The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, September 11, 2003

Latest report on Blair's Iraq dossier: not guilty verdict on damning evidence

Blair benefits from as nifty a piece of nullification as you could wish to see: the Intelligence and Security Committee [1] has today issued its report (PDF) on British intelligence on Iraqi WMD - including the infamous September dossier.

Its conclusions are pretty uniformly helpful to HMG: sufficiently critical on some points of detail to escape being characterised as an complete whitewash, while exonerating HMG on the essentials - in particular, the charge that it sexed up the dossier.

On first reading, at least, the evidence scarcely supports the conclusions.

In an earlier piece (September 2), I suggested that there was a critical inconsistency between the various formulations used for the 45 minute claim in successive drafts of the JIC assessment - which came to be used to support the information given in the published dossier.

The ISC report picks this point up in para 55 (emphasis mine):
We noted that the time taken to deploy the munitions was also altered between the draft and final assessments. The Iraqi officer had reported that the average time was 20 minutes, with a maximum of 45 minutes. Therefore the time range was not the 20-45 minutes stated in the JIC Assessment because munitions could have been deployed in less than 20 minutes. Whereas the draft JIC Assessment had followed the precise terms of the intelligence report, the issued JIC Assessment did not. We were told that the difference between the times would not have been significant for the readers of strategic JIC Assessments and that the DIS would have briefed field commanders on the actual details of the intelligence report.

Apparently, there was no need to get the numbers right in the assessment because they were not significant for those who read the assessment, and the users at the sharp end would be briefed by other means entirely!

And, in para 56, it continues:
...the reference to the 20-45 minutes in the JIC Assessment added nothing fundamentally new to the UK's assessment of the Iraqi battlefield capability.
(Though (para 50) it was supposedly important and valuable intelligence; and (para 52) the only piece of evidence on WMD deployment or use with definite times.)

All in all, the way in which this intelligence was handled by the JIC seems alarmingly casual.

Another matter I raised in my September 2 piece was the question whether - as Dr Kelly seems to have assumed - the 45 minute claim referred to WMD delivered by ballistic missiles or to its use on the battlefield. The JIC concluded in general that Saddam's WMD threat was most likely limited to battlefield weapons (para 48):
The JIC assessed that the Iraqis might use chemical and biological weapons against neighbouring states or concentrations of Western forces. We were told that the weapons systems most likely to be used to deliver chemical and biological munitions against Western forces were artillery and rockets. These are battlefield weapons, which can be used tactically to great effect, but they are not strategic weapons.

As to the 45 minute claim, the report says (para 52)
The Assessments Staff stated that they, and the people they had consulted, did not know what munitions the Iraqi officer [2] was referring to or their status. Nor did they know from where and to where munitions might be moved.
They assessed that the Iraqi officer was referring to the time needed to move the biological and chemical battlefield munitions from where they were held by Iraqi Security units in forward-deployed storage sites to pre-designated military units.

Why the need to guess? How was it that the source who reported the Iraqi officer's information didn't pursue such basic details? Was their contact so brief as not to permit the source to ask the officer one damned thing about his claim?

Naturally, what one would be looking for in such further particulars would not just be extra intelligence but corroboration of the basic claim. It is quite perplexing that the JIC should be satisfied with a claim about which they were evidently so hazy.

In particular, this evidence contradicts the statement, heard more than once from witnesses at the Hutton Inquiry, that, in the sphere of intelligence, the wordsmithing was vital.

[Important to note that all of these extracts from the report so far relate to the JIC assessments, as distinct from the dossier which was based on them. The theory on which Blair seems to be basing his Hutton strategy is that the JIC's independence can be assumed - not only was the JIC proof against blandishments from No 10 to alter the text of the dossier, but also, failures within the JIC - such as those in relation to the 45 minute claim - cannot be imputed to Blair.

However, the JIC membership is not confined to agencies of the UKIC: as the report points out (para 29), it also includes representatives from customers like the FCO, the Home Office and the Treasury. The scope for political interference is obvious. Yet the assumption is repeatedly made - as in para 8 of the ISC report - that the JIC represents the UKIC.]

On the wordsmithing question, there is a further odd comment of the Chief of Defence Intelligence in post in September 2002, Air Marshal Sir Joe French, in the context of dissent within the DIS on the use of the 45 minute claim in the dossier (para 98):
…for each paper I would have the range of specialists who had been involved in them, obviously splitting hairs on particular words. But ultimately, putting 45 minutes in a military context when this was going through, I had to make a corporate decision on which draft we would actually live with.

Doesn't sound as if the guy was entirely tuned in to the culture of the organisation he headed!

Almost as an afterthought, the ISC adds, in relation to the rejection of dissident views amongst DIS members on the wording of the dossier (para 101):
We were told that there was further intelligence of a nature so sensitive that it was only released on a very restricted basis. We have seen that intelligence and understand the basis on which the CDI and the JIC took the view they did.

This is the first I've heard that there was something beyond the intel originating from the Iraqi officer and reported by the SIS on August 30. Has Lord Hutton seen this further intelligence? Or was it deemed too sensitive for his eyes?

On the sexing up point more generally, the report says (para 83)
Saddam was not considered a current or imminent threat to mainland UK, nor did the dossier say so. The first draft of the Prime Minister's foreword contained the following sentence: "The case I make is not that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on London or another part of the UK (He could not)." …It was unfortunate that this point was removed from the published version of the foreword and not highlighted elsewhere.

How was the removal of this major caveat from the dossier not sexing up?

And, on the deference supposedly shown by HMG to the impartial wisdom of the JIC on intelligence matters, the revelation (para 127) that
The JIC assessed that any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists

And, in the next paragraph, it gives us Blair on why he junked this particular piece of advice:
One of the most difficult aspects of this is that there was obviously a danger that in attacking Iraq you ended up provoking the very thing you were trying to avoid. On the other hand I think you had to ask the question, 'Could you really, as a result of that fear, leave the possibility that in time this developed into a nexus between terrorism and WMD in [any] event? '. This is where you've just got to make your judgement about this. But this is my judgement and it remains my judgement and I suppose time will tell whether it's true or it's not true.

He hides behind the JIC where convenient, and brushes them aside when they get in the way of his invasion.

More to come from a more extensive perusal, I suspect.

  1. Not a regular parliamentary committee (like the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, whose interview of David Kelly apparently precipitated his demise): a summary description here.

  2. The ultimate source of the 45 minute claim.

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