Blair facing pressure over Iraq intelligence

Investigation is sought on justifications for war

February 01, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - The warning that Prime Minister Tony Blair gave to the House of Commons and a national television audience before the war with Iraq was stark.

Intelligence reports, he said, concluded "that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam Hussein has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes."

His information increasingly looks as untrue as its presentation was chilling. And there are growing calls in Great Britain - as there are in the United States - for an independent inquiry into how apparently false information was used to justify going to war.

Blair's political life was likely spared last week when a judge who examined Blair's claims concluded that the prime minister did not present them to the country knowing they were false. The judge made no comment on whether the information was correct.

But with the failure of inspectors to find any evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and with former chief U.S. inspector David Kay doubting that any such weapons existed, Blair, like President Bush, is facing increasing pressure to explain how the intelligence information relayed to the public appears to have been so wrong.

"Either the intelligence wasn't that smart, or they got it wrong or their evidence was manipulated by the government," Austin Mitchell, a member of Parliament from Blair's Labor Party said in an interview. "I don't know the answer, but it seems we have an interest in finding out the truth so that it doesn't happen again."

Intelligence gathering is imperfect, as the Sept. 11 terror attacks demonstrated in the harshest ways. But when intelligence information was presented by Blair to the British people - before the war and recently - it was adorned with the language of certainty.

For example, on March 18, before the war, Blair said: "We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years - contrary to all history, contrary to all intelligence - Saddam decided unilaterally to destroy those weapons. I say that such a claim is palpably absurd."

And on July 8, after Hussein had fallen, the prime minister said: "I don't concede it at all that the intelligence at the time was wrong. I have absolutely no doubt at all that we will find evidence of mass destruction programs."

His response to the lack of discovered weapons has been that the Iraq Survey Group, the agency that Kay led until last month, should be allowed to finish its work. Kay has said that the group's work is 85 percent complete.

J. Ransom Clark, who worked in the CIA for 36 years including as an analyst who sifted through reports from secret operatives, said he has little doubt that the intelligence agencies in Britain sent nuanced reports to their superiors, full of caveats explaining the percentage of confidence in their conclusions.

The caveats would have been particularly prominent coming from a country such as Iraq, a "denied area" in intelligence parlance, meaning agents could not work freely and would have tight limitations on the amount of firsthand knowledge they could obtain.

"The information works its way up the bureaucracy, and a caveat is taken out here, another there, and then you have a boss standing in front of the president, and suddenly the answer is, `Yes, Iraq is storing chemical weapons,'" Clark said. "Presidents want answers, not equivocations, and prime ministers don't want probabilities."

The White House has shifted gears from being certain weapons of mass destruction existed ("Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," Vice President Dick Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 2002), to being certain that Hussein was involved in "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities," as the president said in his State of the Union address last month. Blair, too, has appeared to back away from his earlier certainty.

"First of all, let me just scotch this nonsense that I am now saying it is no longer a question of weapons programs," he told The Observer in an interview Jan. 25. "Of course it is a question of weapons, but programs are important too. ... I can only tell you I believed the intelligence we had at the time."

Loch K. Johnson, a professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia and an author of several books on intelligence, said nobody should have been expected to draw iron-clad conclusions about what weapons Hussein may have possessed in the weeks and months before the war.

That is because British and U.S. intelligence agencies lacked agents within Iraq, and most likely the bulk of the intelligence presented to Blair and Bush was based on extrapolations of Hussein's past behavior.

"I think the policy leaders owe an apology for having hyped the information that was available," Johnson said. "There was clearly some exaggeration of intelligence. There's culpability in a lot of areas."

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