Evidence and Deceit
How the Case for War Became Unstuck
by Glen Rangwala
June 2, 2003
The disclosure from a British official that the "intelligence" dossier on Iraq's weapons presented by Tony Blair to Parliament on 24 September last year was beefed up on Downing Street's orders came as little surprise to those who have watched the British government's use and suspected misuse of intelligence information over the past six months.
The series of leaks and off-the-record briefings to journalists from serving and recently retired members of the US and UK intelligence community has been without recent parallels. Transcripts of interviews, classified briefings on Iraq's links with al-Qa'ida and assessments of the likelihood of the spread of democracy in the Middle East on the back on an invasion of Iraq have all found their way into the public domain.
There have been a number of sources for the dissatisfaction, but one of the more palpable factors is the sense that the intelligence agencies were being credited with providing a rationale for an invasion of Iraq that was at odds with their actual findings. With a war being justified primarily on the basis of putative intelligence assessments, the intelligence services did not want to risk being the subject of the political backlash if those assessments were found to be faulty.
That there were significant problems with the material presented by the British government on Iraq's weapons cannot seriously be questioned. After all, Qusai Hussein did not use Iraq's prohibited weapons at 45 minutes notice, as the dossier alleged three times that he could -- a claim that, we now find, came from a single source whose evidence was considered unreliable. The twenty 650km range missiles that the dossier claimed were hidden in Iraq were not fired at Israel or Cyprus. And there were no drones in the skies above British troops, spraying them with chemical or biological weapons.
Despite his earnest protestations on the accuracy of his evidence, Tony Blair told a press conference in Poland on Friday that finding the weapons in Iraq is "not the most urgent priority". And yet, according to the claims of the dossier that he defends, Saddam Hussein "has a useable chemical and biological weapons capability" and that his "current military planning specifically envisages the use" of these weapons. Saddam Hussein and the commanders whom the Prime Minister claimed had the authority to order the use of these weapons are still at large, presumably still within Iraq. If Tony Blair's evidence is to be believed, these individuals are still likely to have the capacity to use those weapons. It is difficult to imagine what more urgent priority there could be: either the evidence was flawed or the present policies are deeply reckless.
The information of Colin Powell presented to the Security Council with great fanfare on 5 February has proved even more vulnerable than Tony Blair's evidence. Powell provided specific details of people and sites that are now under the control of US forces. However, there has been no sign of the biologically-armed "missile brigade" he claimed was stationed outside Baghdad in the palm tree groves. The Republican Guard commanders whose voices Powell played, allegedly talking about the concealment of nerve agents, have not showed up. The scientists whom he told us were being prevented from talking due to fear of Saddam Hussein have not now divulged any secrets. The supposed "poison camp" near Khurmal, with its network of tunnels and elaborate chemical infrastructure, has been found to have no such facilities. As for the "nearly two dozen" al-Qa'ida "affiliates" that Powell showed photographs of, claiming that they were based in Baghdad, seem to have vanished into thin air.
One key tactic of the British and American governments was to talk up suspicions, and to portray possibility as fact. The clearest example was the quotation and misquotation of the reports of UN weapons inspectors. Iraq claimed that it had destroyed all its prohibited weapons, either unilaterally or in cooperation with the inspectors, in the period between 1991 and 1994. Although the inspectors were able to verify that unilateral destruction took place on a large scale, they were never able to quantify the amounts destroyed. For example, they were able to detect that anthrax growth media had been burnt and buried in bulk at a site adjacent to the production facility at al-Hakam. There was no way -- and there never will be -- to tell from the soil samples the amount destroyed. As a result, UN inspectors recorded this material as unaccounted for, neither verified as destroyed nor believed to still exist. Inspectors had to keep probing for this material according to their mandate, to verify if any of this material was left in Iraq.
However, when this possibility was translated into statements of the British and American governments it became material that they claimed Iraq had as part of "stockpiles" that they were hiding from the inspectors. This was done in the knowledge that UN inspectors had not found any nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in Iraq since at least 1994, aside from a dozen abandoned mustard shells, and that the vast majority of any weapons produced before 1991 would have degraded to the point of uselessness within ten years. Even the most high profile defector from Iraq -- Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law and director of Iraq's weapons programmes -- had told UN inspectors and British intelligence agencies in 1995 that Iraq had no more prohibited weapons.
And yet Tony Blair's dossier repeats the false claim that information "in the public domain from UN reports ... points clearly to Iraq's continuing possession, after 1991, of chemical and biological agents and weapons produced before the Gulf War". There is no UN report after 1994 that claims that Iraq continued to possess weapons of mass destruction, and this was well-known in intelligence circles. That such a claim could appear in a purported intelligence document betrays clear signs that the information was pumped up for political purposes in order to support the case for an invasion.
Blair's case began to resort to more direct misquotation in the immediate prelude to war, with UN chief inspector Hans Blix reporting on 7 March that Iraq was taking "numerous initiatives ... with a view to resolving long-standing open disarmament issues", and that this "can be seen as 'active', or even 'proactive'" cooperation. In response, Mr Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw seized on the Unmovic working document of 6 March 2003 entitled "Unresolved Disarmament Issues". As the document's title makes apparent, this document is about matters that are still unclear, not that have been decided one way or another. Hans Blix openly acknowledged Iraqi efforts to resolve these questions. And yet the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have repeatedly claimed that this document makes the case that Iraq retains prohibited weapons, a claim that the report never makes. They relied upon the presumption -- probably accurate -- that few MPs would have the time to go through its 173 pages, and would accept the Government's misleading precis.
An example of how misleading that presentation has been can be found in Tony Blair's speech to the Commons two days before the war commenced in order to obtain the approval of MPs for an invasion. Blair's first quote from the report in his speech -- his first allegation about Iraq -- was that Iraq "had had far reaching plans to weaponise VX". Note the verb's tense in that quote. That quotation, about the deadly nerve agent VX, was from a "background" section of the Unmovic report, on Iraq's policy before 1991. Blair presented that quote without any context, leading many MPs no doubt to think that this was the UN's assessment of current Iraqi policy.
In the key new section of the report on VX, Unmovic reported that "route B", the method Iraq used to produce the 1.5 tonnes of VX before 1990 that have been repeatedly mentioned by US and UK leaders, did not lead to a stable chemical that Iraq could still possess. According to the weapons inspectors, "VX produced through route B must be used relatively quickly after production (about 1 to 8 weeks)". In other words, Blair's first piece of "evidence" was about a substance that the weapons inspectors consider to have been no threat since early 1991. Tony Blair didn't tell the MPs that.
The second flaw that has become apparent in the Anglo-American case for war is the reliance that they placed upon defectors that were extricated by one opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC). The INC, led by Ahmad al-Chalabi, have long been mistrusted by both British intelligence and by the CIA, who have instead promoted the rival Iraqi National Accord, various Kurdish groups and the nationalist grouping around former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi. The INC, more riven by prominent defections from 1994 than the Iraqi government itself and under constant suspicion for its perceived financial malpractices, had by the late 1990s only one major asset: its alliance with the neoconservative right of the Republican party.
To perpetuate that alliance, the INC had to produce information that the neocons could use, firstly to bash the Clinton administration for its inaction on Iraq, and then -- when they assumed power -- to justify to their audiences the need for an invasion of Iraq. In return, the Pentagon freed up an $8 million fund for the INC that the Senate had stalled in 2002, to use in part for an intelligence-collection programme. Many within the intelligence agencies believed that the INC was "coaching" Iraqis who had defected to tell alarmist stories about the seriousness of the threat of Iraq, and so signal their own institutional importance.
A considerable number of stories circulated by the INC have subsequently been discredited. An INC-sponsored Iraqi "technician" claimed that Iraq had acquired a pressurized water reactor (PWR) for its nuclear weapons program, even though PWRs cannot produce plutonium with any efficiency, and the countries from which the defector claimed Iraq had bought the PWR were in no position to be able to sell one. They coordinated the activities of one defector, a civil engineer, who claimed to have been engaged in building secret facilities inside Iraq for chemical and biological laboratories, including underground facilities. When the inspectors were allowed to return to Iraq, they scanned the areas named with ground-penetrating radar, and found that no such structures existed.
One of the INC's biggest stories was immediately after September 11th when they brought to international attention three defectors, all of whom claimed that they had personal experience at an Iraqi "terrorist training camp" at Salman Pak, where fighters were trained to hijack aeroplanes. The link explicitly made by many of the defectors and by the INC was that this facility may have been used to train the operatives who attacked New York and Washington. However, not a single one of the September 11th hijackers has been reliably traced as having visited Iraq in recent times, and the story was allowed to die. On capturing the site inside Iraq, US and UK forces found that the facilities at Salman Pak were strikingly different from those described by the defectors.
In spite of this extensive record of discredited allegations, and the concomitant suspicion from government agencies, the political leadership on both sides of the Atlantic continued to give credibility to émigrés associated with Ahmad al-Chalabi. Information from defectors was repeatedly cited by Tony Blair in his dossier and speeches, and particularly by members of the Bush administration, as being a major source for their allegation about Iraq. A high percentage of the defectors cited by Colin Powell to the Security Council were linked to the INC.
The political agenda of Chalabi influenced not only the information presented by the UK and US governments, but also the content of the stories in the most prominent newspaper of the US. In a recently leaked email, the senior reporter at the New York Times, Judith Miller, disclosed that "I've been covering Chalabi for about 10 years ... He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper." One of Miller's recent pieces was on how an unnamed Iraqi scientist claimed that Iraq had destroyed all its weapons immediately prior to the conflict. The story was wholly implausible -- the last thing that a tyrant would do before an invasion would be to destroy his most lethal weapons -- and appears to be another one of Chalabi's concoctions. This didn't stop the New York Times running it on their front page, and it being picked up by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as an explanation of why none of Iraq's weapons had been found.
The extent of the collapse of the US and UK case on Iraq's weapons is most clear in how the search for weapons has so far been fruitless. Few biological weapons experts agree that the trucks presented by the Pentagon as being mobile biological production facilities were anything of the sort. The Iraqi scientists who used the trucks claimed that they were used for the production of hydrogen, an explanation that would fit with what is known about the trucks. The photograph of these trailers released by the Pentagon showed vehicles whose sides were sheets of canvas that was simply pinned down. If such vehicles had been used for containing anthrax fermenters, a downwind footprint of anthrax contamination would have been detected fairly readily. A UN inspector previously engaged in the search for mobile production facilities inside Iraq has informed me that the chances that such a vehicle could have been used for biological agents are minimal.
Standing alongside President Bush in April, Tony Blair declared that, "On weapons of mass destruction, we know that the regime has them, we know that as the regime collapses we will be led to them. We pledged to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and we will keep that commitment." Seventy-three days after the invasion began, there are still no reliable signs that Iraq had any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, or has had any over the past eight years. Indeed, the only reliable signs of illicit weapons that have been found in Iraq are the cluster bombs that were dropped from US and UK jets.