Published on Sunday, June 8, 2003 by the Observer/UK
The Arms Hunt: Were They Weapons of Self-Delusion?
by Peter Beaumont and Kamal Ahmed in London, Ed Vulliamy in New York and David Fickling in Sydney
Every week, senior senators in the United States Congress sit down to a policy-makers' lunch. It is usually a pretty ho-hum affair, an occasion for political backslapping. But last Tuesday as the grand panjandrums of the Grand Old Party assembled, Vice-President Dick Cheney had pressing business on his mind. That business, unusually, was to reassure the assembled senators that the administration of George Bush was not, as some had alleged, lying about weapons of mass destruction and that it did have credible evidence before American soldiers were sent to war that Iraq retained those weapons.
It has not been an easy argument to make this week. On both sides of the Atlantic, war on Iraq has given way to an altogether more difficult guerrilla battle over propaganda. Victory is in danger of being soured by nagging doubts: was the public deceived, by the manipulation of intelligence, as to the nature of the enemy they were fighting?
As Cheney was beginning his delicate task in Washington, his counterparts in London were mounting an altogether riskier fightback that afternoon: John Reid, the combative Leader of the House, announced to the Times that a 'potentially rogue element' in the intelligence services was briefing against Ministers. The suggestion of a renegade spy plotting to bring down a leftwing Government carried all the conspiratorial overtones of Le Carré novel.
But it only really caught fire next morning in an extraordinary exchange between Reid and John Humphrys, the veteran presenter of BBC Radio 4's Today program - whose reporter Andrew Gilligan broke the story that intelligence on Iraq had been 'sexed up' for publication by Downing Street. A furious Reid snapped that the anonymous intelligence source could have been 'a man in the pub' for all the public knew: an equally bullish Humphrys hinted that the program's intelligence sources had been at the highest level.
Reid's extraordinary bulldozing style - one fellow Minister later joked that it had been very good of Humphrys to come on 'the Leader of the House program - concealed private Cabinet reservations however that he had gone too far. At Prime Minister's Question Time later that day, Blair noticeably failed to repeat the inflammatory claims of a 'rogue spy', despite defending his position.
This weekend, both sides are again seeking a truce. But like a bush fire that refuses to be stamped out, the flames of doubt are still licking around the 'coalition of the willing', drawing in the US, Australia and even Spain.
But the way the allegations have caught fire in the US is all the more extraordinary, since the Bush administration - unlike the Government of Tony Blair - has not had to rely on the existence or not of weapons of mass destruction as a casus belli, committed as the US was to a policy of regime change in Iraq.
But the Democrats and Republicans leading the charge to investigate allegations that intelligence was fabricated - echoed now in Britain, where Downing Street last week gave in to demands for an inquiry, albeit limited, into the use of information - have an agenda that goes beyond the issue of Iraq. What is driving them, as much as a desire to find out the truth, is a desire to limit the huge influence and power that has been accumulated by the Pentagon and the coterie of hawks gathered around Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, which many fear is now dominating America's relations with the rest of the world. At the heart of the burgeoning controversy is whether those Pentagon hawks deliberately misused intelligence gathered by the CIA and DIA - the Defense Intelligence Agency - to make the case for war.
At the very center of the allegations is the special intelligence analysis group and a terrorism war planning group - both intimately connected - set up in the Pentagon by Rumsfeld after 11 September 2001, called the Office of Special Plans and headed by Douglas Feith, the media-shy Pentagon number three who was also forced out on Tuesday to, as he put it, quash some 'urban myths' about whether intelligence had been manipulated.
It was these officials - under Feith - who dug out the now discredited claims of a meeting between Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 suicide pilots, and Iraqi intelligence in Prague (in fact, Atta was in the US, as proved by evidence uncovered by the FBI). It was these officials too who cherry-picked the most alarmist claims made by Iraqi defectors supplied to the US by the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi, and whose debriefing program had been transferred from the State Department, which distrusted the INC, to the Pentagon's department of Humint (human intelligence).
What has emerged in the past week is how deeply their interpretation was at odds with that of America's intelligence professionals.
During the lead-up to war, the intelligence community advised continually on its reservations about the White House and Pentagon's claims over Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and connections to the al-Qaeda terrorist group. Analysts at the CIA, DIA and State Department Intelligence Division said in different papers and at different times that they could find no evidence of a connection between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda network, and were wary of claims being made over WMD.
And it was more than simple wariness. One official told the New York Times : 'As an employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency, I know this administration has lied to the public to get support for its attack on Iraq.'
It is a view that is gaining increasing currency among the former US spooks who speak for the intelligence bureaucracies. But it is not only the suspicion that the intelligence has been deliberately manipulated by Pentagon hawks that has emerged in the last week.
Others have claimed that huge pressure was put on the intelligence agencies, by Cheney himself, to come up with the goods required to start a war and who, sources claimed last week, made repeated visits to the CIA creating a culture of fear within the organization.
The difficulties of the coalition's leaders have not been made any easier by the parting shots of Hans Blix, the retiring head of UNMOVIC, the body charged by the UN Security Council with finding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before the outbreak of war. And what Blix had to say last week was that the intelligence he had been given by the US and the UK was fundamentally useless in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction.
Three snippets of British intelligence did lead the inspectors to a cache of conventional ammunition hidden in a farmhouse, some hidden documents relating to Iraq's nuclear program and some missile warheads - but no WMD.
In hard-hitting comments to the BBC, he said he was disappointed with the tip-offs provided by US and British intelligence, saying: 'Only in three of those cases did we find anything at all, and in none of these cases were there any weapons of mass destruction, and that shook me a bit, I must say.'
He said UN inspectors had been promised the best information available. 'I thought - my God, if this is the best intelligence they have and we find nothing, what about the rest?'
Blix's puzzlement is shared by many politicians in the coalition countries as well as their media, many of whom were faithfully promised that, when they went into Iraq after the country's 'liberation', post facto legitimacy for the war would be instantly supplied by the WMD sites that they would be shown.
With the lack of hard evidence, intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic have been told to make a subtler case for WMD.
MI6, say sources, has been instructed to compile a composite picture of Iraq's missing WMD in the form of a new dossier that so far has managed to establish that Saddam Hussein possessed banned missiles but little else palpably concrete.
The change in emphasis amid the raging controversies has already seen one member of the coalition carefully disassociate his government from the intelligence he was shown. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he had followed intelligence advice from the US and Britain, and did not doctor it.
'The advice was ... carefully based on the information that properly flowed to the Australian intelligence agency by virtue of the very close intelligence links we have with the United States and the UK,' he said yesterday.
But by the end of the week - after Bush, addressing US troops in Qatar, had vowed to 'reveal the truth' about WMD - the director of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice-Admiral Lowell Jacoby, was reduced to insisting that, despite the astonishing leak of a September paper by his agency stating that it had no 'reliable evidence' of Iraqi weapons facilities or even whether it could produce chemical or biological weapons, he still had no doubt that Iraq had WMD.
Back in London, Downing Street too was facing an uphill task. On his return last Tuesday from a G8 summit in France dominated by charges that he was lying, Tony Blair had what aides call one of his 'taxi driver moments': storming around Downing Street, he furiously demanded that somebody 'get a grip' on the situation.
It was left to a trusted old friend, the Labour Party chairman and gifted fixer Ian McCartney, to point out gently that the people around him were 'on his side'. Blair pulled himself up short. 'Yes, yes, sorry,' he said, and smiled.
Nonetheless he has been forced to agree to a limited inquiry, by the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, into the handling of intelligence in an attempt to heal the rift.
The committee had first asked to review the issue in May, but were told only last week - with Blair under fire from all sides - that they could go ahead, an announcement Blair made to the Commons at Prime Minister's Question Time in an attempt to defuse the row. 'We decided to give them everything,' said a Number 10 figure. 'That way there can be no allegations that we tried to cover stuff up.'
The committee will be given the original Joint Intelligence Committee report on Iraqi weapons, which the Tories have demanded should be published to reveal any last-minute changes. Downing Street insists that, although the JIC assessment was 'reordered' and some sections 'slightly rewritten', every fact that appeared in the document also appeared in the first Number 10 dossier on Saddam's WMD.
'Some of the structure might have been changed, some of the writing, but every single fact that appears in the dossier is taken direct from the JIC assessment,' the official said. 'There were no substantive changes.'
As a precaution, Alistair Campbell is also said to have taken 'copious notes' about the build-up to the first dossier, scribbling in the large diary he keeps on his desk. Downing Street also came out fighting against Gilligan on Thursday, publishing a long list of apparent 'corrections and clarifications' it said should be made to his report in an astonishingly personalized attack.
But Number 10 also knows that it will have to give ground on two key issues. Firstly, when Blair is called to give evidence before the committee he will admit that the second intelligence report, the so-called 'dodgy dossier' based in large part on a PhD thesis by a Californian student, was flawed.
He will also say there are 'serious questions' to be answered about the claim in the first dossier that Saddam tried to procure nuclear material from Niger. The International Atomic Energy Authority later disclosed that such claims were based on 'crudely forged' documents.
But Downing Street believes that, by making the initial concessions, the committee can then concentrate on the substance of the issue - was the intelligence actually any good?
Government figures are increasingly convinced that the security services have executed an elegant pincer movement against the Cabinet in an attempt to cover-up their own intelligence failures. Espionage chiefs briefed journalists first that the politicians had tried to overplay what they were telling them.
'That is wholly wrong and you have to ask why they [the intelligence services] are trying to get that story up,' said another Whitehall official.
In short, both sides may now agree on at least one fact: that the spies Reid berated were not 'rogues' but part of a concerted operation by the intelligence community to challenge Downing Street's version of events.
Whether it was right or wrong to do so - on both sides of the Atlantic - remains to be seen.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003