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Sexed up: How London sold its war on Iraq

By David Isenberg 

01/28/04 (Asia Times)
Aside from jointly invading another country, it appears that the United States and Great Britain have another thing in common as a part of their "special relationship". They both twisted and distorted intelligence to suit their political needs. That this has happened in the US is now well known, but the British equivalent has not been well appreciated outside of the UK. That is about to change. 

Political careers are on the line with the imminent release, on February 28, of the report of the Hutton inquiry, chaired by Lord Hutton, set up last year to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly. 

Geoff Hoon, the Minister of Defense, is considered the odds on favorite to be the fall guy, with Prime Minister Tony Blair also expected to have some hard explaining to do - which he has promised once Hutton's report is finally released. The Independent newspaper has reported that at least six people associated with Blair's government could be in for criticism. The daily said that these six had sent late written submissions to Hutton, following letters from him saying that they faced possible criticism. 

Kelly was a scientist, a leading British government expert in chemical and biological warfare, and a former United Nations weapons inspector who was the source of information for the assertion by BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, who in a 6:07 am Today program last May 29 claimed that the British government had "sexed up" the dossier it released on September 24, 2002 regarding the purported threat of Iraqi unconventional weaponry. Gilligan claimed that the dossier was transformed against the wishes of the intelligence agencies. He also said that the government knew the claim that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes was false. As it turned out Gilligan, admitted that it was he, and not Kelly, who first uttered the phrase "sexed up"; Kelly merely repeated back to him the phrase that Gilligan first said. 

On July 15 last year, Kelly testified before a televised hearing of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee about an unauthorized interview he had given to Gilligan. Although he was told by his employer, the Ministry of Defense, that it wouldn't take any disciplinary action, Kelly, by all accounts, a deeply private man, found the publicity excruciating. On July 17 he killed himself by slitting his wrist. 

But none of this should be taken to mean that the British government was innocent of deception. As Cambridge academic Glen Rangwala noted: "A member of the defense intelligence staff ... wrote just before the dossier's release to Tony Cragg, then the deputy chief of defense intelligence, to express formal reservations about the dossier. According to Martin Howard, Mr Cragg's successor, the reservation was partly that 'the language was too strong on the continued production of chemical and biological agents'." 

Neither the senior intelligence official nor Kelly accepted that Iraq had continued to produce prohibited weapons. The ongoing production of weapons was a crucial element of the case for a threat from Iraq, because most of its chemical or biological agents produced before 1991 would have become useless. 

The suspicion that the intelligence community focused on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) potential rather than existing weapons is increased by changes to the text visible in the limited excerpts released so far during the Hutton inquiry from earlier drafts of the September dossier. 

The draft of the dossier from September 10, two weeks before its release, concludes: "Intelligence confirms that Iraq has covert chemical and biological weapons programs, in breach of UN Security Council Resolution 687." This is changed in the final version of the dossier to: "Intelligence shows that Iraq has covert chemical and biological weapons programs, in breach of UN Security Council Resolution 687, and has continued to produce chemical and biological agents." 

On the same page is the only allegation that Iraq actually has such weapons: "Iraq has chemical and biological agents and weapons available, either from pre-Gulf War stocks or more recent production." In the final version of the dossier, this is strengthened to: "Iraq has chemical and biological agents and weapons available, both from pre-Gulf War stocks and more recent production." 

Similarly, the claim that weapons could be used within 45 minutes was strengthened between the draft of the dossier dated September 16 and that published eight days later. The earlier version raised a possibility: "The Iraqi military may be able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so." The version released to the public lost the element of uncertainty: "Military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them." 

According to the BBC's Panorama program shown last week in Britain, Kelly believed that Saddam Hussein's arsenal posed an immediate threat to Western interests, but could not have been deployed within minutes, as the British government claimed. The program also accused the BBC's own managers of badly mishandling the row over the Blair government's justification for war against Iraq, and concluded that Britain's top spy chiefs had improperly acted as tools of the ruling Labour Party government. 

Robin Cook, British foreign minister before resigning over the UK's decision to participate in the war against Iraq, wrote: "When the cabinet of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government discussed the dossier on Hussein's WMD, I argued that I found the document curiously derivative. It set out what we knew about Hussein's chemical and biological arsenal at the time of the 1991 Gulf War. It then leaped to the conclusion that Hussein must still possess all those weapons. 

"There was no hard intelligence of a current weapons program that would represent a new and compelling threat to our interests. Nor did the dossier at any stage admit the basic scientific fact that biological and chemical agents have a finite shelf life, a principle understood by every pharmacist. Go to your medicine chest and check out the existence of an expiration date on nearly everything you possess. Nerve agents of good quality have a shelf life of about five years and anthrax in liquid solution of about three years. Hussein's stocks were not of good quality. The Pentagon itself concluded that Iraqi chemical munitions were of such poor standard that they were usable for only a few weeks." 

Furthermore, public evidence to the Hutton inquiry has already revealed a number of discrepancies in the role of the intelligence agencies. For example, when Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, officially known only as "C", emerged from secrecy to give evidence, he insisted that the compilation of the September dossier had been perfectly proper, but also revealed some damning information. When asked whether the dossier had given undue prominence to the 45 minutes claim, Dearlove replied: 

Dearlove: Well, I think given the misinterpretation that was placed on the 45 minutes intelligence, with the benefit of hindsight, you can say that is a valid criticism. But I am confident that the intelligence was accurate and that the use made of it was entirely consistent with the original report. 

Lord Hutton: Would you just elaborate what you mean by the misinterpretation placed on the 45 minutes claim? 

Dearlove: Well, I think the original report referred to chemical and biological munitions, and that was taken to refer to battlefield weapons. I think what subsequently happened in the reporting was that it was taken that the 45 minutes applied, let us say, to weapons of a longer range. 

This exchange surely validates Gilligan's claim that the dossier had been "sexed up". Furthermore, Iraqi battlefield weapons with chemical and biological warheads, even if they did exist, presented no threat to the stability of the Middle East, still less to Britain and the US. 

Documentary evidence provided to the inquiry has also demonstrated that senior figures inside Downing Street knew the evidence about Iraqi WMD was weak. An email sent to John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, from Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, shortly before the dossier was published, said: "The document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat, from Saddam ... We will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he is an imminent threat." But this is exactly what the final version of the dossier claimed. 

As Clare Short, the international development secretary who resigned from Blair's cabinet in May 2003, said: "... as a result of the Hutton inquiry, we now know that two defense intelligence officials wrote to their boss to put on record their disquiet at the exaggeration in the dossier. Moreover, one official asked his boss for advice as to whether he should approach the Foreign Affairs Select Committee after the foreign secretary had said that he was not aware of any unhappiness among intelligence officials about the claims made in the dossier." 

In fact, the Hutton inquiry is expected to confirm that while members of the defense intelligence staff protested at many of the claims in the dossier, they were ignored - not by Downing Street, but by top intelligence officials. However, the inquiry has already revealed that Blair's closest advisers, including Alastair Campbell, his communications chief, and Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, put pressure on senior intelligence officers, and they succumbed. 

Aside from the misuse of intelligence, it appears that the British government also resorted to outright propaganda. In late December 2003, the British government confirmed that the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, had run an operation to gain public support for sanctions and the use of military force in Iraq. It had organized Operation Mass Appeal, a campaign to plant stories in the media about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. 

And finally, there is the case of a second "dodgy dossier" published by Downing Street in February last year. In its annual report published on June 10, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) was heavily critical of the February dossier: "We believe that material produced by the [intelligence] agencies can be used in publications and attributed appropriately, but it is imperative that the agencies are consulted before any of their material is published. This process was not followed when a second document was produced in February 2003. Although the document did contain some intelligence-derived material, it was not clearly attributed or highlighted amongst the other material, nor was it checked with the agency providing the intelligence or cleared by the JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee] prior to publication." 

Downing Street has apologized for failing to admit that much of the dossier came from published academic sources, including an article by a California PhD student. The bulk of the 19-page document (pages 6-16) was directly copied without acknowledgement from an article in the September 2002 edition of Middle East Review of International Affairs, entitled "Iraq's Security and Intelligence Network: A Guide and Analysis". The author was Ibrahim al-Marashi, a postgraduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. But the question remains, who authorized its release in this format, and why? 

Officially, Blair has remained confident that evidence of proscribed Iraqi weaponry would be found, and has even hinted that some of the evidence has already been accumulated. In a television interview at a Russia-European Union summit at the end of May 2003, Blair said that he had already seen plenty of information that his critics had not, but would in due course: "Over the coming weeks and months we will assemble this evidence and then we will give it to people ... I have no doubt whatever that the evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction will be there. Those people who are sitting there saying 'Oh it is all going to be proved to be a great big fib got out by the security services, there will be no weapons of mass destruction', just wait and have a little patience. I certainly do know some of the stuff that has already been accumulated ... which is not yet public but what we are going to do is assemble that evidence and present it properly." 

But to date, no evidence has been released. 

In reality, however, it seems likely that Hutton and other reports to come will continue to produce shades of grey, rather than the conclusive outcome for which many, especially in the media, are looking. Hutton is unlikely to imply that Blair has lied or was responsible for Kelly's death. But Downing Street is open to criticism over the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that was presented to parliament in September 2002. 

And public opinion is liable to swing further against Blair, depending on how critical Hutton is. One poll for The Guardian found that 63 percent of Britons want the 50-year-old prime minister to resign if Hutton says that he lied about revealing Kelly's identity. 

And to a greater degree than US President George W Bush, Blair sold the Iraq war to the British public by warning of the dangers of Saddam's pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the risk of those weapons falling into the hands of global terrorists. 

The inquiry is also sure to continue for some time. It was reported in The Times of London last week that a British coroner is prepared to open a new inquest into the death of Kelly. Nicholas Gardiner, the Oxfordshire Coroner, believes that the Hutton inquiry was unable to examine all the evidence. At least five witnesses refused to release their statements to the Hutton inquiry, and police handed Lord Hutton only 70 of the 300 witness statements they took during their inquiries, the newspaper said. 

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national security issues. He co-authored the recently released report, Unravelling the Known Unknowns: Why no Weapons of Mass Destruction have been found in Iraq.

Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd

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