Clare Short: How Tony Blair misled Britain in the run-up to war in Iraq

In the second of our extracts from her new book, Clare Short reveals how the Prime Minister's 'highly personalised' decision-making process cut out dissent and accelerated the UK's march into battle
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By September 2002, I was feeling increasingly sure that the US and Tony Blair were determined to attack Iraq. By then I was starting to cancel my travel commitments and to ensure I read all the intelligence on Iraq. Because the Department for International Development was engaged in foreign policy, we had access to all the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) briefings that were circulated in Whitehall, unlike most other cabinet ministers. I had regular visits from senior intelligence officials, and they listened carefully to our explanations of why we did not find their Africa briefings very useful. As my anxiety mounted, I decided I should ask the SIS for a full briefing on the situation in Iraq.

By September 2002, I was feeling increasingly sure that the US and Tony Blair were determined to attack Iraq. By then I was starting to cancel my travel commitments and to ensure I read all the intelligence on Iraq. Because the Department for International Development was engaged in foreign policy, we had access to all the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) briefings that were circulated in Whitehall, unlike most other cabinet ministers. I had regular visits from senior intelligence officials, and they listened carefully to our explanations of why we did not find their Africa briefings very useful. As my anxiety mounted, I decided I should ask the SIS for a full briefing on the situation in Iraq.

Very unusually, the message came back that they could not do so because No 10 would not allow it. Why the attempt to restrict access? I think it reflects the fact that Tony Blair and his entourage were running the whole policy in a very informal and personal way and wanted to keep knowledge to themselves in order to keep control.

There is a prestigious cabinet committee called Defence and Overseas Policy (DOP) which is meant to supervise strategy on major foreign policy issues. It brings together all the expertise across government to deal with foreign policy crises. For the Iraq crisis, DOP never met. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how Tony Blair's highly personalised system of decision-making is a significant part of the explanation of the lack of properly considered policy and thus of the disaster in Iraq.

The other important issue that follows from briefing I received from senior figures in the intelligence services, both when I met them and through the written intelligence, is this.

It was clear that they were convinced that Saddam Hussein was dedicated to the possession of chemical and biological weapons and would acquire nuclear weapons if he could, though they made clear this would take at least five years. They also believed that he had hidden programmes and probably materials across Iraq. But they never suggested that something new had happened that created a risk that had to be dealt with urgently. It is a matter of record that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear programme and had had chemical and biological programmes, some of which were dismantled by the UN weapons inspectors prior to their withdrawal in 1998.

Hans Blix [the UN weapons inspector] also dismantled 70 ballistic missiles with a range greater than that allowed in the Security Council resolutions passed at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Our agencies, who told me they had much better information from Iraq than did the US, were clear that Saddam Hussein was dedicated to having WMD and was hiding material from the UN. But the exaggeration of the immediacy of the threat came from the political spin put on the intelligence and not from the intelligence itself.

The notorious 45-minute claim originated from one source only and was played up strongly in the media - no doubt with Alastair Campbell's guidance. The Butler report said it should not have been used as it was.

I conclude that the story later broadcast on the Today programme by Andrew Gilligan (on 29 May 2003, long after Baghdad had fallen) was basically true; and that the constant pressure from No 10 to strengthen the dossier and the words used by Blair in the Commons suggesting a "clear and present danger" - that the Butler report questions - do amount to an exaggeration of the intelligence to an extent that the public was misled.

The No 10 line after the Butler report was to constantly repeat that Lord Butler was not questioning the Prime Minister's good faith. Maybe so, but I am afraid it is clear that the Prime Minister did knowingly mislead. My conclusion is that Alastair Campbell launched his attack on Gilligan in order to divert attention away from the question of whether the country had been deceived in the rush to war.

By the beginning of 2003, I was embroiled in preparations for the possible humanitarian consequences of war. One of these, and the most difficult for the international humanitarian system to prepare for, was that chemical and biological weapons might be used in fighting, including fighting around Baghdad and other urban areas. I realised that, in order to prepare for possible humanitarian consequences, I needed to know more about how the war was to be fought. I therefore asked Defence Intelligence for an assessment of the risk of the use of chemical and biological weapons during the fighting. Clearly the military had to make such an assessment in order to protect the troops. We needed to understand the risk to Iraqi civilians.

The paper - when it arrived - said there was not a high risk of the use of chemical and biological weapons but if there was prolonged fighting around Baghdad there would be a risk. Our medical advice was that there was no preventative action we could take and no antidote.

The UN made it clear that if such weapons were used they would withdraw their staff. We in turn made it clear to our military that, if this happened, they would have to care for civilian casualties. Thus at the same time as media spin was suggesting that there was a high risk from these weapons, our advice from the experts was that their use was unlikely.

Later on, when war was inevitable, I asked my SIS contact what was to be done if chemical and biological weapons were used and civilians harmed. He said that now Blix was back, they would be more thoroughly hidden and use was extremely unlikely.

I was asked in June 2003, when giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the decision to go to war in Iraq, whether I thought the Prime Minister had deceived me, the Cabinet and Parliament deliberately, or on the basis of wrong information. I said then that the Prime Minister "must have concluded that it was honourable and desirable to back the US in military action in Iraq, and that it was therefore honourable for him to persuade us through the various ruses and devices he used to get us there, so I presume he saw it as an honourable deception". This argument mirrors the claims of good faith made by the No 10 machine after the Butler report made clear that the intelligence on Iraq had been misused and exaggerated in prime ministerial statements to the House of Commons, and in the notorious dossier of September 2002.

Butler said at his press conference that "we have no reason, found no evidence, to question the Prime Minister's good faith". We were thereafter constantly told that whatever Butler said did not matter, because there was "good faith". The Prime Minister himself said that the Butler report showed that government and intelligence services acted "in good faith".

He went on to tell the House of Commons: "For any mistakes made, as the report finds, in good faith, I of course take full responsibility, but I cannot honestly say that I believe that getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all. Iraq, the region, the wider world, are better and safer places without him."

The question we must all address is whether it is acceptable for the Prime Minister to deceive us in the making of war and the taking and sacrificing of human life because he personally believed it was the right thing to do. Do we want to live under a constitutional system that allows decisions to be made in this highly personalised way?

And although the Prime Minister constantly insists that his policy has been beneficial because it has removed Saddam Hussein from power, there are few serious people who accept that the region and the wider world are better and safer as a consequence of the war and its aftermath.

Abridged extract from "An Honourable Deception?" (Simon & Schuster, 2004) published on 1 November, priced £15. © Clare Short 2004

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