Click here to watch Peter’s contribution in the chamber on the Chilcot report
IN FRONT OF THEIR NOSES: the failure of the media and political classes to read the evidence that Iraq did not possess WMD
Evidence to Chilcot Inquiry: from the Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP
“To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.” George Orwell
This note is about one of the most egregious failures of the media and political classes in recent memory: their failure to examine critically the published evidence, ahead of the invasion of Iraq, on whether government claims that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction were supported by the Intelligence Services and the UN Weapons Inspectors.
Had they done so, they would have concluded (as did Robin Cook) that Iraq did not possess WMD ‘in the commonly understood sense of the term’. They would have realised that the invasion had to go ahead immediately after the publication of the Blix report or not at all, not because the report found evidence of WMD or even WMD ‘programs’, but because it had found none and further inspections would almost certainly remove the original casus belli.
Instead of reading the evidence most of the media and political classes – including many opponents of the war – accepted the government spin that intelligence showed that Iraq did possess WMD; were astonished when he turned out not to have any; and attributed it to a failure of the intelligence services.
There may be valuable lessons to be learnt from this near universal failure to examine the evidence thoroughly.
During 2002 the British government was visibly preparing to join the US in a highly controversial invasion of Iraq. The casus belli invoked by the UK government was Iraq’s supposed possession of WMD which made it a threat to the peace of the region.
The government claimed that the Intelligence Services assessment of the intelligence evidence confirmed that Iraq possessed such weapons.
Robin Cook had seen the intelligence evidence on this issue when he was Foreign Secretary and was briefed on the latest intelligence assessment as a Cabinet member in the run up to the war. In his resignation speech before the war began he concluded that the evidence available to the intelligence services showed: “Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term—namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target. It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s when US companies sold Saddam anthrax agents and the then British Government approved chemical and munitions factories. Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create?”1
He was proved right on the non-existence of WMD but conceded too much on the possibility of some residual toxins and battlefield chemical munitions being left over from the 1980s.
Robin Cook confirmed to me that the briefing he had received did not materially differ from the Joint Intelligence Committee’s assessment published in the government Dossier the previous autumn. So the rest of us were in an almost equally good position to reach our own conclusions as to whether ‘Iraq possessed WMD in the commonly understood sense of the term’.
To substantiate their claim that Iraq had reequipped itself with WMD the government commissioned a Dossier of the intelligence evidence and advice and published it in September 2002. Tony Blair claimed in his foreword that the evidence proved the case “beyond doubt”. The government subsequently released Hans Blix’s report of the work of the UN Inspectors. Ministers claimed that report provided further telling proof that Iraq had rebuilt its stocks of WMD.
In fact a close reading of the Dossier2, at the time, revealed that the Joint Intelligence Committee’s assessment up to the commissioning of the report had not been that Saddam possessed WMD, but that he could manufacture chemical weapons within weeks and biological weapons within months using legitimate equipment such as most similar states possessed. The JIC was explicit that “These chemical and biological capabilities represented the most immediate threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction“.
Likewise, a close reading of the Blix report, at the time, contradicted the interpretation put on it in the government statement to the House. The sole example quoted by the Foreign Secretary of alleged new evidence in the report was that “the inspectors found evidence of anthrax where Iraq had declared there was none”. But the report itself made clear that that discovery was made before 1996 by the previous teams of UNSCOM inspectors, not by Hans Blix’s UNMOVIC team, and had long been in the public domain. Far from finding current evidence of WMD, Hans Blix’s inspectors had followed up all the leads given by Western intelligence agencies and found none of the suspected sites contained the slightest trace of recent WMD activity.
Any one who read either the Dossier or the Blix report closely could only conclude that the Intelligence services did not have evidence that Iraq had re-equipped itself with WMD and that The UN Inspectors had confirmed that Iraq did not possess them. Sadly almost no-one did read either document closely – relying instead on Tony Blair’s highly tendentious introduction and government spin which bore little relation to the contents.
George Orwell said “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle”. There are important lessons from this experience about how and why almost the entire political and media classes ignored the evidence under their noses that Iraq did not possess WMD.
Purpose of this note
The purpose of this note is not to discuss whether the Dossier was ‘sexed up’. Even if it was, that process may have obscured but did not conceal from the careful reader that the Intelligence Services had not been advising government that Iraq possessed WMD.
Nor is the aim to question whether Saddam Hussein had in the past possessed WMD – he clearly had and had used them against Iran and within Iraq. Nor is it to question whether Saddam wanted to rebuild stocks of WMD and would have done so if given a chance – he almost certainly did want to and would have done so.
The narrow focus of this note is simply to ask why, on an issue as central and controversial as the invasion of Iraq, scarcely any politicians and even fewer journalists took the trouble to read critically the government Dossier and the Blix report – relying instead on official spin about their contents.
What the Dossier said.
The key section of the dossier relating to chemical and biological weapons is Chapter 3 paragraphs 2 to 4 headed JIC Assessment: 1999-2002. This revealingly says in respect of biological weapons that “The JIC concluded that Iraq had sufficient expertise, equipment and material to produce biological warfare agents within weeks using its legitimate bio-technology facilities.” In respect of chemical weapons it says that “These stocks [of chemical warfare agents and precursors retained since 1991] would enable Iraq to produce significant quantities of mustard gas within weeks and of nerve agent within months. … These chemical and biological capabilities represented the most immediate threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.” (Emphasis added). In short the dossier admits that JIC advice up to 2002 when the dossier was commissioned had been that:
- The threat from Iraq does not come from possessing any WMD but from the capability to manufacture them.
- It would take weeks or months to manufacture the agents necessary for these weapons (which would then have to be weaponised and deployed).
- The capacity to make chemical weapons depended on any stocks of precursors retained, despite UN inspectors’ best efforts, since 1991 – which presumably were not in large quantities, if they existed at all.
- The capacity to manufacture biological weapons depended on “using its legitimate bio-technology facilities”. The same could be said of virtually every country in the world with even the most basic chemical, pharmaceutical or even brewing industry. Indeed, later on the dossier admits “Any major petrochemical or biotech industry, as well as public health organisations, will have legitimate need for most materials and equipment required to manufacture chemical and biological weapons”. On that basis every country from Thailand to Turkey possesses a “biological weapons capability”.
That section gives the JIC’s assessment up to the time the dossier was commissioned and concludes with the words “In the last six months the JIC has confirmed its earlier judgements on Iraqi chemical and biological warfare capabilities [i.e. that the capabilities to produce chemical weapons within weeks and biological weapons within months using legitimate bio-technology equipment … represented the most immediate threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction].”
Immediately following that very clear conclusion, the issue is obfuscated by a strange section entitled ‘Recent Intelligence’. Its opening sentence purports to confirm the previous assessment but in fact contradicts it. It says: “Subsequently, intelligence has become available from reliable sources which complements and adds to previous intelligence and confirms the JIC assessment that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons”. The reference to capabilities is no longer there. This effectively contradicts the previous section quoted above which conspicuously said the threat came from manufacturing “capabilities” – not actual possession of WMD. Moreover, this is the sole assertion in the entire dossier that JIC had assessed that Iraq actually possessed WMDs rather than the capacity to produce them in weeks or months. Yet it is misleadingly presented as confirming an assessment which they have meticulously refrained from making.
It read at the time like a last minute insertion, written in haste, to ‘beef it up’.
The rest of this section reveals that the “recent intelligence” relates to reports of discussions within the Iraqi leadership indicating the important role chemical and biological weapons play in Iraqi military thinking, that they are taking steps to prevent UN weapons inspectors finding evidence relating to its weapons programmes and that Saddam was willing to use them against his own Shia population.
It concludes with the infamous sentence “Intelligence indicates that the Iraqi military are able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minute of an order to do so.” This 45 minutes claim is repeated four times in the document. If true, it would imply that the Iraqi army had stocks of weapons filled and deployed – not just the capacity to produce them in weeks or months. Yet if that were so it would be harder to conceal their existence, the number of people knowing of their existence would be all the greater, and the absence of any first hand reports of such weapons being deployed all the more strange.
The serious lay reader had to decide whether to believe:
- the considered JIC assessment reached over several years and confirmed during the last six months that “the most immediate threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction“came not from possession of any WMD Iraq but from the capability to produce such weapons within weeks or months, or
- a last minute insertion which contradicted that; conveniently coincided with the dossier’s political purpose; provided the only assertion in the dossier that Iraq actually possessed WMD in usable form; was clearly based on inference from overheard conversations not any direct evidence; and the validity of which JIC had clearly had insufficient time to assess.
Any lay reader could judge at the time (as did the author of this note) that the inclusion of this last minute report felt like clutching at straws and could not override the settled JIC assessment.
It comes as no surprise that the Butler Report revealed that the sources of this ‘recent intelligence’ have subsequently been found to be unreliable. More recently it has been claimed that the key source was conversations overheard by a Baghdad taxi driver!
However, the issue this note addresses is not whether, with the benefit of hindsight and subsequently available information, we can explain the absence of WMD but whether an intelligent reader at the time could have concluded that there was no evidence that Iraq possessed WMD. That was certainly the view I reached and endeavoured to persuade front bench colleagues was the case.
What ministers knew
The media and public had the information available from the Dossier and subsequently from the report by Hans Blitz.
Cabinet ministers were able to ask for direct briefing from the security services as did Robin Cook who had also seen security reports daily in his previous role as Foreign Secretary. He told me the briefing did not materially differ from the JIC assessments recorded in the Dossier.
In principle therefore any close reader of the dossier could have made a judgement on whether Iraq possessed WMD on the basis of much the same evidence as did Robin Cook. In his resignation speech on the eve of the invasion Robin Cook said:
“Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term—namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target. It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s when US companies sold Saddam anthrax agents and the then British Government approved chemical and munitions factories. Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create?”
That no other minister appears to have reached a similar conclusion is worrying. We do not know whether any other ministers sought individual briefings from the Intelligence Services. If they did, we do no know whether the briefing made it clear that the official assessment was that “the most immediate threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction” was its capability to manufacture chemical and biological weapons within weeks or months. Most seem to have relied on the Prime Minister’s assertions about the existence of WMD.
Ministers, not officials, are responsible to Parliament. They cannot blame officials for bad or unclear advice. Ministers are responsible for the advice they take. It is their job to probe, challenge and establish the value of that advice.
Sadly the doctrine of ministerial responsibility has been eroded by a recent tendency of ministers to blame failures on officials and to put officials in the firing line.
Hans Blix’s Report3
Hans Blix produced his report on the findings of the UNMOVIC inspectors on 6th March and it was presented to parliament on 10th March – just a week ahead of the decision to invade Iraq. The length of the report and the shortage of time meant that MPs and others were even more dependent on the government’s interpretation of the report than would normally be the case. Unfortunately that presentation was profoundly misleading and MPs access to the report itself was made difficult, probably unintentionally.
In his statement to Parliament the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw said: “I have also placed copies of that document in the Library. I commend it to all Members. It sets out, in 173 pages of painstaking detail, the terrible nature of the weapons that Saddam has sought with such determination to develop.”4
In fact, as I discovered when I went to the Library, it was impossible for Members to obtain a copy of the Report. So I raised a point of order: “On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the debate, but I want to make an important point. The Foreign Secretary has just made a statement in which he based his case on a document entitled, "Unresolved Disarmament Issues: Iraq’s Proscribed Weapons Programmes", which was produced by UNMOVIC. He said that copies of the document had been placed in the Library and he commended it to all hon. Members. He said that it set out in 173 pages of painstaking detail the terrible nature of Saddam’s weapons. I have just been to the Library and asked for a copy. I was told that I could not have a copy to take away but would have to sit and read all 173 pages in the Library. This is a very important document: it is the basis on which war may be declared within days. It is impossible for us to queue up and read it in the Library, but we do not have permission to take it away to our rooms. I would be grateful if you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, could have words with the Library or with the Foreign Office, so that copies are made available and so that, as the Foreign Secretary said, all hon. Members may have access to the document.”5
I do not suggest that lack of availability was deliberate. Jack Straw has a well deserved reputation as a ‘good House of Commons man’ for probity and for encouraging open debate. Steps were rapidly taken to remedy the situation but too late for MPs to draw on the report in their response to the Foreign Secretary’s statement.
In his statement Jack Straw had gone on to say: “…from the 29 separate sets of unresolved issues, let me give the House just one illustration: anthrax—easily inhaled and the death rate for untreated victims may be 90 per cent or more. Only tiny amounts are needed to inflict widespread casualties. Contrary to Iraqi assertions, the inspectors found evidence of anthrax where Iraq had declared there was none.”
He appeared to be saying that the UNMOVIC inspectors had found evidence that Iraq currently possessed anthrax. If so it would be the first smoking gun evidence that Saddam currently possessed WMD. So I naturally turned directly to that section. In fact the section of the report (page 95) refers to the findings not of UNMOVIC inspectors in 2002 but to those of UNSCOM prior to 1996 – evidence that had long been in the public domain. What Blix said in his review of Iraq’s historic involvement with anthrax was:
“Contrary to Iraq’s assertion that no other facilities had been used to produce anthrax, UNSCOM found evidence of anthrax in two fermenters and a mobile storage tank at the Foot and Mouth Disease Vaccine (FMDV) plant at Al Daura. The strain was said by UNSCOM “to be consistent with the strain used in Iraq’s BW programme”. Two of the three pieces of equipment that had previously tested positive for anthrax were destroyed in June 1996 pursuant to resolution 687 (1991). A follow up sampling mission to FMDV in November 1996 did not detect anthrax on any remaining equipment.”
In short, the Foreign Secretary was economical with the truth and thereby misled the House into thinking there was new evidence that Saddam currently possessed anthrax.
It is significant that when he chose to “give the House just one illustration” of the reports findings on WMD it was totally misleading. He could not give any better examples because, as I found when I laboriously trawled through the whole report, it contains no references to any evidence of the current existence of WMD in Iraq.
Yet Blix makes clear that he was given information by western intelligence agencies of where they thought any WMD would be found if they existed and he had diligently investigated them but found nothing.
At the time, a number of those who supported the case for invasion because they believed that the intelligence services had robust evidence that Iraq possessed WMD argued that Hans Blix and UNMOVIC should be given more time to find them. However, it was pretty clear that he did not believe Iraq possessed any significant quantities and there was no where else to look.
It was clear that giving Blix longer would not result in finding any WMD but instead demonstrate that there were none. That is why the US and UK governments who were determined on invasion to oust Saddam, but had justified it on the basis of his supposed possession of WMD, could not afford to allow the inspection to continue.
Hans Blix subsequently told an All Party Meeting in the House of Commons that he shared the view that it was the growing evidence that Iraq had no WMD which meant the invasion had to go ahead6.
Lessons of this failure to see what was under our noses.
- The British intelligence services did not possess evidence that Iraq possessed WMD “in the commonly understood sense of the term”.
- They did not claim otherwise in the Dossier available to the media, parliament and the public.
- Sadly almost no-one bothered to read the Dossier critically – relying instead on government spin.
- Ministers had access to direct briefing but that did not materially differ from the published Dossier and led to the same conclusion, as Robin Cook put it: “Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term—namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target.”
- The Blix report made it even clearer that Iraq did not possess usable WMD despite flagrantly misleading attempts by ministers to pretend otherwise.
- Again almost no-one in the media or parliament appears to have read this report which was admittedly lengthy and not easy to obtain.
- However, it was clearly apparent to the Prime Minister and others that further investigation by Blix and his team would not find these probably non-existent weapons but would make their absence all too apparent. So the invasion had to go ahead lest further inspection destroyed its ostensible justification – the supposed possession of WMD.
- The subsequent failure to find WMD therefore should have come as no surprise to any MP or journalist who had read the available official reports.
- Both journalists and parliamentarians must regain the practice of reading official documents with a critical eye.
- Some journalists have become too reliant on their access to privileged briefing from government contacts about ‘what announcements really mean’.
Backbench MPs at present do not get a chance to read a government document until after they have had their prime opportunity to question ministers based solely on the minister’s statement giving a highly partial summary of its contents. MPs should be given the same
1. Personal Statement Hansard 17th March 2003 col 726
2. Iraq’s Weapons Of Mass Destruction: The Assessment Of The British Government 24 September 2002
3. Unresolved Disarmament Issues: Iraq’s Proscribed Weapons Programmes – 6th March 2003
4. Hansard 10th March 2003 col21
5. Hansard 10th March 2003 col44
6. That was the view I held. Having deployed half a million troops on Iraq’s borders, to have withdrawn them would have left Saddam Hussein in an incredibly strong position. His prestige in the Middle East would have been unrivalled. Sanctions and the policy of containment would have collapsed. He would have been able to build up his military power including an arsenal of the very WMD which he did not at that stage possess. I had not been in favour of the original invasion scheme. But to withdraw at that stage would have been worse than to proceed. So I reluctantly voted in support of the invasion.