Patrick Wright: The PM thinks the debate is over. He is wrong

The crucial missing evidence is what legal advice was conveyed by the Attorney General
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The Independent Online

As Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee during the Falklands War in 1982, and having given evidence to the Franks Committee which examined the intelligence and other issues related to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, I have perhaps a rather special perspective both on Lord Butler's report and the statements that followed it.

As Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee during the Falklands War in 1982, and having given evidence to the Franks Committee which examined the intelligence and other issues related to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, I have perhaps a rather special perspective both on Lord Butler's report and the statements that followed it.

The first point to make is that the Butler report, as its title suggests, is closely confined to intelligence. Unlike Franks, Lord Butler's report deliberately devotes little attention to the legal or political case for going to war in Iraq.

It does, however, contain some useful and quite pointed criticism of the machinery and processes of government, at least one of which, on the frequency and level of formal ministerial meetings, echoes a point made by Lord Franks when he criticised Mrs Thatcher's failure to call meetings of the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee in the weeks preceding the Argentinian invasion. Although ministers claim that Iraq was "discussed" at numerous Cabinet meetings, the fact is that Tony Blair similarly failed even once to use the more structured machinery of the committee in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

As the Prime Minister acknowledged in his statement, the Butler report is comprehensive and thorough, within the limits set on its remit, and it is encouraging that the Government has fully accepted the report's conclusions. The report is balanced - probably too balanced - on the relationship between the political and press advisers in Number 10 and the intelligence assessment machinery of Whitehall.

I am surprised that neither Lord Hutton nor Lord Butler drew particular attention to the e-mail published in Lord Hutton's report, in which the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, virtually complained that the first draft of the infamous dossier did not adequately support the case for going to war - a complaint that must at least have created some "subconscious pressure" on the intelligence community to do better. I also find it curious that the Butler report states, as a matter of fact, that the dossier "was not intended to make the case for a particular course of action in relation to Iraq".

Surely Number 10 must have been aware of the pressures on President Bush, both from his senior advisers and from the Israelis, to remove Saddam Hussein by military action? Bob Woodward's and other insiders' accounts of the Bush administration make it clear that Messrs Cheney and Rumsfeld, among others, had been pressing from the early months of the administration to target Iraq - pressure which the President initially resisted in favour of concentrating on Afghanistan.

Sadly, the events of 11 September increased this pressure, given the unfounded allegations - still widely believed in the United States, but well dismissed by the Butler report - that Saddam Hussein's links with al-Qa'ida made him in some way responsible for the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Ministers repeatedly assured us, in the months before the invasion, that "no decisions had been taken". It was, however, clear to many of us that decisions had indeed been taken in Washington; and indeed that those decisions were irreversible once coalition troops had started to gather in Kuwait and the Lower Gulf. (As an aside, I can record that I was twice assured by a British minister at that point that we would not join the Americans in an invasion if we failed - as of course we did - to get a second resolution in the United Nations Security Council.)

The trouble for Tony Blair was that the United States administration was blithely quoting at least four different cases for going to war, including the need to change the Iraqi regime. Not only was this unacceptable to the British government's lawyers; the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, had assured Parliament that it was no part of HMG's policy to change other people's governments.

This tends to be forgotten when ministers argue, as the Prime Minister did on Wednesday, that "the wider world is a better and safer place without Saddam." This may be true. But was it worth the expense of lives on all sides to achieve that?

There will no doubt be criticism that the Butler report is a whitewash, as indeed there was over the Franks report after the Falklands. As a former colleague who worked closely with Robin Butler in Harold Wilson's private office, and later when he was Cabinet Secretary, I find his report as balanced and fair as I would expect. Its weakness - which is no fault of the author's - is that it does not go into the legal or political case for the Iraq war. Nor does it explore the extent to which advice was sought or received from our diplomatic posts, or indeed from the Foreign Secretary himself.

Both the Hutton report and, to a lesser extent, the Butler report have revealed evidence and argument about intelligence which would have been unthinkable in the early 1980s. But the crucial missing evidence is still what diplomatic and political advice was put forward by officials, and what legal advice was conveyed by the Attorney General. The Prime Minister tried on Wednesday to give the impression that the arguments are now closed. I do not believe they are.

Lord Wright was chairman of the JIC, 1982-4, and head of the Diplomatic Service, 1986-91

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