistair Campbell, also accused the BBC of having an antiwar “agenda.” Thus from a rather sloppy early-morning radio report, an enormous, and ultimately tragic, controversy grew.

It took Kelly, who had had similar conversations with two other BBC correspondents who also broadcast doubts about the forty-five-minutes claim, some time to realize that he must be the original source of this prodigious row. On June 30, 2003, he wrote a letter to his supervisor at the Ministry of Defense, admitting that he had met Gilligan and giving a very limited summary of what he remembered saying to him. He did not, he wrote, consider that he was the main source for Gilligan’s now famous broadcast.

In talking with Gilligan, Kelly had committed two serious offenses against the ministry’s regulations—having an unauthorized meeting with a journalist and discussing intelligence matters with a journalist. His ministry superiors pointed this out, and over the next few days they realized that Kelly must have been the main source for Gilligan’s story. They did not publicly name him, however, but, after much ministerial discussion, announced that a Ministry of Defense official had come forward and admitted that he had had a conversation with Gilligan. The press embarked on a frantic hunt to identify this person. The government, already faced with a parliamentary inquiry into the origins of the war, was afraid of being accused of a cover-up and, after more top-level meetings that at times included the prime minister, it was announced that if a journalist guessed the right name, the Ministry of Defense would confirm it. The Financial Times won this competition.

Kelly, on the advice of the ministry, quickly left his house in Oxfordshire for an undisclosed destination, accompanied by his wife. (The details of Kelly’s journeying, his state of mind, and his communications with the ministry and others are meticulously and poignantly described in Hutton’s report.) But he was forced to resurface two days later by the demand that he appear before the parliamentary committee inquiring into the origins of the war. For a very private man, this was an upsetting experience. (Astonishingly, Andrew Gilligan, who later admitted he acted improperly, had actually briefed one of the committee members on what to ask Kelly.) The committee’s proceedings were nationally televised, and some of its members, as often happens when politicians are before TV cameras, were outspoken inquisitors. Andrew MacKinlay, a Labour MP told Kelly, “I reckon you are chaff; you have been thrown up to divert our probing. Have you ever felt like a fall-guy? You have been set up, have you not?” Hutton refrains from comment on such behavior as being within the jurisdiction of Parliament, but he notes pointedly that another parliamentary committee is now reviewing the workings of parliamentary select committees.

Kelly was evidently deeply humiliated. He may also have been uneasy that he had not fully disclosed to the committee his contacts with two other BBC correspondents. To make matters worse, members of Parliament were asking whether he had infringed the rules and regulations of the Ministry of Defense and about possible disciplinary action.

After being interrogated in private by another intelligence committee, Kelly returned to his Oxfordshire house. He was undoubtedly desperately worried and depressed. He had been publicly humiliated, and his sense of himself as a distinguished scientist and valued government employee had been severely damaged. With possible disciplinary action and further inquiry into his press contacts ahead, he knew there might be worse to come. On July 17 he spent the morning in his study and answered a number of e-mails from friends. His last answer was to Judith Miller of The New York Times. “Judy, I will wait until the end of the week before judging—many dark actors playing games. Thanks for your support. I appreciate your friendship at this time. Best, David.” He then had lunch with his wife, who told Hutton that he was “distracted and dejected” and that “I just thought he had a broken heart.” After lunch he went for his regular walk and, in a secluded coppice, after taking a large dose of painkiller tablets, he killed himself by opening the veins in his wrists.

Before Kelly’s suicide there were several points at which the controversy could have easily died a natural death if either 10 Downing Street or the BBC had been willing to call off their feud; after such a tragedy, there was no way that the row could be ignored, and Blair took the considerable gamble of appointing Justice Hutton to make an independent inquiry. After six months of exhaustive hearings, Hutton gives his views on many things, but his two most important conclusions concern the behavior of the government, including Blair and the civil servants and experts involved, and the behavior of the BBC.

After one has read Hutton’s immensely detailed report, his harsh judgment of the BBC is less surprising. In response to Downing Street’s demands for withdrawal and apology, the BBC stood by Gilligan’s story, apparently in the belief that the BBC must not buckle in the face of government pressure. The involvement of Alistair Campbell, who had been named as the sexer-up in one of Gilligan’s stories and who had accused the BBC of having an anti-war agenda, made things worse. The BBC’s directors were remarkably slow to find out that Gilligan’s story, transmitted from his home at 6 AM, had not been written down (“scripted”), let alone edited, and that Downing Street had not been warned, as is customary in such cases, that the prime minister was, to all intents and purposes, about to be called a liar on national television.

The BBC ignored, or claimed ignorance, of the opinion expressed in an e-mail from the editor of the Today program on which the story appeared that “our biggest millstone has been his [Gilligan’s] loose use of language and lack of judgment in some of his phraseology” and never brought this message to the attention of the Board of Governors. They apparently did not seriously consider making the apology that Downing Street was demanding. Even in a statement of July 20, expressing regrets for Kelly’s death, the BBC took the opportunity to reaffirm its position. And, “We continue to believe we were right to place Dr. Kelly’s views in the public domain.”

At the Hutton inquiry, however, Gilligan himself admitted to a number of erroneous statements, including the attribution to Kelly of the view that the government knew the forty-five-minutes story to be false, but it was too late. After the Hutton Report was published, the BBC issued a public apology, and the chairman of its Board of Governors and its director-general resigned. Gilligan also, belatedly and defiantly, resigned. It was a very sad day for a great institution.

Hutton’s complete exoneration of the government is in strong contrast to his treatment of the BBC and requires more careful examination. It was undoubtedly true that the intelligence chiefs and ministers, to a man, confirmed that they had approved the substance of the government dossier and had no objection to the strong language desired by Downing Street; it was still consistent with the intelligence available to the Joint Intelligence Committee. Hutton ignored as irrelevant the fact that the conclusions of the dossier were flatly wrong, something that will occur to any informed reader of his report, and that has forced Tony Blair to appoint a commission to inquire into the failure of British intelligence.7 Like the BBC, and like some parts of the US government and press, the intelligence chiefs seem to have paid little attention to differing opinions in their middle ranks. Kelly’s Ministry of Defense colleague, Dr. Brian Jones, who appeared before Hutton, certainly was skeptical of the forty-five-minutes claim and has since said that the dossier did not reflect the views of the professionals.8

3.

A vitally important question underlies both the British and United States intelligence disaster over Iraq. How much, in reality, are the findings of intelligence services affected by a government’s strong, and strongly expressed, policy preferences on a subject of national importance? Let us suppose that the Blair government had been passionately anxious to avoid involvement in a forthcoming adventure in Iraq. In such circumstances, would the intelligence provided by the professionals have been exactly the same? We now know, of course, that the forty- five-minutes story was grotesque nonsense, but if the government had been desperately anxious to avoid war, would it have reached the prime minister’s office?

Hutton flirts with this question very briefly, and as briefly dismisses it:

However I consider that the possibility cannot be completely ruled out that the desire of the Prime Minister to have a dossier which, while consistent with the available intelligence, was as strong as possible in relation to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s WMD, may have sub-consciously influenced Mr. Scarlett and the other members of the JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee] to make the wording of the dossier somewhat stronger than it would have been if it had been contained in a normal JIC assessment.

The judge, it should be noted, writes as if “the threat” was established, not just alleged. He goes on to say that he is satisfied that “the contents of the dossier were consistent with the intelligence available to the JIC.” Maybe, but surely that is not the important point. Why did the dossier include highly tendentious “intelligence” about which some of the expert staff were deeply suspicious? And would it have contained that intelligence if the government had not been strongly in favor of invading Iraq? Was this a case of—in the current US jargon—“cherry- picking” intelligence?

Both the UK and the US governments created a powerful, though spurious, rationale for occupying Iraq. Saddam Hussein, the erstwhile ally, with his horrific record, had been so demonized since 1990 that it was out of the question for statements by his government to be even considered, let alone accepted as truth. Thus his government’s most important, and now apparently true, statement that his WMDs had been destroyed provoked only cynical laughter in London and Washington. Such an attitude cannot have failed to influence intelligence organizations. As Blix puts it, “The rock-solid conviction at the governmental level in the US and UK that weapons existed, and the expectation at that level that they would be provided evidence proving this conviction correct probably had an influence on the intelligence communities, just as it did on other people and media.”9

Different rationales for having invaded Iraq are now being assiduously put forward—humanitarian,10 protection of regional security, the horror of Saddam’s regime, etc. It was, perhaps, regrettable that Saddam was not indicted for crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court. This might have provided a more convincing basis for an international military operation in Iraq. Unfortunately the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the International Criminal Court except to denounce it.

It is common knowledge that the idea of toppling Saddam Hussein has been in the minds of some people in the Bush administration, and especially in the Department of Defense, for many years.11 The justification chosen for this action, Saddam’s WMDs, was supported by extensive and sensational “intelligence” which we now know to have been almost totally wrong. The reality of a shoddy, broken-down country ruled by a brutal and deluded dictator in a “vortex of corruption,” as David Kay has described it, is a far cry from the imminent threat to the world of an Iraq, with a nuclear weapons program and WMDs ready to launch at forty-five minutes’ notice, that was evoked to justify the war. The consequences—a short and triumphant war, and an extremely messy and violent situation in Iraq with no end in sight—will be far-reaching and costly in lives and in resources, as well as in its effects on the war on terrorism.

In wartime, intelligence is a matter of life and death and is therefore usually immune from politics. It may sometimes be wrong, but it is not manipulated for political reasons. President Bush has recently told us, “I’m a war president.”12 He has also promulgated the policy of preventive or preemptive war against those who may present a threat to the United States. The war in Iraq was presumably the first experiment with this policy. Preventive war by its very nature is overwhelmingly dependent on reliable intelligence. Blaming the Iraq war’s questionable rationale on bad intelligence will not conceal the fact that it was primarily a political choice.

If, as the President implies, we are still in a war situation, will intelligence again be tailored for political purposes? That is the deeply urgent question implied by the reports of Hans Blix and Lord Hutton.

—February 26, 2004

  1. 1

    David Kay had been a spectacularly successful and dashing IAEA inspector in 1991, although he was not a scientist. However, in later years Kay had always called himself an UNSCOM inspector, and Blix believed that he had been a constant critic of the IAEA and of Blix himself in Washington and had strengthened the local skepticism about inspections. “He did not know how successful the pursuit of inspections and sanctions supported by military pressure had been,” Blix comments.

  2. 2

    Blix refers to the New Yorker report which describes the pep talk UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter was said to have given his team. “You work for me, so every one of you are alpha dogs. When we go to a site, they’re gonna know we’re there, we’re gonna raise our tails and we’re gonna spray urine all over their walls—that’s the equivalent of what we are doing. So, when we leave a site they know they’ve been inspected.” See Peter J. Boyer, “Scott Ritter’s Private War,” The New Yorker, November 9, 1998.

  3. 3

    See my “How Not to Deal with Bullies,” The New York Review, September 21, 2000.

  4. 4

    In a report on the interrogation of Saddam Hussein, he denies having weapons of mass destruction and is asked why, in that case, he blocked the inspectors from some sites. “We didn’t want them to go into the presidential areas and intrude on our privacy,” he replied. (Brian Bennett, “Notes from Saddam in Custody,” Time, December 14, 2003.)

  5. 5

    Recently The New York Times reported that the CIA was changing its procedures to ensure that in future its analysts are informed when reports they are analyzing come from defectors linked to exile organizations. See “Stung by Exiles’ Role, CIA Orders a Shift in Procedures,” February 13, 2004.

  6. 6

    Hutton’s meticulousness extends even to recording the hesitations and inarticulacy of witnesses.

  7. 7

    In his recent article, “A Misreading of the Law,” the UK lawyer Conan Gearty has made a detailed and highly critical study of the implications of Hutton’s report, especially as a legal precedent that may have serious implications for the freedom of the press. See the London Review of Books, February 19, 2004.

  8. 8

    Jones is reported as saying, “The expert intelligence experts [sic] of the DIS (Defense Intelligence Staff) were overruled.” They believed the dossier’s claims should have been “carefully caveatted” and they weren’t. See Paul Krugman, “Get Me Rewrite!,” The New York Times, February 6, 2004.

  9. 9

    For a stringent analysis of the media and Iraq, see Michael Massing, “Now They Tell Us,” The New York Review, February 26, 2004.

  10. 10

    For a thoughtful and convincing criticism of the humanitarian rationale, see Kenneth Roth, War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention, Human Rights Watch, January 26, 2004.

  11. 11

    To give only one example, Wolfowitz’s colleagues, Richard Perle, who was the Study Group leader, and Douglas Feith, now assistant secretary of defense, participated in 1996 in the production of A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm (Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, Jerusalem). The study states, almost routinely, “This effort [the shaping of Israel’s strategic environment] can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq—an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right—as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” We have also been told recently by Paul O’Neill, George Bush’s former secretary of the treasury, that regime change in Iraq was discussed from the earliest days of the George Bush presidency.

  12. 12

    Interview with Tim Russert, NBC News, February 8, 2004.

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