Peter Hennessy: A systems failure at the heart of government

The most surprising revelation is the degree to which intelligence did not pave the road to war

Share
Related Topics

In the history of British government, let alone British intelligence, there has never been a document to match the Butler report on weapons of mass destruction and the ingredients of the Blair Cabinet's decision to go to war with Iraq. Its effect is that of a lightning flash illuminating a spectrum of failures from human and political shortcomings in the Cabinet room to the unreliability of some of the human intelligence garnered inside Iraq.

In the history of British government, let alone British intelligence, there has never been a document to match the Butler report on weapons of mass destruction and the ingredients of the Blair Cabinet's decision to go to war with Iraq. Its effect is that of a lightning flash illuminating a spectrum of failures from human and political shortcomings in the Cabinet room to the unreliability of some of the human intelligence garnered inside Iraq.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation from its nearly 200 pages is the degree to which intelligence did not pave the road to war. From the spring of 2002, when the Blair government switched from a policy of containing Saddam to one of "enforcing Iraqi disarmament" - a shift which, in Butler's words, "was not based on any new development in the current intelligence picture on Iraq" - to the very eve of the war a year later, when the Attorney General's opinion that the imminent war was legal did not rest on new intelligence, the story is one of negatives.

In fact, in the spring of 2002, "there was no recent intelligence that would itself have given rise to a conclusion that Iraq was of more immediate concern than the activities of some other countries." And, as the arguments raged in Whitehall about the need for a specific United Nations resolution authorising the use of force against Iraq, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, told his colleagues that "there would be no justification for the use of force against Iraq on grounds of self-defence against an imminent threat."

What about the famous warning in the Government's now notorious dossier of September 2002 that "Intelligence also indicates that chemical and biological munitions could be within military units and ready for firing within 20-45 minutes"? The Butler committee concluded that the original intelligence "report itself was vague and ambiguous", and its report reveals that the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) subsequently acknowledged that "the validity of the intelligence report on which the 45-minute claim was based has come into question."

British intelligence prides itself on a core principle - a ruling tradition almost - that saw it through the Second World War and the Cold War. All raw intelligence is subjected to rigorous testing, validation and assessment, and is served up to its ministerial customers unvarnished, however inconvenient reading it might make. The Butler committee thinks the road to Baghdad caused that tradition to be tarnished. It wants it burnished and restored. Early indications from inside the British intelligence community suggest that this view is accepted, and it will be put right.

So, if the Blair government's decision to go to war was not evidence-based or intelligence-driven, do these shortcomings matter? Certainly they do. But in a second-order way. Intelligence garnered by SIS officers working in immensely difficult circumstances from but a handful of human sources somewhere in Iraq was bound to be precarious but partly revealing.

The first-order problem lies in Whitehall, in Number10, in the Prime Minister's Office and the Cabinet room. There is no graver decision for an open society than to go to war, especially if it is for the purposes of pre-emption rather than retaliation. And here Butler's analysis and critique verges on the devastating. The Joint Intelligence Committee of intelligence chiefs and senior officials may have been in error in allowing their customary caution and caveats to be removed as Number 10 helped them to shape the drafting of the September 2002 dossier, but their culpability does not match that which rings out of Butler's paragraph 610 on the failure to use the Cabinet system - the ultimate check and balance of British central government - properly:

"One inescapable consequence of this was to limit wider collective discussion and consideration by the Cabinet to the frequent but unscripted occasions when the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary briefed the Cabinet orally. Excellent quality papers were written by officials, but these were not discussed in Cabinet or in Cabinet committee.

"Without papers circulated in advance, it remains possible but it is obviously much more difficult for members of the Cabinet outside the small circle directly involved to bring their political judgement and experience to bear on major decisions for which the Cabinet as a whole must carry responsibility.

"The absence of papers on the Cabinet agenda so that ministers could obtain briefings in advance from the Cabinet Office, their own departments or from the intelligence agencies plainly reduced their ability to prepare for such discussions... and lessened the support of the machinery of government for the collective responsibility of the Cabinet in the vital matter of war and peace."

The language is measured; the judgement is based on Butler's long experience of serving closely five prime ministers (including Tony Blair). Never has there been an indictment to match this of a systems failure at the heart of British government.

The writer is Attlee professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary College, London. This article also appears in tomorrow's edition of 'The Tablet'

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions