Pauline Neville-Jones: We need facts, not dossiers

Inadvertent misinformation is a lousy basis for important decisions. It corrodes trust
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It is hard to think of a military intervention since the Second World War directly involving British forces which has given rise to so much controversy on so many levels, or has the potential for such wide-ranging consequences as has the operation in Iraq.

The initial arguments revolved round the issue of what an intervention in Iraq had to do with combating terrorism. Many commentators argued that British involvement would increase the likelihood of an attack on this country. Possibly true, but not by itself a reason for refraining from action if other important reasons justified it, and there would be other significant benefits. This is where weapons of mass destruction came into the argument: it was asserted that not only did the Iraqi regime possess them, but also that it had actually used them.

The military intervention has not proved to be justified in the way that many expected and the arguments have not been stilled. On the contrary. The prolonged failure to discover any weapons capability either on the battlefield or elsewhere has given rise to the widespread, but almost certainly unfounded, assumption that nothing at all will be found. The Iraq survey group is, in my view, likely to find, in the Prime Minister's words, programmes of weapons of mass destruction. It may even discover "products" - actual chemical and/or biological substances intended for military use.

What seems increasingly hard to sustain, however, is that these could have been deployed with anything like the speed alluded to in the Prime Minister's foreword to the assessment published last September: "And the document discloses that his [Saddam's] military planning allows for some of the weapons of mass destruction to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them." This key assertion is supported by two mentions in the body of what we are told is the Joint Intelligence Committee authored text, one of which says, "We judge that... the Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons [chemical and biological] within 45 minutes of a decision to do so" and the other of which states, "Intelligence indicates that the Iraqi military are able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so."

"We judge that... Intelligence indicates..." Is this the same as "the document discloses..."? We have since learnt from a minister that the intelligence source was uncorroborated. This does not necessarily mean we can't rely on what the source said, especially if, as we are told, it was long standing and reliable. But the lack of corroboration should make people cautious about placing too much weight on a single piece of information, or taking it at face value.

Now there is speculation that the late emergence of this apparently clinching piece of "evidence" could have been a deliberate plant by the Iraqi intelligence community. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and this speculation may well be wide of the mark. But it highlights how information about developments in Iraq after the inspectors left, and which can be verified independently, is uncomfortably scarce. Nor can it be ruled out that other, later intelligence assessments were inadequate or inaccurate. And these in turn could lead to wrong conclusions about the real meaning of other information.

What is "assessed intelligence"? Is it the same as recent "evidence" from inside Iraq to which the foreword makes reference? A dictionary definition of evidence is "the available facts supporting or otherwise a belief, or proposition, or indicating whether or not a thing is true or valid". Assessed intelligence involves interpretation - but the completeness and accuracy of the information can't be established beyond any doubt.

Assessed intelligence is not the same as "facts" and should not be treated as such. I doubt it should be called "evidence". The executive summary of the report refers to "evidence" only in connection with "public evidence". Otherwise it talks of intelligence providing "important insights" and comments "intelligence rarely offers a complete account of activities which are designed to remain concealed". Quite.

The other problem with "evidence" is how difficult it is to avoid turning "the available facts" into a supporting case. It requires an extraordinary degree of self-restraint in the way the material is used, and an absolute commitment to judging it dispassionately. And the closer whoever assesses it gets to politics, the harder it is to do. One of the lessons to be learnt from Iraq is that whoever assesses the material and whoever uses it must not be one and the same person. Nor will it be wise in future to publish mixed compilations: let us have separate, separately drafted, documents from the two sources.

Where does this now leave us? The discrepancy between the situation on the ground in Iraq and the assumptions the Government made needs clearing up. This is not an academic matter. One does not have to believe - and I do not - that the Government intended to mislead the public. Inadvertent misinformation is a lousy basis for important decisions. It corrodes trust. The Government suggests we wait for the outcome of the findings of the survey group. But no one has said when these will become available. It could well take some time. Meanwhile, the corrosion of trust between government and public continues.

The group's findings are in any case likely to be incomplete. But it is not necessary or desirable to wait for them to reconsider whether there were, for instance, indicators in the 1990s that some weapons of mass destruction had been or were being destroyed. Nor should we wait to try to establish why they were not picked up or assessed as not valid. Then there are the suggestions now emerging that Iraq may have hidden weapons of mass destruction in neighbouring countries, as well as claims and counter claims about attempts to acquire uranium from Africa. And so on. If there have been errors, careful forensic analysis should help to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

I would expect this kind of work to have already started. Its conclusions need to be published so that confidence in intelligence can be rebuilt. There is pressure for an independent inquiry to run alongside the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee. This is because that committee, given its status stemming from the Government, is not thought capable of acting really independently of government and not to self-censor its report. This may be unfair, though a report full of asterisks along the lines of that committee's last annual report, which makes it impossible to understand what is being said, will not fit the bill. We do not need - and I would say do not want - a judicial inquiry. But another inquiry similar to the one conducted by Lord Franks after the Falklands War would seem like a good idea provided, unlike that report, the conclusions do not fall short of the weight of the evidence.

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones is a former political director of the Foreign Office and former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee