During Lord Scott of Foscote's arms-to-Iraq inquiry, nearly 10 years ago, a senior official with the Foreign Office summed up the perennial problem facing Britain's security services. "Intelligence," he said, "is a very imprecise art".
Last night, as ministers and intelligence sources criticised each other over the failure to find weapons of mass destruct-ion (WMD) in Iraq, the mandarin's words returned to haunt Tony Blair and his Government. As one senior Whitehall source put it: "The blame game has started and it's hard to see who's going to win."
Britain's armed forces and intelligence services have a long tradition of being ultra-cautious about allowing politicians to publicise classified material. Apart from the need to protect agents on the ground, officials at MI5, MI6 and GCHQ are extremely wary of their gobbets of information - phone and internet "traffic" and various tip-offs - being used to spin ministers out of a hole.
Up to 40,000 pieces of intelligence are filtered through Whitehall each year, prompting the Tory former foreign secretary Lord Howe of Aberavon to describe many of the reports as "cornflakes in the wind".
However, when al-Qa'ida struck on 11 September 2001, political pressure on the intelligence services in the US and the UK increased to unprecedented levels. Unfortunately, just as they began to get to grips with the threat of international terrorism, their political masters became obsessed by the need to target Saddam Hussein.
Public opinion in Britain was against military action in Iraq and, with Hans Blix and the UN weapons inspectors failing to pin down the elusive biological, chemical and nuclear capability, the need for evidence became acute. As far back as March last year, a dossier on WMD was drawn up by the Cabinet Office's joint intelligence committee, chaired by the former MI6 officer John Scarlett. Yet, as one minister admitted, up to date information from MI6 on Iraq was "very thin".
Although the draft dossier contained evidence about anthrax and the botulinum toxin, it was based largely on what the UN weapons inspectors found, up to the point when they were pulled out of Iraq in 1998.
Just days before Mr Blair flew to Washington early in April last year to meet George Bush, it was decided not to publish the report. In late August last year, a Whitehall source said that the long-awaited dossier "would no longer play a role" because there was "very little new to put into it".
But with the Labour Party conference looming, the Prime Minister changed his mind and ordered the production of a dossier in time for the recall of Parliament in September.
Carefully written, the document was largely historical and lacked a "killer fact". Departing from the normal practice of double sourcing information, the main claim about weapons being ready in 45 minutes had only one source. It pointed out not that WMD were in Iraq but that Saddam had failed to account for previous stocks. Yet Mr Blair and other ministers claimed it was substantial.
Worse was to come in the so-called "dodgy dossier" published in February this year, a document pulled together by Downing Street spin doctors in the Coalition Information Unit. Intelligence sources were furious that it plagiarised an American PhD student's thesis.
During the war itself, Mr Blair constantly asked the intelligence services if Saddam would fall as Ceausescu had, or if British and US forces would be mired in a new Vietnam. He wanted concrete information that officials simply didn't have.
One of the most damning, yet largely unreported, comments on the Government's claims about WMD came on 11 April, in the middle of the war. Britain's most senior naval officer, Admiral Sir Alan West, the First Sea Lord, briefed journalists at the Ministry of Defence. He said: "There are some people maybe who have talked in terms of thousands of tonnes of chemicals and have talked in terms of hundreds and hundreds of missiles of an extended range, and, I would say, that is way beyond the top end would be my assessment."
Sir Alan insisted that he was convinced that Iraq possessed WMD but his remarks were a crucial admission from a man whose three years as chief of Defence Intelligence would put him in a position to know exactly the Iraqi threat.
The former foreign secretary Robin Cook said intelligence services were scrupulous in spelling out the limitations of their knowledge. "Frankly, I doubt whether there is a single senior figure in the intelligence services who is surprised at the difficulty in finding a weapon of mass destruction in working order," he said. "If the threat from Saddam does turn out to have been overstated, the responsibility must rest with those who made the public statements."
Yesterday, senior British officials insisted the WMD issue was "not over until the fat lady sings". But for intelligence services more worried about meeting the real threat from al-Qa'ida, Iraq is now seen as a politicians' problem, not theirs.
Fact or fiction? The Government's case
Claim: "His [Saddam's] military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them."
Evidence: Thin. Saddam Hussein did not use chemical or biological weapons in the recent war, although chemical protection suits were found that could suggest the Iraqi army was prepared for their use. None of the few missiles launched by Iraq at the start of the conflict carried chemical or biological weapons. Searches in Iraq have not so far uncovered weapons of mass destruction that were ready for use.
Claim: "Iraq has developed mobile laboratories for military use, corroborating earlier reports about the mobile production of biological warfare agents."
Evidence: Good. British and American forces have discovered two vehicles, suspected to be mobile biological weapons factories, strong evidence to back up the British claim.
Claim: "Iraq started deploying its al-Samoud liquid propellant missile, and has used the absence of weapons inspectors to work on extending its range to at least 200km, which is beyond the limit of 150km imposed by the United Nations."
Evidence: Weapons inspectors found stocks of al-Samoud missiles which exceeded the UN range limit of 150km. Seventy were destroyed before the war started but there were reports that some of the missiles were fired just after the outbreak of hostilities.
Claim: "When the UN inspectors left Iraq they were unable to account for: up to 360 tonnes of bulk chemical warfare agent, including 1.5 tonnes of VX nerve agent; up to 3,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals, including approximately 300 tonnes which, in the Iraqi chemical warfare programme, were unique to the production of VX nerve agent; growth media procured for biological agent production (enough to produce over three times the 8,500 litres of anthrax spores Iraq admits to having manufactured).
Evidence: Jury still out. The fate of material that is unaccounted for remains a mystery. Saddam insisted that any weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed, although British ministers insist that if he had nothing to hide he could have co-operated with weapons inspectors.
Claim: "Iraq has a useable chemical and biological weapons capability ... which has included recent production of chemical and biological agents."
Evidence: Jury still out. Extensive searches in Iraq have not uncovered a "smoking gun". UN weapons inspectors uncovered warheads that could be used for chemical or biological weapons but suspected sites have so far proved to be false alarms.
Claim: "Iraq sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear power programme that could require it."
Evidence: Disputed. Mohamed al-Baradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, rejected claims that Saddam's regime had tried to buy uranium from Niger, saying the allegations were based on fake documents. But last week senior Foreign Office officials were still standing by the story, insisting that it came from multiple sources.
Assertions come from 'Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government' (24 September 2002)Reuse content