Jump to content
The Education Forum

Butler Report

David Clark

Recommended Posts

On the eve of the publication of Lord Butler's report into the intelligence failure that formed the basis of the government's case for war against Iraq, the demands for answers grow louder and more insistent. How could the intelligence services have been so wrong about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction?

That question is certainly high on the list of issues that need to be resolved if the report is to succeed in drawing a line under the affair. Public confidence in the integrity and competence of our intelligence gathering and assessment process is vital to national security, yet it has never been lower than it is today. The gap between what we were told to expect and the evidence that has emerged on the ground in Iraq is simply too wide to be dismissed as an excusable margin of error. No stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons have been uncovered. The mobile weapons laboratories have turned out to be nothing more than a figment of the imagination. Even evidence of ongoing weapons of mass destruction programmes has proved elusive.

To be quite blunt, the intelligence services were wrong in just about every significant judgment they made. Given that Iraq by that stage had been one of Britain's top intelligence targets for over a decade, their performance can only be described as woefully inadequate. Without thorough-going reform, there is a risk that they will never be believed again. The conse quences of this should not be dismissed lightly. If there is one thing more dangerous than acting on a false alarm, it is the failure to act against a threat that is real. The credibility of British intelligence matters and the Butler report must set out the steps needed to restore it.

But that is not all it must do. A report that ignored the role of politicians and laid all the blame at the door of the intelligence agencies, as the Senate intelligence committee did last week, would be a travesty of justice. The faulty assessments produced by the joint intelligence committee (JIC) were not the only, or even the main, reason for the decision to go to war. For that we must look elsewhere. Consider for a moment one of the government's favourite lines of defence. Tony Blair claims that if his belief that Saddam retained a weapons of mass destruction capability was mistaken, it was one shared by many other world leaders. There is certainly truth in that argument, but it raises the obvious question of why most of them nevertheless opposed America's decision to launch an immediate, pre-emptive invasion. The answer is that the intelligence picture, distorted though it was, simply did not justify it.

What's more, evidence unearthed by the Hutton inquiry reveals that the government knew this perfectly well. An email circulated within Downing Street recorded the horrified response of one official who read an early draft of the September dossier and realised the paucity of the intelligence case for war: "Very long way to go. I think. Think we're in a lot of trouble with this as it now stands." Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, noted in another email that a later draft "does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam". These concerns were also evident in the rather desperate last-minute plea issued by Sir John Scarlett for the intelligence agencies to scrape the bottom of the barrel for anything they might have overlooked.

It was the realisation of how shaky the government's case was that led to the second, more important stage of Britain's intelligence failure on Iraq: the one that became famous over allegations of "sexing up". In part, this involved the systematic filtering out of anything that might point to a conclusion other than the one the government wanted us to reach. At Powell's behest, a key phrase revealing the JIC's assessment that Saddam would use chemical or biological weapons only in self-defence was struck. The observation that he did not have the capability to strike Britain was similarly removed.

At the same time there was intense pressure on the JIC, starting with Alastair Campbell's instruction for it to come up with something "new" and "revelatory". It was in this heightened atmosphere that the notorious 45-minute claim and other intelligence purporting to show that Iraq was continuing to produce chemical and biological weapons was passed on to Downing Street without being properly examined by the intelligence officers best placed to assess it. Much of this is now said to have been withdrawn, although ministers have yet to correct the parliamentary record. It is significant because it was this information that allowed Blair to strengthen the language in the dossier and claim in his foreword that the threat from Saddam was "current and serious".


Edited by David Clark
Link to comment
Share on other sites

It is possible that Tony Blair has made a mistake in appointing Lord Butler to head this committee. Blair seems to forgotten something that happened seven years ago. Blair had just appointed Jonathan Powell as his permanent private secretary. Butler, then cabinet secretary, told Blair that this decision was “absolutely wrong… and the job should go to a proper civil servant”. Blair ignored the advice and used his monarchical power (Order in Council) to give Powell power over civil servants.

Is it possible that Butler will get his revenge by blaming Powell (now Blair’s chief of staff) for the WMD scandal. The Hutton Inquiry has already illustrated the important role that Powell played in getting the dossier that Blair wanted (emails to both John Scarlett and Alastair Campbell about the language of the document).

Who is Jonathan Powell? Why is he so important to Blair? After all he is the sole survivor of the inner circle that came into Downing Street with Blair seven years ago.

Blair first met Powell in Washington where he was working at the British Embassy. He was not a member of the Labour Party then or when he was recruited as his private secretary. His background was in fact anti-Labour. The son of an Air Vice Marshall, his brother was Charles Powell, Margaret Thatcher’s leading adviser. Did Thatcher suggest Jonathan Powell for the job? Or was he imposed on Blair by another organization? If so, he might well survive Butler’s report today.

By the way, Andrew Adonis, Blair's adviser on education (the man behind the recently published 5 Year Plan) is another one recruited from outside the Labour Party. I wonder who he is really working for? Powell and Adonis have something else in common. Both are said to be experts on American politics. Who would have guessed?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Butler did has was expected and told us what we already knew. However, he refrained from blaming all those concerned and even went outside his remit in pleading that no one should be sacked for their incompetence. This is of course in direct contrast those recent reports that concerned teachers and social workers. When they make mistakes they have to pay the full price.

The important information released was not the Butler Report but the Intelligence Assessments sent to Tony Blair. I have not got much time for Michael Howard but his performance in the House of Commons was impressive. What he did was to read out extracts from these assessments and compared them to what Tony Blair said in the House of Commons soon afterwards. He clearly showed that Blair had mislead the British people about what the intelligence services were telling him.

As the BBC reported today:

"It is now clear that in many ways the intelligence services got it wrong but their assessments included caveats, cautions and qualifications." Mr Howard said.

The prime minister chose to leave out these caveats, qualifications and cautions," when he made the case for war, he said.

"Their qualified judgements became his unqualified certainties," Mr Howard said.

The question the prime minister now had to ask himself was "does he have any credibility left," the Tory leader added.

Mr Howard detailed the warnings the joint intelligence committee had given to the prime minister on the "limited" and "patchy" nature of intelligence on Iraq.

He then pointed to Mr Blair's claim that information on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction was "extensive, detailed and authoritative".

"The prime minister has said mistakes were made and he accepts responsibility, but it is not a question of responsibility but credibility", Mr Howard told MPs.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Less than a week ago the American equivalent of the Butler inquiry in the US Senate published its findings. They were unambiguous. "A global intelligence failure," said the inquiry chairman.

"We went into Iraq based on false claims," said fellow senator and panel member Jay Rockefeller, adding that the administration had "used bad information to bolster its case for war, and we in Congress would not have authorised that war ... if we knew then what we know now."

That was not quite Lord Butler's style. Just as a certain kind of Briton prefers circumlocution and euphemism for even everyday speech - "I wonder if I could trouble you for a glass of water?" - so his lordship chose to speak indirectly. American inquiries may talk of screw-ups and false claims, but Lord Butler would tread more lightly.

After all, this was a former cabinet secretary, an establishment insider who spent a lifetime mastering the art of the coded memo, the veiled policy paper. His report was never going to be the searing, damning indictment some had longed for. That would be far too crude.

So Lord Butler did not thrust a dagger into the prime minister or anyone else yesterday. Instead he presented parliament, press and public with an elegant, walnut-encased, velvet-lined box full of sharpened knives. "You might use these," he seemed to say. "I couldn't possibly."

His lordship was careful to supply a sheath for each blade, lest anyone suspect he was inciting their use. But the steel was there, the glint unmistakable. Knife one was the thorough discrediting of the human intelligence on Iraq. One main source was passing on hearsay. Another, on chemical and biological weapons, "must be open to doubt". Reports from a third source "have been withdrawn as unreliable." Yet another was "seriously flawed", so that the grounds for believing "Iraq had recently produced stocks of biological agent no longer exist".

A casual reader might look at all this and conclude that Britain's intelligence services had, like their US counterparts, failed and failed badly. They were sold a pup. But Butler would say nothing of the sort. While the US Senate found the CIA suffered from "a broken corporate culture and poor management", his lordship had no such hard words for their British counterparts. He had seen no evidence of "culpable negligence". No heads needed to roll. Others might read Butler's description of the flimsiness of the Iraq information and wonder how Downing Street nevertheless produced a September 2002 dossier brimming with confidence that Saddam Hussein was armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction. But having planted that thought, Butler moved quickly to snuff it out. "We have found no evidence of deliberate distortion."

His lordship's second knife picked up the notorious 45-minute claim, the one that caused so much trouble last year. Yesterday's report vindicated two important parts of Andrew Gilligan's original story. First, it said the claim was wrong and should never have been in the September dossier, certainly not in the form in which it appeared. Second, Butler nodded to suspicions that the 45-minute line was only included "because of its eye-catching character". To make the dossier sexier, as Gilligan might have put it.

Once again, though, Butler refused to push the knife in all the way. Surely, a sceptic might ask, 45 minutes was included despite its flaws because it served the government's aim of making the strongest possible case for war? You might say that, implied the peer. I couldn't possibly comment. There was "no evidence of JIC assessments and the judgments inside them being pulled in any particular direction".

Knife three was the methodical job of caveat-stripping that went into No 10's crafting of the dossier. The report includes a handy appendix laying out the raw intelligence material alongside the finished, political product. It makes clear how almost all the qualifiers - the maybes and possiblys - were removed, giving the impression the government had a much firmer fix on Saddam's arsenal than it ever did.

This was a "serious weakness", said Butler. The dossier should have made clear the limits of the knowledge that underpinned it. Many people will regard the removal of these qualifiers, turning possibilities into certainties, as a material change to the document, hardening it up, firming it up - even sexing it up.

But Lord Butler will not be among them, not explicitly at any rate. He agreed with Lord Hutton that both "allegations that the intelligence in the September dossier had knowingly been embellished" and questions "over the good faith of the government" were to be dismissed.

This was the pattern, his lordship regularly exposing a gap in the government armour, only to plug it soon afterwards. No one benefited from his approach more than John Scarlett, then head of the joint intelligence committee. The report deluged him with criticism, albeit worded in the silky prose of a veteran mandarin. Scarlett's JIC had faulty practices: overcorrecting past errors, turning worst-case scenarios into baseline expectations, misreading the nature of Iraqi society. Butler also left no doubt that he believed Scarlett had let political pressure get to him.

There was a "strain" on JIC's usual neutrality and objectivity; the pressure for a document for public, political consumption meant "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear." In future a JIC chairman should be someone "demonstrably beyond influence". To most eyes, that will read as Whitehall-speak for a statement that Scarlett did not do his job properly: he failed to keep the politicians sufficiently at bay. Surely that would disqualify him from promotion to run the Secret Intelligence Service, the SIS? But Lord Butler could not let that appear to be his conclusion. He and his colleagues "greatly hope" Scarlett will take up his new job.

The iron fist of the former cabinet secretary kept punching, forever wrapped in the same velvet glove. The prime minister was upbraided for a governing style which made collective, cabinet responsibility almost impossible: ministers never saw key papers, relying instead on oral briefings. Did that lead to bad governance? No, there was no reason to suspect the current style was "any less effective" than those that had gone before.

Perhaps most woundingly, Butler concluded that when the PM suddenly started focusing on Iraq in early 2002 the shift was not based on a change in intelligence - despite Blair's constant references to the material crossing his desk. Rather, the relevant circumstances seem to have been a change of heart in Washington: Butler even cited George Bush's "axis of evil" speech. Yet even here the former cabinet secretary gave the PM a let-out: 9/11 had changed the global climate, making proliferation of WMD a more pressing concern.

When he had finished, Butler's audience, like a school speech day dismissed by a kindly headmaster, wondered what to make of it all. It was confusing: some thought the headline was "Blair slammed", others said it was "Whitewash II". It might take a while to sink in that Lord Butler had done neither. He did not play the assassin. Instead he handed the PM a bulletproof vest, and the public a set of live bullets. That at least will ensure fair play - and what could be more British than that?


Link to comment
Share on other sites

When a teacher takes a group of students on a field trip and one dies, the teacher is sent to prison.

When a social services department fails to protect one child, the government insists that individual staff are named, punished and made to resign.

When a police officer admitted “full personal responsibility for errors” the home secretary demands that he resigns.

The prime minister and the chairman of the joint intelligence committee make serious mistakes and then attempt to cover them up and as a result 60 soldiers and thousands of innocent citizens are killed. One is rewarded with promotion. The other claims he acted in good faith and is judged to be part of a collective failure where no one is to be individually criticised.

We really are living in the world of 1984. The language of Lord Hutton, Lord Butler and Tony Blair has lost all meaning. When Blair is asked who removed the qualifications from the original report, he tells us it was part of the process. No one person did it and therefore no one is responsible? Is it possible to find out who did it by looking at the minutes. Well no, Blair has learnt the lessons of recent history. You don’t keep minutes so later you can’t be accused of destroying them.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Damp squib or smoking gun? The conclusions from Lord Butler's report seem, at first sight, to provide the expected establishment support for the government. Lord Butler proves himself no patsy Hutton. He's shrewder than the judge, a real player. He makes several trenchant criticisms. But he decides, in the end, that no one's actually to blame. Everyone's acted honourably and in good faith, so we should all just work hard to make sure it doesn't happen again.

So there it is. The intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was wildly wrong. Warnings about the unreliability of the evidence were not included in the dossier the government presented to parliament. We went to war against the wishes of the majority of the UN. At least 11,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. Islamist terrorists, who had no foothold in Iraq before, are more dangerous than ever. A bloody insurgency still burns in the country, punctuated by car-bombings and grisly videotaped beheadings.

Yet the prime minister continues to insist that it was right to go to war. Never mind if the original reason - the legal reason - for doing so has been utterly discredited. Suddenly, he finds the real reason for sending in the troops was to topple a very nasty dictator and make the world a safer place. So far, so convenient. Now we can just move swiftly on, after two Commons inquiries and the reports from Lords Hutton and Butler. Let the line be drawn.

But closer reading of the report presents us with one stunning and inescapable fact: the prime minister knew, from the evidence supplied to him and published yesterday by Lord Butler, that there were many doubts and uncertainties about the intelligence: to say it was dodgy is an understatement. Yet, in his forward to the September dossier, Tony Blair wrote: "What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt [my italics] is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme." Lord Butler describes as a "serious failing" the fact that the dossier did not contain warnings and caveats about intelligence known to the joint intelligence committee (JIC).

If this does not add up to misleading parliament and the public, then I don't know what the word "mislead" means any more. Much has been made of the conclusion by Lord Butler and the insistence from Tony Blair himself that he acted in good faith. I'm sure he did. But whatever he believed about the merits of taking action against Saddam, there can be no doubt that he gave us all a misleading impression of the reasons for going to war. Thanks to Lord Butler, we have seen the original intelligence, and we know that the dossier was not a fair representation of it - it was sexed up.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Spin it how you like, the affair of the dodgy dossiers and the Hutton report represent a sharp falling away in standards not only of intelligence analysis but also of the conduct of government in general. For a while, it was almost as if it were back before the great civil service reforms of the late 19th century, where the governing party or faction could do more or less what it liked with the machinery of the state - which was largely composed of its clients, or creatures, in any case. The Butler report is unlikely to satisfy the tricoteuse tendency - those who want to see heads roll in a full sacrificial ritual. But Lord Butler's report will do a great deal to bring about, once again, the high standards of collection and analysis for which the British intelligence community was previously known.

It's a slow-burning report, and its television opening had an elegance and lightness of touch and courtesy that were lacking in the US Senate intelligence committee's presentation of its report last week. But Lord Butler goes right to the heart of the matter. He would not dream of using the demotic "sexed up", but the way the evidence is presented allows us to draw our own conclusions. By publishing excerpts of the original joint intelligence committee papers and placing them alongside the dodgy dossier, he and his colleagues demonstrate the great gulf in words and tone and intended meaning between the real JIC assessments and the September dossier. Like a police chief in south-east Asia triumphantly laying out the fake Gucci handbags, the dodgy Rolex watches and pirate DVDs, he compares and contrasts the pirate dossier with the real article. It may not be damning, some people may not care, but it is effective.

Even his early defence of John Scarlett, specifically recommending that he not forgo his elevation to MI6, firmly throws the responsibility back on the shoulders of the politicians, which is where it should lie. They are the policy makers. Crucially, they have the power to set the atmosphere and environment in which intelligence is collected and analysed. And this, more than anything else, is clearly what went wrong.

Lord Butler makes clear his disdain for the 45-minutes claim. It simply should not have been there - neither in the proper JIC assessment nor in the dossier. This is an important finding, and more than anything else in the report will serve to bring back some analytical sanity to the central assessment machinery. Of course, it should not have been there. To give you an idea of what "strain" must have meant: if I had tried to include such a poorly sourced piece of intelligence while drafting a JIC paper it would have been removed at a subordinate meeting before it got into the final draft - most probably at the insistence of the Secret Intelligence Service representative, who would have understood its flimsiness. Even if no one complained during the exhaustive Whitehall drafting process, the reference would have been dismissed with puzzled disdain by the great men and women of the JIC when I took it before them for approval. They would have made a donnish joke of it perhaps, but their critical teeth would have been bared.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now
  • Create New...