No one will ever resign over the intelligence failures

Butler will turn out, as so many reports, to be a consideration of process and lessons, not blame
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The Independent Online

Whatever else the Butler inquiry may do when it reports next Wednesday, of one thing you can be certain: it will not lead to any resignations. Indeed, from all the reports, New Labour's representative on the inquiry, Ann Taylor, is busily trying to remove names from its criticisms altogether.

Whatever else the Butler inquiry may do when it reports next Wednesday, of one thing you can be certain: it will not lead to any resignations. Indeed, from all the reports, New Labour's representative on the inquiry, Ann Taylor, is busily trying to remove names from its criticisms altogether.

Which pretty much fits in with the remit of the inquiry and the approach of Lord Butler and his colleagues. This is supposed to be an investigation into the process by which intelligence was used and interpreted in the run-up to the war, not a search for scapegoats or a pinning of blame. The press, and the political world of Westminster, might wish it otherwise. The leaks suggesting some strong criticism of the handling of intelligence might hint at more. But the reality is that this will turn out - as so many of these reports - to be a careful consideration of process and of lessons, not blame.

Not that there won't be criticism. After coming under heavy fire for his failure to hold back Tony Blair's presidential style of government as Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler will want to show some independence this time round. The fact is that British - along with US - intelligence was woefully inadequate about Iraq, and the system of analysing and testing that intelligence was deeply flawed. The inquiry would be completely remiss in its duty if it didn't suggest better means of co-ordination and review.

But in the world of media and politics, that is not what is wanted. It is scalps that the newspapers and Opposition politicians are baying for. And that is precisely what Tony Blair is not going to give them, any more than over the Hutton report. Which is why he set up the inquiry with the narrowest of remits, excluding the use to which intelligence was put, and why he picked safe establishment figures to sit on it, such as Lord Butler, the eternal "head prefect" of the civil service; Lord Inge, the former Chief of the Defence Staff who lists his clubs as "Boodle's, Beefsteak, Army and Navy and MCC"; and Sir Anthony Chilcot, an ex-Permanent Secretary of Northern Ireland, where they know the overriding importance of backing up the intelligence community.

It is also why the Prime Minister took the ruthless decision to appoint John Scarlett to head of MI6 before the Butler inquiry reported. It's a reward for loyalty during the Hutton inquiry, it keeps him quiet for Butler, and it makes it difficult to castigate him afterwards without "damaging the service".

That, of course, is the way that the British establishment has always managed the defence of institutions against the threat of mob rule by the media. In the early years of his premiership, Blair was consistently caught out by the newspaper's demand for heads to roll - over Stephen Byers, Geoffrey Robinson and, most painfully, Peter Mandelson. He has learned better of late and knows how to deflect the cry for the guillotine, especially when it includes his own name.

Yet, on the issue of WMD, far more than those others, there is a real case for finding out not just what happened but who was responsible. The brutal reality is, as the Prime Minister publicly admitted earlier this week (in the full knowledge of the draft conclusions of the Butler inquiry, it should be noted), that Britain went to war on a stated assumption about Saddam Hussein's weapons capability that has not been borne out by the facts. WMD have not been found nor are they ever likely to be, as Blair now accepts.

The intelligence that suggested they were there was not only faulty but may well have been deliberately planted. That intelligence was then promoted, without caveats, as the primary reason for invading Iraq with urgency. More than that, it was used by the Attorney General to give all-important, and still unpublished, advice that the war was legal.

To suggest that this failure was simply an error of judgement, an understandable error, and that the political pressure for evidence to back a prior decision to go to war played no part, is to insult the intelligence of the public and treat the Commons with contempt. To put it down to failures in the system and not to the judgement of individuals is rather like saying that Gallipoli and Dunkirk had nothing to do with generalship.

There is no doubt something particularly unpleasant, and destructive, about the media obsession with forcing resignations. But it is also a reflection of the point that holding those in power to account is the essence of democracy. And how better to demonstrate it than by demanding that failed generals fall on their sword?

In Tony Blair's world, that accountability would be subsumed in a broader, more nebulous system of inquiry in which judgement was regarded as just one of those things people got right or wrong as events took shape and the sincerity of intention covered all sins. So long as they did it for the right reasons, ministers, officials, advisers and courtiers could be forgiven any amount of disastrous decision-making.

Maybe that would serve for the Dome débâcle. But when it comes to war, and to matters of life and death, society demands different, tougher standards of individual responsibility. And it is right to do so.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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