The Debate: Blair accepts his responsibility for mistakes but insists 'no one lied'

The Debate
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Tony Blair accepted responsibility yesterday for mistakes in the use of intelligence before the war in Iraq, but insisted that Lord Butler's inquiry had put an end to questions over his good faith and integrity.

Tony Blair accepted responsibility yesterday for mistakes in the use of intelligence before the war in Iraq, but insisted that Lord Butler's inquiry had put an end to questions over his good faith and integrity.

He admitted that the intelligence presented to Parliament and the nation was "less certain" than people were told at the time, but insisted he could not have ignored the threat from Saddam Hussein to Britain and the wider world.

In a statement to MPs one hour after Lord Butler released his findings, Mr Blair said he accepted Lord Butler's findings and took full responsibility for mistakes in the use of intelligence or its presentation.

But he declared: "No one lied. No one made up the intelligence. No one inserted things into the dossier against the advice of the intelligence services. Everyone genuinely tried to do their best in good faith for the country in circumstances of acute difficulty. That issue should now be at an end."

But Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, attacked Mr Blair for failing to give the country an accurate account of intelligence presented to Government. "It is now clear that in many ways the intelligence services got it wrong," he said.

"But their assessments included serious caveats, qualifications and cautions. When presenting his case to the country, the Prime Minister chose to leave out those caveats, qualifications and cautions. Their qualified judgements became his unqualified certainties. The question the Prime Minister must answer today is why?"

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, criticised the Butler inquiry, saying its remit made it impossible for it to deal with the political judgement to go to war.

MPs were warned to calm down by the Speaker as Mr Blair faced more than an hour of questioning by MPs on Lord Butler's report. He insisted Saddam Hussein "retained every strategic intent" to develop weapons of mass destruction and said he could not ignore intelligence warning of the threat.

But he admitted that the report found "little if any significant evidence" of stockpiles of readily deployable weapons. He told MPs: "We expected, I expected, to find actual, usable, chemical or biological weapons shortly after we entered Iraq. We even made significant contingency plans in respect of their use against our troops ...

"But 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. Even if we acted in perfectly good faith, is it now the case that, in the absence of stockpiles of weapons ready to deploy, the threat was misconceived and therefore the war was unjustified?

"I have searched my conscience, not in a spirit of obstinacy, but in genuine reconsideration in the light of what we now know in answer to that question.

"And my answer would be: that the evidence of Saddam's WMD was indeed less certain, less well-founded than was stated at the time. But I cannot go from there to the opposite extreme. On any basis, he retained strategic intent on WMD and significant capability."

Mr Blair said only the presence of 180,000 troops on Saddam's borders forced him to accept weapons inspectors, and the willingness of Britain and the US to stand firm had led to the disarmament of Libya.

Mr Howard listed the discrepancies between assessments by the Joint Intelligence Committee and Mr Blair's statements to MPs. Where the JIC had said intelligence was "sporadic and patchy" and admitted "we have little intelligence" on Iraq's chemical and biological weapons, Mr Blair had declared he was in "no doubt" the threat was serious and current, Mr Howard said. He said Mr Blair had insisted intelligence had established "beyond doubt" that Saddam had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.

He said: "Isn't that why Lord Butler concludes that 'it was a serious weakness that the Joint Intelligence Committee's warnings on the limitations of intelligence underlying some of its judgements were not made sufficiently clear'? The Prime Minister has said mistakes were made and he accepts responsibility. But it is not a question of responsibility. It is a question of credibility.

"I hope we will not face ... another war in the foreseeable future. But if we did, and this Prime Minister identified the threat, would the country believe him?

"If we did, and this Prime Minister asked the country to rely on intelligence, would the country have confidence in him? And if this Prime Minister said that in his judgement war was necessary would the country trust him? The issue is the Prime Minister's credibility. The question he must ask himself is, does he have any credibility left?"

Mr Kennedy seized on criticism of the now-notorious claim that Saddam could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order. He said: "If the Prime Minister accepts that conclusion, can he tell us who bears the ultimate responsibility for its inclusion and its highlighting in that way."

He added: "Lord Butler speaks of a collective failure on the part of the Joint Intelligence Committee. But wasn't that collective failure by definition, if it applied itself to the JIC, also applied itself to the workings of the key political players in and around No 10 Downing Street as well.

"When the Prime Minister now says that the outcome was desirable, albeit arrived at by insufficient conclusions and methodology, surely that is not a satisfactory way to proceed. Congress is still trying to get to the bottom of these matters. Surely the British Parliament should be seen to be better than that."

Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary who resigned over the war, welcomed Mr Blair's "frank acceptance" that Saddam had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction at the time.

He said: "My Right Honourable Friend is entitled to argue that it does not mean there was no justification for the war. But it does surely mean there was no urgent necessity for the war because there was no imminent threat."

He said UN weapons inspectors should have been given more time to examine Saddam's arsenal before the invasion. "Had we done so, we would have been spared the unavoidable conclusion from the content of the Butler report that we committed British troops to action on the basis of false intelligence, overheated analysis and unreliable sources."

Ken Clarke said that the Government would not have won the crucial Commons vote authorising war had MPs known what they know now.

The Tory former chancellor said: "Can you think of any explanation for the removal of all the caveats and doubts in producing this publication other than that John Scarlett had been persuaded by your press secretary and others to remove all the cautionary words and stiffen up the case?

"Do you believe that if you had come to this House and if you had used the actual language of the intelligence assessment you had read when you made the case for war, you would still have won the vote that carried this country to war? I must tell you I do not think you would have done."

Ann Clywd, Labour MP for Cynon Valley and Mr Blair's human rights envoy to Iraq, said: "The PM is quite right when he says that the Iraqi people are most pleased at the removal of Saddam Hussein, whom they always saw as the biggest weapon of mass destruction."

Alan Duncan, the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, said: "The main reason for the failure that has been uncovered in the report ... is the Prime Minister's own circumvention of all the decencies and formalities of a proven system of government and his replacement of it by informality, by chumminess, by distorted lines of communication and by the concentration of all power around him and a small coterie at No 10." But Donald Anderson, the Labour chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, asked: "Is it not now important that we turn to the real consensus. That is the reconstruction of Iraq, so that it does not pose a threat to the world community, to its neighbours and most of all to its own people?"

Sir Patrick Cormack, Conservative MP for South Staffordshire, said he did not regret voting for war. "The consequence of a different vote would have been the shattering of the alliance and the remaining in power of Saddam Hussein and the fall of the British government. This report underlines the fact that intelligence is an inexact science," he told the MPs. "It does not endorse or whitewash everything the British government did, but nor is it an indictment of that decision this House took."

WHAT BUTLER SAID

"We detected a tendency for assessments to be coloured by over-reaction to previous errors. As a result, there was a risk of over-cautious or worst case estimates, shorn of their caveats, becoming the 'prevailing wisdom'. The JIC may, in some assessments, also have misread the nature of Iraqi governmental and social structures."

"We understand why the Government felt it had to meet the mounting public and Parliamentary demand for information. [...] We conclude, with the benefit of hindsight, that making public that the JIC had authorship of the dossier was a mistaken judgement."

"The JIC should not have included the '45-minute' report in its assessment and in the Government's dossier without stating what it was believed to refer to. The fact that the reference in the classified assessment was repeated in the dossier later led to suspicions that it had been included because of its eye-catching character."

"We conclude that it was a serious weakness that the JIC's warnings on the limitations of the intelligence ... were not made sufficiently clear in the dossier."

Comments