Incestuous relationship that fed on flawed, unreliable intelligence

When the Prime Minister presented his Iraq weapons dossier on 24 September 2002, much was made of the fact that it was the first time intelligence had been made public in this fashion. The obvious aim was to use the mystique of spying to give the document credence and authenticity. Tony Blair said it was "extensive, detailed and authoritative".

Yet, the Butler report has revealed that 12 days before the dossier was published, Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, had told the Prime Minister that a new source who had made the allegation that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons was potentially important but "remained unproven". The intelligence service was later forced to withdraw information from this source as unreliable.

At a press conference yesterday, Lord Butler looked anxious at the mere suggestion that anyone should be blamed for the fact that the central charges in the dossier have proved to be false.

But the report itself is a devastating indictment of a seemingly incestuous relationship between the Government and the intelligence services in which flawed, and at times wrong, information was used to justify war. Many of the "secrets" from the spies were based on hearsay, while most of the information was up to a decade old. The one piece that was described as "new and important" came from the informant who was subsequently discredited.

Lord Butler acknowledged that his committee had chosen to be less harsh in its conclusion about this failure of intelligence than the devastating Senate report on the CIA and Iraq in the US. However, the report still paints a grim picture of British intelligence.

"Validation of human intelligence sources after the war has thrown doubt on a high proportion of the sources and their reports, and hence on the quality of the intelligence assessments received by ministers and officials," the report says.

Such has been the damage to the credibility of the country's espionage system, especially MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service) and the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), that the report says that an exercise like the dossier must not be attempted again.

"We conclude with the benefit of hindsight that making public that the JIC had authorship of the dossier was mistaken judgement. The publication ... in the name and with the authority of the JIC had the result that more weight was placed on intelligence than it could bear."

John Scarlett, the JIC chairman, had asked for and got this "authorship" of the dossier. The project put a massive "strain" on Mr Scarlett's ability to maintain "normal standards of neutral and objective assessment," says the report.

George Tenet, the CIA chief, may have resigned over his agency's Iraq failures, but the Butler committee pleads that Mr Scarlett should not do anything so rash. "We have a high regard for his abilities and his record," it says.

Yet by the report's own criteria, Mr Scarlett was the wrong man for the post of JIC chairman. "We see a ... case for the post of the chairman of the JIC being held by someone with experience of dealing with ministers in a very senior role, and who is demonstrably beyond influence, and thus probably in his last post." Mr Scarlett does not have any of those attributes. The person who does, perfectly, is Lord Butler himself.

The report continues: "In translating material from JIC assessment into the dossier, warnings were lost about the limited intelligence base on which some aspects of these assessments were being made. The language in the dossier may have left with readers the impression that there was fuller and firmer intelligence behind the judgements than was the case."

MI6 presented intelligence from what appears to be extremely nebulous sources. One "main source" had simply passed on what he heard from "within his own circle". Another report from a "sub source" to a second MI6 "main source" had led to the assertion in the dossier that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons. This, says the report, "must be open to doubt".

The analysts of the intelligence system in the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) could have prevented such doubtful material getting into the dossier. But senior officers, such as Brian Jones, were prevented from seeing the intelligence on the grounds of security.

"The exclusion of Dr Jones and his staff from readership of the original report meant that this intelligence was not seen by the few people in the UK intelligence community able to form all-round, professional technical judgements on its reliability and significance," says the report.

The report states: "We consider that further steps are needed to integrate the relevant work of the DIS more closely with the rest of the intelligence community ... we recommend consideration of the provisions of proper channels for the expression of dissent within the DIS ..."

So the DIS has emerged as a winner from the Butler report. The service is expected to get a bigger budget and Dr Jones's successors should have far greater access to intelligence. The top echelon will also be expected to be more receptive to the views of the ranks.

The chief loser, undoubtedly, has been MI6. It provided the bulk of the intelligence in the dossier, and most of the criticism is directed towards the service.

Mr Scarlett is said to be unapologetic about the Iraq dossier, but the question now must be whether he is the right person to carry out the extensive, and necessary, reforms to ensure that another Iraq dossier does not happen.

THE SECURITY PLAYERS

JOHN SCARLETT

Director designate of MI6

Never has someone from the shadowy world of intelligence received as much publicity as John Scarlett. As chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, he asked for authorship of the Iraq dossier. The Butler report said yesterday that the project had put a "strain" on Mr Scarlett's ability to maintain "normal standards of ... objective assessment".

Mr Scarlett was promoted to the head of MI6 by the Prime Minister, but MPs want that appointment blocked. Within MI6 a large number of officers want the job to go to Nigel Inkster, the deputy to the outgoing chief, Sir Richard Dearlove.

But the Butler committee has publicly backed Mr Scarlett for the post. Mr Scarlett himself is said to have no intention of falling on his sword.

SIR RICHARD DEARLOVE

Director, MI6

MI6, headed by Sir Richard, provided the vast bulk of the intelligence for the Iraq dossier that was later discredited. Giving evidence during the Hutton inquiry, Sir Richard bridled when the charge that Iraq could launch chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes was put to him as a claim rather than as a fact. It was, he insisted, a "piece of well-sourced intelligence". The Butler report has revealed that 12 days before the publication of the Iraq dossier he told the Prime Ministerof a new source on chemical weapons who was potentially important but "remained unproven". The Butler recommendations will be addressed by John Scarlett, Sir Richard's successor. Sir Richard is to be Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

AIR MARSHAL SIR JOE FRENCH and TONY CRAGG

Chief and deputy chief, Defence Intelligence Staff

They ignored concerns raised by Brian Jones and his colleagues about putting claims about the 45-minutes threat and chemical weapons into the Iraq dossier. Mr Cragg was responsible for not following up a letter from Dr Jones. The two men acquiesced to the wish of MI6 not to show Dr Jones and his fellow analysts new intelligence - much of which was later withdrawn. The Butler report wants steps to be taken to ensure this is not repeated. Sir Joe and Mr Cragg sat on the JIC, but neither had intelligence backgrounds. The Butler committee recommends that from now on the deputy must be an intelligence specialist.

DR BRIAN JONES

Dr Jones, then head of the nuclear, biological and chemical intelligence branch of the Defence Intelligence Staff, was one of Britain's experts on weapons of mass destruction.

But MI6 and the chiefs of his own service did not allow him access to alleged new intelligence on Iraq's chemical weapons and his superiors suppressed his concerns about the 45-minute claim. The Butler committee vindicates him. "Dr Jones was right to raise concerns about the manner of expression of the '45-minutes' report in the dossier given the vagueness of the underlying intelligence."

It also concludes: "Dr Jones was right to raise concerns about the certainty of language used in the dossier on Iraqi ... possession of chemical agents."

Comments