Brian Jones: The wrong prescriptions for intelligence

At no point did we suggest that our knowledge was sufficient to justify an invasion
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The Independent Online

Both yesterday's 9-11 commission report in the US and Lord Butler's report here have prompted discussion of changes in the organisation of intelligence as the answer to the failings before 11 September and in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Changes in structure may be needed, but I fear will not tackle the basic question of why things went so badly wrong.

Both yesterday's 9-11 commission report in the US and Lord Butler's report here have prompted discussion of changes in the organisation of intelligence as the answer to the failings before 11 September and in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Changes in structure may be needed, but I fear will not tackle the basic question of why things went so badly wrong.

After hearing my interview on the BBC's Today programme, Sir Menzies Campbell wondered whether, if I'd had the Prime Minister's ear in 2002, things on Iraq might have been viewed differently. Closer experience of the relationship between civil servants and government would have told Sir Menzies that the chances of an official such as me gaining the ear of my own secretary of state, let alone the Prime Minister, was as remote as the chances now of finding large stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons in Iraq.

I recall that Dr David Kelly was upset by the suggestion, which I have never heard denied, that Jack Straw complained at such a junior official being assigned to accompany him to an interrogation by the Foreign Affairs Committee on Iraq. David's experience of Whitehall was limited and, he felt insulted It disappointed but did not surprise many of us of similar middle rank.

The PM's righteous exclamation in the Hutton debate in February that my concerns had been considered and dismissed by the chief of defence intelligence is further evidence that, in Mr Blair's Whitehall, seniority equates to knowledge and wisdom. It is a culture that suits the mandarins, but in a Civil Service pared to the bone, that fast-streams officials breathlessly through jobs and ranks, it is perhaps less true today than it once was.

With wisdom comes the knowledge of limitations, whether about one's own expertise or simply about intelligence.

In the Commons, the Prime Minister began by explaining the four reforms that were being introduced in response to the Butler report. The first two are straightforward enough. The third is more difficult to fathom: Mr Blair announced that the SIS (MI6) had appointed a senior officer, to work through the recommendations of the Butler review, "who will focus on the resourcing and organisation of the SIS's validation process, the relationship between the SIS and the JIC, and its relationship with the defence intelligence staff".

This seems to relate to an intelligence community that I do not quite recognise from my 15 years as an insider, albeit as an analyst. I wonder if it reflects the Prime Minister's inevitably remote view hovering, as he must, high above so many issues. It could also be the view from high up in the green building at Vauxhall Cross, because it recognises the SIS as the very heart of British intelligence. It would certainly explain why a move from chairman of the JIC to "C" is now seen as a promotion.

From my former vantage point, the SIS was the collector of human intelligence. I expected it to send me reports of information it had collected. Although there was a validation threshold applied to exclude obvious nonsense, beyond that I did not expect to be told that the information was valid. Further validation is part of the analysis and assessment process ,and involves a feedback loop from assessor to collector. This aspect of the intelligence process was under pressure from inadequate resources at both the collection and assessment stages, but it was not broken.

Efficient communication between the disparate elements within an intelligence community is never easy when sensitive information is involved. As yesterday's report of the 9-11 commission finds, inadequate communication was a factor in that intelligence failure. The compactness of our community means there are fewer problems of that sort and a lack of communication was not a significant factor in what went wrong on Iraq.

At the expert working level on Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the intelligence community was able to make reasonable assessments that reflected all the uncertainties about Iraq's capabilities. Our assessments erred on the side of caution because we had troops in the region whom we needed to protect, and because preparations were in hand in the MOD in case the Prime Minister decided, at short notice, to join an invasion. At no point did we suggest that our knowledge was sufficient to justify, in any quasi-legalistic sense, an invasion to eliminate a threat, because we did not know that such a threat currently existed.

From time to time, defensive posture and the case for war, have been conflated to suggest the intelligence was strong - our troops are carrying NBC suits so that must mean there are weapons. The "problem" of the validation of sources seems to have arrived retrospectively in the context of a departure from the normal process. Under pressure, a select few senior people made too much of intelligence that the experts would have placed in their databases to await confirmation or elimination.

So how did this departure from the normal process come about? From this third reaction to Butler, I can only conclude it may have been on the basis of distorted perceptions. From the Prime Minister's perspective, the SIS is more than a collection agency. James Bond does more than collect. But at the regular meetings between "C" and the Prime Minister, which are almost certainly to deal with things other than recently gathered intelligence, it would not be natural for such matters to be entirely excluded, especially when there is a knotty problem in the air. This is obviously an opportunity for "C" to boost the reputation of the skills of his organisation, but it places an onus on him to be very cautious.

The suggestion of a need to review the relationship between the SIS, the JIC (presumably the assessment staff) and the DIS (Defence Intelligence Staff) either betrays a misunderstanding of the intelligence community or imagines problems that did not exist. Apart from the single issue of the late, sensitive intelligence from which the whole of the DIS except the chief was excluded, there was no broader problem for the DIS of access to sensitive intelligence. We had been managing the general inconvenience of "compartments" for some time. In September 2002, the relationship between my own branch and our opposite numbers in the SIS was sound enough to allow us to agree to share the services of one hard-pressed expert on a temporary basis until a new recruit was found to fill the gap.

The suggestion that there are organisational problems to be resolved carries an inference that these problems in some way relate to the much more significant admission in the last response to Butler. "Fourthly, any future presentation of intelligence will separate the JIC assessment and the Government case and import any JIC caveats into it"; and the subsequent sentence: "I want to move on now to the quite different point that, by omitting the caveats, we set out to deceive people."

The Prime Minister seems to be accepting that people were misled, albeit inadvertently, by the softening of caveats on moving from JIC papers to the dossier, and their complete removal in his own foreword. This, of course, has nothing to do with source validation or organisational interfaces, just as ballistic missiles and the proximity of Cyprus had nothing to do with "45 minutes".

The writer is a former head of the nuclear, chemical and biological branch of the Defence Intelligence Staff

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