Blair: A case to answer


Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, is taking the lead in an attempt to impeach the Prime Minister on the grounds that he consistently misled Parliament over Iraq – and, contrary to the long established principle of ministerial accountability, has not resigned from office.


For the impeachment process to succeed, the Commons must agree that there is a case to answer and appoint a committee to draw up articles of impeachment.  These would then be sent to the Lords who would act as judges in the case.


There is no chance of the process getting over the first hurdle of the Commons agreeing that there is a case to answer.  The most that will happen is that the Speaker grants a debate, so that the case for impeachment can be presented.  That of itself would be a considerable victory.


According to its website at the time of writing, the campaign has the support of the Plaid Cymru and Scottish Nationalist MPs, plus 8 Conservatives (David Amess, Richard Bacon, Peter Bottomley, Angela Browning, Nigel Evans, Edward Garnier, Douglas Hogg and Boris Johnston) and two Liberals, Jenny Tonge and Paul Marsden.  The Liberal leadership is opposed to the campaign: even though it accepts that Blair misled Parliament, it hasn’t even called for his resignation, merely for an apology from him. It has been reported in the press that a number of Labour MPs support the campaign, but at the time of writing none has put their name to it on the campaign website.


Blair’s misleading

Even if the campaign never gets any further, Adam Price is to be congratulated for taking this initiative, when most MPs who know Blair misled Parliament outrageously have done nothing.  The campaign is also to be congratulated for publishing a comprehensive, meticulously documented, account of Blair’s misleading, written by Glen Rangwala and Dan Plesch.  Appropriately, this is called A Case to Answer, and is available on the campaign website.  Having read it, nobody could fail to be convinced that there is indeed a case for Blair to answer.


The authors have made excellent use of JIC assessments, and other intelligence material, brought into the public domain by the Butler report, to demonstrate clearly that the extravagant claims made by the Prime Minister about Iraq’s weapons, and about the threat posed by Iraq, were not justified by the intelligence available at the time.  In many instances, there is a yawning gap between what the intelligence said and what the Prime Minister said.


Specifically, Rangwala and Plesch prove that:


(1)      The Prime Minister made claims about the existence of Iraq's weapons that were not backed up by intelligence assessments;

(2)      he made claims about threats from Iraq to the region and the world that were unsubstantiated by intelligence;

(3)      he stated that UN inspectors were reporting that illicit weapons did exist, whilst they were reporting that materials were unaccounted for;

(4)      he asserted that Iraq's illicit weapons programme was growing, despite the indications of intelligence that it was not;

(5)      he misreported the findings of UNMOVIC and the IAEA to portray inspections as futile and to assert that Iraq had committed a "material breach" of Security Council Resolution 1441; and

(6)      he claimed that material found after April 2003 was part of a covert weapons programme, despite the lack of intelligence to support these claims.


That pre-war intelligence was flawed is not in doubt, but the more it is brought into the public domain the more it becomes clear that the intelligence services have much less to answer for than the Prime Minister.  Gathering intelligence and assessing it is an uncertain business with plenty of scope for error, and error is understandable.  But there is no excuse for error in transmitting the fruits of intelligence to the public: if public statements that are said to be based on intelligence assessments are not an accurate reflection of those assessments, then there has either been gross incompetence or an intent to deceive.


Yet, time and time again, as Rangwala and Plesch show, what came out of the Prime Minister’s mouth about Iraq’s weapons was not an accurate reflection of the assessments on which they were said to be based.  We will look at a couple of examples from the many given by Rangwala and Plesch.


Small quantities

First, the intelligence evidence for Iraq’s possession of chemical and biological weapons in the Spring of 2002 was as follows:


“Intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy. [...] From the evidence available to us, we believe Iraq retains some production equipment, and some small stocks of CW agent precursors, and may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons. [...] There is no intelligence on any BW agent production facilities but one source indicates that Iraq may have developed mobile production facilities.” (JIC assessment, 15 March 2002, Butler report, Annex B)


To the best of my knowledge, the phrase “small quantities of agents and weapons” never passed the Prime Minister’s lips when he was speaking about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons.  The abiding impression from that period is that he was always absolutely certain that Iraq had lots of weapons, and was producing more.


Section 1.1 of A Case to Answer reproduces a series of remarks by him in March and April 2002, which confirm that view.  For example, on 4 April 2002, he told NBC news:


“We know that he [Saddam Hussein] has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons, we know that he is trying to acquire nuclear capability, we know that he is trying to develop ballistic missile capability of a greater range.”


The Prime Minister continued to make these exaggerated statements up to the invasion and even afterwards.  He continued to make them despite UN inspectors failing to make any significant finds of agents or weapons in Iraq and declaring clean all the sites named as sites of concern in the Government’s September dossier.  The Butler report reveals, and expresses surprise, that he didn’t request any reassessment of the intelligence in the light of this:


 “.. we are surprised that neither policy-makers nor the intelligence community, as the generally negative results of UNMOVIC inspections became increasingly apparent, conducted a formal re-evaluation of the quality of the intelligence and hence of the assessments made on it.” (paragraph 362)


Butler also reveals that there were concerns in the government machine “about the impact on public and international opinion of the lack of strong evidence of Iraqi violation of its disarmament obligations”.  That’s why the largely plagiarised February dossier was published, entitled Iraq - its infrastructure of concealment, deception and intimidation: its purpose was to explain that the UN inspectors’ failure to find any proscribed material was due to Iraq hiding it, rather than its non-existence.


The threat from Iraq

Section 1.2 of A Case to Answer is concerned with the intelligence view of the threat from Iraq in September 2002.  Put simply, it was that Saddam Hussein was unlikely to embark on aggressive military action, because this would provide the US with an excuse to attack Iraq and remove him from power.  It follows from this that at that time Iraq was no threat to his neighbours, let alone the wider world, whether or not it possessed chemical and biological weapons.


A “key judgement” of the JIC assessment of 9 September 2002 was:


“The use of chemical and biological weapons [by Iraq] prior to any military attack would boost support for US-led action and is unlikely.” (Butler report, paragraph 334)


One doesn’t need to be possessed of great intelligence (of either kind) to see that this was true in September 2002, and had been true since the end of the Gulf War. 


The main text of that JIC assessment went further, suggesting that Iraq would not use them “during the initial air phase of any military campaign” but only when “a ground invasion of Iraq has begun” (Butler report, Annex B).  It also stated thatthere is no intelligence to indicate that Iraq has considered using chemical and biological agents in terrorist attacks”.


Nevertheless, the Prime Minister persistently claimed that Iraq was a threat (see A Case to Answer, Section 1.2).  For example, he told a press conference in his Sedgefield constituency on 3 September 2002 that the US and the UK “are in absolute agreement that Iraq poses a real and a unique threat to the security of the region and the rest of the world”.  That cannot be squared with the JIC assessment published a few days later.


Nor can it be squared with the CIA assessment given to the Senate Intelligence Committee a month later on 2 October 2002, which was that if Saddam Hussein didn’t feel threatened, the likelihood that he would use these weapons was “low”, but if the US attacked him the likelihood would be “pretty high” (see letter from CIA to Senator Bob Graham, Congressional Record, October 9, 2002, Page S10154).


Blair’s ‘bit of a problem’

So, in the autumn of 2002, the intelligence services of the US and the UK were agreed that Iraq was unlikely to use its weapons offensively, and therefore it wasn’t a threat to its neighbours, let alone the wider world.


That view was expressed in all drafts of the September dossier except the final one.  It was excised from the final one after the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell (see Section 2.4 of A Case to Answer)


Under the heading “Saddam’s willingness to use chemical and biological weapons”, the 19 September draft of the dossier said:


“Intelligence indicates that Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat.  We also know from intelligence that as part of Iraq’s military planning, Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons against an internal uprising by the Shia population.” (Hutton reference BBC/29/0019)


That is fairly clear: Saddam would use his chemical and biological weapons, only if he believed his regime to be under threat, either internally or externally.  At that time, there was no threat to the outside world, if he were left alone.


On 17 September, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, frankly acknowledged that this was the case: in an e-mail to chairman of the JIC, John Scarlett, who was compiling the dossier, he wrote:


“ … the document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein.  In other words, it shows he has the means but it does not demonstrate he has the motive to attack his neighbours, let alone the west. We will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he is an imminent threat.  (Hutton reference CAB/11/77, our emphasis)


However, two days later Powell reversed his stance and asked that the dossier be amended to give the impression that Saddam was an imminent threat.  In an e-mail to John Scarlett, he wrote:


I think the statement on page 19 that ‘Saddam is prepared to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat’ is a bit of a problem. It backs up the Don McIntyre argument that there is no CBW threat and we will only create one if we attack him.  I think you should redraft the para.”  (Hutton reference CAB/11/0103)


Note that Powell does not suggest that the text was not soundly based on intelligence – he couldn’t, since it was – merely that it backs up an argument that the Prime Minister didn’t want to be backed up.


It was true that the Prime Minister had a “bit of a problem”, since it was impossible to reconcile his assertion in the dossier’s foreword that Iraq was “a current and serious threat to the UK national interest” with the assessment that, in all probability, Saddam Hussein would use chemical and biological weapons, only if his regime was under threat. 


John Scarlett did as he was told and redrafted the paragraph to remove the Prime Minister’s “bit of a problem”.  The amended assessment, which appears in the published dossier, is:


“Intelligence indicates that as part of Iraq’s military planning Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons, including against his own Shia population.”


Thus was the main body of the dossier aligned with the Prime Minister’s foreword to present Iraq as a threat, contrary to the assessed intelligence.


The Prime Minister assured the House of Commons on 4 June 2003:


“I want to make it clear to the House—I have spoken and conferred with the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee—that there was no attempt, at any time, by any official, or Minister, or member of No. 10 Downing Street staff, to override the intelligence judgments of the Joint Intelligence Committee.”


And pigs were flying as he spoke.



David Morrison


Labour & Trade Union Review

November 2004