View Full Version : Downing Street Reporter Dissects Pre-War Iraq Intelligence

08-24-2005, 02:45 PM
Downing Street reporter dissects pre-war Iraq intelligence

http://rawstory.com/news/2005/Downing_Street_reporter_dissects_Iraq_intelligence _in_leadup_0824.html

Michael Smith

Details 'chill factor' imposed around Iraq intelligence; Putting Downing Street docs in perspective

LONDON -- "The [U.S. WMD] Commission found no evidence of political pressure to influence the Intelligence Community's pre-war assessment of Iraq's weapons programs."

That is only one of a number of strange conclusions by those charged with investigating the way flaky intelligence was used to justify the 2003 Iraq War.

The most vociferous advocates of an attack on Iraq were Dick Cheney, the vice-president, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld deputy Paul Wolfowitz. They needed Congressional support and set about obtaining it in an aggressive fashion, insisting that not only did Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction threaten America and its allies but that the dictator was closely linked to al-Qa'eda.

This was a bit of a problem for the CIA, and in particular CIA director George Tenet. The CIA's 2001 annual assessment of 'worldwide threats' had played down any immediate threat from Iraq while the Agency had repeatedly dismissed the ludicrous idea that Saddam was in league with Osama bin Laden, a claim that was also strenuously denied in private by British intelligence officials.

By early 2002, US media reported the CIA had come under intense political pressure to back up the neo-cons' claims on Iraq with Rumsfeld's Pentagon even setting up an office of special plans which looked back through all the previous intelligence, hyping up any reports linking al-Qa'eda with Iraq in order to prove the CIA wrong.

Meanwhile, Dick Cheney took to visiting CIA headquarters in Langley and discussing the threat from Iraq with analysts. According to former CIA officials, the visits created a "chill factor" among those working on Iraq. There was "a kind of radical pressure" throughout 2002 and on into 2003, one said.

Tenet eventually agreed to put out a special National Intelligence Estimate. Published in October 2002, shortly after the first British dossier, it was this document that was quite rightly pulled to pieces by the presidential commission. There is no doubt that Tenet buckled under political pressure. The classified version of the National Intelligence Estimate did contain caveats, although they were heavily buried. The unclassified version had no caveats whatsoever. It was far harder than anything produced in Britain.


On the supposed nuclear program, the US National Intelligence Estimate said that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program and could assemble a device by the end of the decade. The British joint intelligence committee (JIC) said that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear weapons program but it would not be able to indigenously produce a weapon while sanctions are in place. The Iraq Survey Group concluded that Iraq had not tried to restart its nuclear weapons program after 1991 but Saddam remained interested in reconstitution of the nuclear program after sanctions were lifted.


On biological weapons, the US National Intelligence Estimate said Iraq had biological weapons, and that its biological weapons programme was larger and more advanced than before the Gulf War. The JIC said that Iraq had some biological agents, either from pre-1991 stocks or from more recent production, and could produce weapons within weeks. The Iraq Survey Group found no evidence of biological weapons production. Iraq could resume production of biological weapons, but not within days, and Saddam probably intended to resume the biological weapons program at some time.


On chemical weapons, the US National Intelligence Estimate said Iraq had not only renewed production of chemical weapons it probably had stockpiles of up to 500 metric tons. The JIC said Iraq could resume production of chemical weapons within months and might have 1.5 metric tonnes of VX. The Iraq Survey Group concluded a capability to produce weapons probably existed and production would resume once sanctions were lifted.

The JIC doesn't speak confidently about any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The closest it gets is the 'might' have 1.5 metric tons of VX gas.


Blair spoke repeatedly about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction as if there was not an iota of doubt as to whether they existed or not.

The transformation of the JIC drafts into the very much firmer September dossier, was explored in detail by the Hutton Inquiry, with particular reference to the 45-minute claim. It is probably best not to dwell on Lord Hutton's conclusions although even he admits that he cannot rule out that the JIC was influenced 'sub-consciously' by the Prime Minister's desire for a dossier which presented the threat in the strongest possible light.

There was of course nothing sub-conscious about the way in which the 45-minute claim was hardened up. The source did not specify the precise context for this timing and no-one in either British spy agency MI6 or the JIC Current Intelligence Group on Iraq seemed to know.

But among military intelligence experts on artillery and missile systems, the figures rang some very loud bells. They appeared to be straight out of the old Soviet artillery and rocket troops manual. The most likely systems the Iraqis would use to deliver chemical or biological weapons were all Soviet-made mortar, artillery and missile systems.

These included the al-Hussein surface-to-surface missile. This was an Iraqi version of the Scud missile, which was the Soviet army-level surface-to-surface missile system. In common with all other Soviet workers, Red Army troops were given 'norms' for the time it should take them to perform particular tasks. The 'norm' for the time it should take for warheads to be moved from a forward storage site to the missile firing point and the missile to be ready to fire was 45 minutes.

There was a certain amount of debate between the JIC, the British Defense Intelligence Staff (DIS) and MI6 over whether or not the draft dossier should make clear precisely what the 45 minutes was believed to mean. At first the suggestion from within the JIC was that it should point out that the warheads had to be already stored on the frontline and the original form of words chosen was: 'intelligence indicates that, from forward-deployed storage sites, chemical and biological munitions could be with military units and ready for firing within 45 minutes.'

But there was a widespread nervousness within the intelligence community about the way its material was being used and eventually the argument from within the DIS and MI6 - that since the source had not spelled it out in his report, no assumptions on what it meant should appear in the draft dossier - won the day. As a result the claim was couched in careful terms, but the important qualification that the weapons should be ready in 'forward-deployed storage sites' was not made.

It is not clear whether the Prime Minister spotted the 45-minute claim when it first landed on his desk in the shape of the original CX report from MI6. But it had certainly caught his eye in the days following its first mention in a draft of the dossier circulated on Sept. 9, 2002. At this stage it was only mentioned twice and, since it was not qualified, couched in very cautious terms. The Sept. 9 draft said the intelligence merely 'suggested' Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes.


But amid the confusing, and often uncertain, intelligence reports on Iraq it was a detail that Mr Blair and his advisers, not least Alastair Campbell, his Director of Communications, knew the public would understand. Despite the conclusions of the Intelligence and Security Committee, there is no doubt that as far as Campbell and Blair were concerned, it was the sound bite that would sell the war to some of the many people who remained unconvinced, not least a large number of backbench Labour MPs. It would only take Saddam 45 minutes to fire his chemical or biological weapons.

Put at its simplest, as Campbell knew the tabloid headline writers would, British bases in Cyprus were '45 minutes from doom.'

Campbell told the Hutton Inquiry that it was the Prime Minister who insisted that the claim had a prominent place in the dossier. James Dingemans, counsel to the inquiry, said Campbell had 'plainly had selected 45 minutes as a message worth including in the Prime Minister's foreword.' Campbell asserted that the Prime Minister had.

It was 'one of the points that he felt was worth covering,' he said.

So Campbell placed the unqualified 45-minute claim at the very heart of the evidence against Saddam. The Prime Minister said in his foreword that the JIC assessment revealed that Saddam's 'military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.' This was true, if the weapons existed and had been moved to forward storage sites, but the foreword failed to make this clear. It was also far harder than the JIC was initially willing to be.

The next draft, dated Sept. 16, mentioned the 45-minute claim no fewer than four times. The main body of the draft remained cautious, saying that the Iraqi military 'may be able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes.' But the executive summary and Blair's new foreword were in no doubt and the very much firmer line taken by the Prime Minister was also about to be imposed on the rest of the draft dossier.

In his famous Sept. 17 email to Scarlett, Campbell listed 16 different queries on the JIC draft, including at point 10 the differences between the main body of the report and that of the summary and the Prime Minister's foreword. The 'may be able to deploy' the weapons in 45 minutes in the main body of the report was weaker than in the summary. The following day, Scarlett responded to all of Campbell's points and, on the issue of the 45-minute claim, said: 'The language you queried on the old page 17 has been tightened.' Put simply 'may be' had become 'definitely.'

End Part I

08-24-2005, 02:48 PM

Blair would have us believe that this was cock-up not conspiracy, and that it was all entirely the fault of the intelligence services. He apologizes for the intelligence being wrong but not for the way it was used to justify the war.

The Intelligence and Security Committee respectfully agrees. Fortunately, alone among the many inquiries, Lord Butler's inquiry (see the two following images) put its finger on the real problem. Civil-service speak it might be but it is none the less highly damning.


We ought not to be surprised at the way in which the intelligence services have been used as whipping boys to detract attention away from the Prime Minister's blind determination to join the US administration in the war on Iraq. Documents leaked to me and published last September in the Daily Telegraph showed that Blair had ignored all the warnings from his officials, warnings, which were, of course, based on untainted assessments of the intelligence and conversations with their American colleagues.

Sir David Manning, his Foreign Policy Adviser, warned Blair on Mar. 14, 2002 that the Americans seemed to have no idea of what would happen after a successful invasion, or as he put it: "What happens on the morning after? There is a real risk that the Administration underestimates the difficulties," he said.

A week later, Sir Peter Ricketts, the FCO Policy Director, said: "For Iraq, 'regime change' does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge match between Bush and Saddam. The truth is that what has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein's WMD programmes, but our tolerance of them post-11 September. Even the best survey of Iraq's WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile or chemical warfare, biological warfare fronts."

Three days later, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw took those themes further. The US decision to attack Iraq appeared to be a direct result of 9/11. But there was no credible evidence to link Iraq with Osama bin Laden, and the threat from Iraq had not worsened as a result of 9/11. There were even bigger question marks over what an invasion would achieve.

"There can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be any better," Straw said. "Iraq has no history of democracy so no-one has this habit or experience."

Blair ignored all of this advice and went to war with no clear idea of 'what happens on the morning after.'

Blair is undoubtedly a serial offender in ignoring intelligence and advice from the experts. But he is not alone. During the Scott Inquiry, politicians lined up to denigrate the intelligence they received and Iraq is not the only recent example of politicians behaving badly.

The British inquiry into the intelligence available to policymakers before the 9/11 attacks was conducted by the Intelligence and Security Committee, which largely absolved the British intelligence services of any blame. But its main conclusion, that no-one in the intelligence services understood 'the scale of the threat and the vulnerability of Western states to terrorists with this degree of sophistication and a total disregard for their own lives,' was bizarre.

That the committee could conclude this was scarcely credible given that anyone who knew anything about terrorism had known for some years that there were a number of modern groups, mainly but not exclusively Islamist, who did not care what the public thought of them and were very happy to kill as many people as possible, and that, of these types of groups, al-Qa'eda represented the biggest threat of all.

More importantly, it is impossible to reconcile the committee’s conclusion with the first paragraph on the same page of the report, which quotes John Scarlett, then the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, as saying that from the spring of 2001, there was 'an acute awareness... that Osama bin Laden and his associates represented a very serious threat' and were planning a terrorist 'spectacular' in the USA that summer with the intention of causing 'massive casualties.'

A whole series of different intelligence reports from late 2000, indicated that an attack was imminent. A US intelligence briefing for senior administration officials in July 2002 predicted that bin Laden would 'launch a significant terrorist attack against US and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against US facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.'

So why did the committee conclude that the nature of the likely attack was 'not understood,' presumably because the only people to whom the politicians on the committee were actually listening, were their fellow politicians in the British cabinet.

The committee's conclusion was immediately preceded by a quote from David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, who said the nature and level of the threat was 'different from what was previously envisaged' and that the intelligence assessment 'had underestimated what potentially might happen and the level of the threat, particularly to the US.'

The truth is that pre-9/11, most politicians simply took no notice of intelligence that was given to them unless it related directly to something that was on their political agenda, as was clearly the case with Iraq. It is interesting to note that various ministers admitted to the committee that they were attaching 'greater emphasis' to intelligence reports post-9/11.


On Lord Butler's recommendation, the Cabinet Office has published a series of guidelines to try to help the politicians understand the intelligence they receive.

No doubt, the politicians are now fully aware of the threat from al-Qa'eda. The challenge for the intelligence and security services is to make sure their political masters take notice of the intelligence that predicts the next threat, and before it happens, not only in order to pre-empt it, but also to ensure they are not blamed for another major failure of intelligence.

Michael Smith is a veteran intelligence reporter for the London Sunday Times. He broke the leaked Downing Street documents for the Telegraph last fall.