Iraq intelligence seriously flawed, British panel says

Report absolves Blair of misleading the public to build support for war

July 15, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction ready to deploy when the United States and Britain invaded Iraq last year, an official inquiry concluded yesterday, finding that Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief argument for going to war was based on sloppy and uncertain intelligence work that was presented with the weight of fact.

The report did not criticize Blair, finding no evidence that either he or the MI6, Britain's spy agency, purposely skewed evidence to build support for war against Iraq, which the British public opposed.

Many of the criticisms in the report were similar to those leveled last week against U.S. intelligence agencies by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The report also found, as the Senate panel did, that no evidence existed of cooperation between Hussein and al-Qaida.

"Although there were contacts between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaida, there was no evidence of cooperation," the British inquiry concluded.

Yesterday's report by Lord Butler of Brockwell, formerly Britain's top civil servant, focused in large part on a dossier that Blair presented to the House of Commons in September 2002, but it included a broad range of intelligence findings.

That dossier was made public in an open session of the Commons when debate was fierce over how to handle Hussein. Butler said Blair should have made his case for going to war without making public the intelligence information because it carried an implied endorsement from the spy agencies.

Belied doubts

Butler and the committee he chaired found the dossier made assertions that were presented with a forcefulness that belied doubts even within the agencies responsible for producing them. The report specifically found a claim that Hussein's forces were capable of unleashing unconventional weapons within 45 minutes of being ordered was not supported by facts.

Butler said that having reviewed all the materials, his committee concluded the dossier went to "the outer limits" of the intelligence available.

The dossier may have "reinforced the impression" that there was "fuller and firmer" intelligence behind the claims than was actually the case, Butler said at a news conference announcing his findings.

"It was a weakness on the part of all those who were involved in putting together the dossier," he said. "I think that they collectively have to take the responsibility for that."

Nevertheless, within minutes after release of the report, Blair stood in the House of Commons and said any faults in reporting the intelligence rested with him, and he acknowledged that the key arguments he had made for going to war with Iraq were proved wrong.

"I accept full responsibility for the way the issue was presented and, therefore, any errors made," Blair said.

"I have to accept, as the months have passed, it seems increasingly clear that at the time of invasion Saddam did not have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy," he told the Commons.

But he insisted that the war was right, that toppling Hussein has made the world safer and that he would do it again under the same circumstances. And the report did support Britain's claim that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from Niger.

The information, the report said, came from "several different sources" and did not rely on documents exposed as forgeries by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

`Better and safer place'

"I cannot honestly say I believe getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all," Blair said. "Iraq, the region, the wider world is a better and safer place without Saddam."

The report was highly anticipated in Britain, where opposition to the invasion was far greater than in the United States.

And it was another part of the war gone bad for Blair, whose political fortunes began sinking shortly after the war began and have yet to recover.

Opponents have used the unfounded claims to question his integrity. News reports this week said that only a month ago members of Blair's Cabinet had to talk him out of resigning. Blair has denied the reports.

Credibility issue

"The issue is the prime minister's credibility," Michael Howard, the leader of the Conservative opposition, told the Commons following release of the report. "The question he must ask himself is: Does he have any credibility left?"

But Blair, amplifying one of the conclusions of the report, said the intelligence information was presented in "good faith," even if errors were made, and he chided Conservatives for criticizing him for leading the country into a war that their party supported.

"No one lied," Blair said. "No one made up the intelligence. The issue of good faith should now be at an end."

Largely sparing individuals of criticism, Butler said the MI6 was not vigorous enough in checking its sources, that "because of the scarcity of sources and the urgent requirement for intelligence, more credence was given to untried agents than would normally be the case."

The report recommended against the firing of John Scarlett, who is head of the Joint Intelligence Committee and who has been nominated to take over MI6.

The flaws in intelligence went beyond overstating conclusions without appropriate caveats, the report said, and included misusing sources by tasking them to come up with information they were unlikely to be able to obtain.

Butler's committee of five people spent six months investigating how the intelligence turned out to be so wrong. Among those interviewed were Blair and people at the highest levels of Britain's spy agencies.

Although Blair was absolved of deliberate wrongdoing, this was the fourth inquiry into allegations his government missed intelligence. The government has been cleared in each case.

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