An abuse of intelligence

by Hugh Cortazzi

The U.K. government has been under pressure for some years to hold an inquiry into British participation in the Iraq war and on the events that led up to the decision to go to war. The various previous inquiries were seen by many as inadequate or whitewash. The government eventually conceded that once British forces had been withdrawn from Iraq, a wide ranging inquiry would be held.

In due course the government appointed a five-man panel. It was not to be a judicial review, nor was it to apportion blame; it was to clarify the facts. To head this inquiry the government appointed Sir John Chilcot, a retired senior civil servant. The other members of the inquiry team are a senior retired diplomat, two historians and a peeress who sits in the House of Lords as an independent.

The inquiry has begun to take evidence from civil servants who were involved with intelligence and planning in the run up to the war. So far nothing very startling has emerged and as the inquiry has no lawyers on the panel the questioning has been polite rather than penetrating. But some points have become clear. The British intelligence community knew that Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s regime did not support al-Qaida and that at least two weeks before the invasion Iraq did not have any ready weapons of mass destruction.

The infamous dossier on which then British Prime Minister Tony Blair based his justification for war was thus at the very least exaggerated. It is clear from the evidence given to the inquiry that contrary to the conclusions reached by the so-called Hutton inquiry the document had been “sexed up.”

It has also been confirmed that some civil servants were not convinced that in the absence of a further United Nations resolution the invasion was legally justified. The evidence suggested that Blair signed up to the invasion after a private conversation with U.S. President George W. Bush, who was determined to go ahead in the spring when U.S. forces were ready on the ground. Bush was not prepared to wait for further resolutions or reports from U.N. arms inspectors. The date of the invasion was thus dictated by the “need” to use the forces because they could not easily be kept waiting. Evidence has also confirmed what has been apparent to almost all observers that the planning for the occupation was at best a shambles. It was sketchy and often based on wishful thinking about how Iraqis would react.

The inquiry will in due course hear from Blair and other politicians who will doubtless produce their excuses.

Blair, who has a large fund of self belief, probably still thinks that he was right and that his critics are wrong. He will argue that it was necessary for the cohesion of the Western alliance and to maintain the special relationship between Britain and the United States — which has been the cornerstone of British foreign policy — that Britain should support the Americans in Iraq. He may also argue that international law is not as clear as statutory law and that the overthrow of Hussein’s evil regime justified the means used to destroy it.

The intelligence available to British ministers before the invasion was thus not sufficient to justify the invasion, but it left open the possibility that interpretation of the intelligence could be used to rationalize the attack without too much obvious hypocrisy and exaggeration. To use an infamous phrase used by a former chief secretary to the Cabinet in another inquiry, the statements put out by the government were “economical with the truth” and selective in their use of the intelligence available.

Any official who has been concerned with the presentation and interpretation of intelligence to politicians knows that politicians are reluctant to read or hear anything that does not conform to their pre-conceived notions. They also have a particular penchant for any information alleged to come from secret sources and especially anything which is marked “top secret” or “burn after reading.” Officials tend to be more skeptical about secret intelligence unless the source is impeccable or based on documents that can be shown to be genuine. They recognize that agents may well provide information which they know will be particularly welcome to the recipient and possibly elicit higher rewards.

All intelligence needs to be weighed carefully and wherever possible confirmed from independent sources. Often the best intelligence may come from information in the public domain.

Wars seem inevitably to lead to politicians allowing themselves to be bamboozled by wishful thinking or by intelligence fed to them by flatterers. This was certainly the case in World War II. Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor without thinking through how Japan was to achieve a solution to the conflict that would inevitably ensue and without a proper assessment of the American ability and will to fight back.

It must have been obvious in late 1944 that Japan faced extinction unless an accommodation could be made with the U.S. Victory was certainly unobtainable, but the high command did not want to admit the shame of defeat. There was also a fatalistic lack of grip among those around the Emperor. No one had the courage to face up to the truth.

Politicians, like monarchs, need to have advisers who are not afraid to tell them the true facts, but they generally surround themselves with sycophants and “yes men” who tell their bosses what they would like to hear.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.