A War Fought Under False Pretenses
Published on Wednesday, August 13, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
A War Fought Under False Pretenses
The Hutton Inquiry Has Already Answered the Crucial Question
by Roy Hattersley
 

No doubt, the fireworks come later. We can look forward to Alastair Campbell treating the Hutton inquiry in the same cavalier fashion that he addressed the House of Commons select committee; the BBC angrily refuting the allegation that the Today program would rather make news than report it; and, top of the bill, the prime minister defending his integrity against the charge that he wilfully exaggerated the case for going to war.

There will be dramatic days ahead. But Monday's opening session - intended as only the sighting shots in a battle which will last all summer - got very close to answering the crucial question that lies at the heart of the inquiry. However and why Dr Kelly died; whoever added a claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes; and whether or not Alastair Campbell "sexed up" the dossier that described Saddam's capability, one thing is now clear. If we had known in March what we know today, neither the House of Commons nor the British people would have supported the decision to go to war - a rather more important issue than whether or not the BBC was critical of one of its reporters' literary style.

There can no longer be any doubt about the status of Dr Kelly. We may yet learn of minor eccentricities and we already know that he resented the way in which he had been treated by the Ministry of Defense. But he was a scientist who knew more about Saddam's weapons program than anyone else in Britain - perhaps anyone else in the world. He was neither a fantasist nor a fraud, but an acknowledged international expert. And he believed that the claims were exaggerated.

He was not alone. Martin Howard, deputy chief of intelligence at the MoD, told the inquiry that two intelligence officers had made formal complaints about the way in which the government dossier - constructed to justify the war - was written. Their objection was precise and covered three specific areas: "the recent production of weapons of mass destruction", the claim that those weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes and the "importance of chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein". They believe that the dossier's treatment of each suffered from the same fatal flaw. "The existing wording is not wrong but it has a lot of spin on it."

What intelligence sources judged to be possible came to be represented in the government's dossier as a certainty. Might became will. And, in the case of the 45-minute warning only one source argued that the danger was definite. In the words of Martin Howard the critics challenged "the level of certainty" expressed in the foreword and executive summary of the document. And the impression that an attack was imminent was increased by the addition, a couple of weeks before it was published, of the 45-minute claim. Britain was asked to go to war because we and our allies faced a real and present danger. But only in the land of might have been.

The country and the Commons were doubtful enough about the war even when they were told that Saddam's lethal capability was certain. If they had known that it was only the supposition of some intelligence officers, the opposition to military action would have been irresistible. And the doubts do more than undermine the dossier that changed the public mood. They make the decision to go to war itself indefensible. If young men and women are sent to die, the politicians who send them need to be sure that the sacrifice is justified. In Iraq, soldiers were sacrificed for a hypothesis which was rejected by some of the intelligence officers who were qualified to make a judgment.

Much of the evidence given on Monday confirms how imprecise a business intelligence gathering is. Conclusions are reached on the basis of probability. The dossier that justified war was the result of what amounted to a collegiate discussion, with some members supporting the eventual wording and some dissenting. It is impossible to justify war on a majority vote, a difference of opinion or a compromise over conflicting judgment about its necessity. Britain went to war under false pretences.

The inquiry will grind on. Alastair Campbell will, no doubt, be acquitted of personally and exclusively adding the 45-minute warning to the dossier, though there will be no doubt that Dr Kelly made that allegation and the BBC was justified in reporting it. That means that the BBC will almost certainly be vindicated. The prime minister will undoubtedly assert that he remains certain of the moral justification for the war. Civil servants may be censured and ministers may lose their jobs. We can look forward to weeks of lurid headlines. But nothing the inquiry reveals in future can be more important than the single fact that it demonstrated last Monday. The government exaggerated the threat from Iraq. If it had given the country an honest account of the danger the outcry against military action would have been too great for the government to resist or the prime minister to survive.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

###