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January 18, 2005

Hutton and Butler: Lifting the Lid on the Workings of Power - (Ed.) W. G. Runciman

Posted by Anthony Glees

Hutton and Butler: Lifting the Lid on the Workings of Power
edited by W. G. Runciman
Pp142. Published for the British Academy
by Oxford University Press, 2004
Paperback, £9.95

Prof. Anthony Glees, Director of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies and co-author of the Social Affairs Unit's Spinning The Spies: Intelligence, Open Government and the Hutton Inquiry, reviews another analysis of that inquiry.

This volume had its origins in a public meeting organised by the British Academy on Hutton – the Wider Issues held at Chatham House in July 2004 but takes on board the Butler Report as well. That the British Academy should follow the lead of at least one other major UK think-tank in contributing to the national debate on the issues reviewed by the two inquiries is, in itself, an excellent thing. Thanks to the material now publicly available through the inquiries, informed debate is now possible as well as necessary. At a stroke they have transformed serious writing on this subject (and made the 30 year rule redundant into the bargain).

Lord Runciman (the current President of the British Academy) writes in his preface that the purpose of the meeting was:

explicitly not to challenge Lord Hutton's account of the sequence of events which led to the tragic death of Dr David Kelly [but rather to promote] non-partisan discussion about current events which are of exceptional interest to academic researchers and the general public alike.
As 'wordsmithing' was itself a key part of the immediate story about the September 2002 dossier on WMD, it is not being in any way pedantic to point out that 'non-partisan' is itself a term capable of more than one meaning. Whilst it is true that, as a volume, this is even-handed (confusingly so, as it happens), and certainly not party-political, it is by no means 'non-partisan', sometimes directly so, more frequently, as we shall see, by implication. It is certainly very good on detailed aspects (Onora O'Neill's condemnation of the BBC for its – fateful and fatal – inability to check Gilligan's story is an outstanding example).

To take but one example, at the end of his piece Lord Runciman invites his readers to draw a parallel between the ill-fated Suez expedition of 1956, and the state of affairs in occupied Iraq, between Anthony Eden who lost his office and the Suez canal, and Tony Blair who is still in it and could possibly win the war in Iraq. In both instances, Runciman writes:

The justification for war in the mind of the Prime Minister went beyond the immediate casus belli that was given – recovery of the Suez canal in the first case and removal of WMD in the second. Eden…was determined not to appease a dictator who was threatening a vital British interest …Blair…was determined not to remain inactive in the face of Islamic [sic] terrorism and must be presumed to have shared the unproven American view that Al Qaeda had high-level links with Iraq. If therefore there is a moral as opposed to a prudential judgement to be made, it will depend on whether the end justified the means….
It is not altogether obvious what Runciman is driving at and this could seem 'non-partisan' (though to equate Blair with Eden is hardly flattering) but a footnote shows that in this case 'the means' refers to the dodgy February 2003 dossier concerning which Runciman adduces, without comment, a judgement from John Kampfner:
This was a classic New Labour tactic, playing fast and loose with the facts for what it believed to be a greater good.
Runciman does not actually say as much but his implication is very clear: Blair's 'ends' was the war on Islamist terror which he believed was a 'greater good', but the 'means' were 'playing fast and loose' with the facts about WMD. By distinguishing between a 'prudential judgement' (on which he does not elaborate further) and a 'moral' one, he suggests that there is no prudential judgement to be made which does not damn Blair's policy; the 'moral' one can go in Blair's favour only if one believes the 'ends' justify the 'means', bearing in mind that the means themselves ('playing fast and loose with the facts') are indefensible in any liberal democracy which believes in honesty, trust and transparency.

The parallels with Suez (which echo those made by Peter Hennessy) are, in fact, scarcely helpful since Eden's aim was patently not to confront a dictator, whatever he may have said eleven years after the defeat of Hitler, but to regain control of the canal and Blair's aim was to produce a democratic Iraq and not just have a go at the terrorists. There are two important reasons for subjecting this passage to such close scrutiny even though it is just one part of a long and carefully developed argument. The first is that it shows that the understanding in this book is that anyone seeking a defence of Blair or Bush and their Iraq policy must look elsewhere. The second is that it actually demonstrates a total refusal to accept the verdict of Hutton and Butler.

Neither believed Blair had played 'fast and loose' with the facts about whether intelligence in the UK (and the US) was saying that Iraq possessed WMD. Butler's report, in particular, mirrors the various US reports on the subject in providing key judgement after key judgement on Saddam's WMD. It is perfectly true that Butler said that the case made in the dossier about some of the WMD evidence [Butler, p. 114]:

went to (although not beyond) the outer limits of the intelligence available, [that the] language of the dossier may have left with readers the impression that there was fuller and firmer intelligence behind the judgements than was the case - [and that] the Prime Minister's description of the Dossier as 'extensive, detailed and authoritative' may have reinforced this impression.
If these statements are unpacked, they still do not add up to anything more than Blair making the strongest case he could on the material that he had which he was obliged to take account of.

If Blair was presented with intelligence, however limited, that Iraq possessed WMD, and if he then had to produce a policy on Iraq, he would have been appallingly negligent not to put the two together. The argument that this meant readers of the dossier might believe the intelligence was 'fuller and firmer' than was the case is hard to sustain. Blair made the strongest case he could because he had been convinced by what the JIC had told him over many years. If a piece of intelligence indicating the existence of WMD is presented to the Prime Minister as worth his consideration, and if it is not discounted by him, it follows that he believes it. It does not matter whether it is just one of many similar pieces, or whether it is freestanding. If SIS say they think it is worth his attention, then that is their call, not his.

Most people knew that Blair had wanted to topple Saddam's odious dictatorship long before 9/11. Had SIS told him there was no evidence of WMD, he might still have been justified in attacking Iraq. If he had invented, or ordered the invention of evidence, Blair would, of course, be guilty as charged by Sir Michael Quinlan (but not in this volume) and indeed Andrew Gilligan himself. It is, of course, thinkable that in order to produce his dossier, Blair did not merely command the JIC to scrape the bottom of the barrel but to scrape beneath it. But as Butler shows, there was plenty of incriminating evidence in existing JIC reports and no need to invent new pieces. Both Sir Richard Dearlove and John Scarlett categorically denied that this had taken place, and, as we have seen, Lord Butler also implied he believed this. In short, this is not what Butler (or Hutton) concluded and there are simply no facts to back this up.

Butler said that (with the exception of the 45 minute warning):

In general, the original intelligence material was correctly reported in JIC assessments.
He added [p. 110]:
We found no evidence of deliberate distortion or of culpable negligence…no evidence of JIC assessments and judgements being pulled in any direction to meet the policy concerns of senior officials in the JIC.
This material was then introduced into the Dossier and in so doing:
The JIC sought to offer a dispassionate assessment of intelligence and other material on Iraqi WMD…in order that it should properly reflect the judgements of the intelligence community. They did their utmost to ensure their standard was met….
Runciman does concede that Blair was not solely to blame:
But the final version of the celebrated dossier of 24 September 2002 was both fully and unanimously endorsed by the JIC and no evidence has come to light which would endorse the view that its members were putting their names to a document which contained information which they knew to be untrue. Their failure as we know now was that they did not do enough either to guard against the possibility that their information might be seriously unreliable, or to make sure that it was not presented in such a way as to make it appear more reliable than it was.
That being so, the issues are not those of 'ends and means' but rather of why the intelligence was wrong and whether the attack on Iraq was justified or not. Runciman implicitly conflates the failure to find WMD in Iraq with the widely held view that the war against Saddam was unjustified. This is wrong. He does not say: The attack on Iraq was based on WMD intelligence which was untrue. Therefore the Prime Minister must have lied about the intelligence and it can safely be concluded that the war was therefore wrong. But he gives his readers the distinct impression that this is what he thinks.

It is really not that simple. It is true that there was no WMD to speak of by 2003 and the appalling violence in occupied Iraq at the moment is obviously further evidence of grave shortcomings on the part of American planners and occupiers. But these facts, by themselves, do mean the attack on Iraq was in itself unjustified. Indeed, it could be argued that the appalling campaign of terror being waged in Iraq today by the Saddamite insurgents and their foreign helpers suggests that, if anything, terror in the Middle East could never have been contained as long as Saddam and his clan held Iraq and its wealth in their vice. A truly non-partisan discussion would have made these points.

Instead we find Runciman attacking Bush in the same, unreflective way as he attacks Blair himself. In seeking to explain the inability of the Conservative Party to offer the critique on Blair's decision to attack Iraq that he would have liked, he says:

no Conservative leader was going to be able to exploit the Hutton and Butler reports in the way that a Labour Opposition might have been able to do if a Conservative Government, in alliance with as right-wing an American government as this one had taken the country to war in the same way.
Translated into plain English, Runciman is saying that because the enterprise was a right-wing enterprise, in alliance with 'as right-wing' an administration as that of Bush, there could never be opposition to it from the right. And just in case we do not get the point, elsewhere he writes, clearly disdainingly, of:
Blair's indisputable success in stealing the Conservatives' clothes.
This is not to clarify but to obfuscate. Why should a US President who believes in American armed intervention in support of democracy be deemed right-wing on this account? Is Runciman content that we should regard Clinton's almost complete failure to tackle international terrorism prior to 2000 (not to mention his failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda) in order that America could maintain a non-interventionist stance left-wing? If Blair was as deeply committed to Bush's view as he appears to be, how are we to explain his equally deep relationship with Bill Clinton who even addressed a New Labour conference, not to mention sharing 'third way' ideas with him?

Might it not be the case that Bush and Blair genuinely believed (be they right or wrong) that the use of force against Saddam was morally and politically justified, not least because they believed genuinely that he possessed WMD in addition to his appalling record on human rights? Quoting the Prime Minister's speech of 24 September 2002 in which he sought to qualify the role intelligence ought to play in policy-making ('intelligence is not always right') he notes that Blair then went on to ask whether:

with what we know and what we can reasonably speculate the world would be wise the leave the present situation undisturbed.
Surely, unless we believe he was lying, the Prime Minister must have a point here, even if we now know WMD did not exist.

In the event, as this very quote shows, Bush's and Blair's high policy decision for war was based on far more than the WMD claim and may have most to do with Blair's 'Messianic' view of his own role in world affairs, in partnership with America. Some Britons might feel this is not a sound basis on which to conduct British foreign policy although opinion polls are equivocal. In the US, of course, Bush's new interventionism was given an overwhelming endorsement by American electors. Perhaps Runciman shies away from this point since it begs a far harder question: if Britain had not gone Blair's way, whose way should it have gone? Should Britain have followed France and Germany? In theory, at any rate, this must be Runciman's conclusion.

Indeed, the problem for the Conservative Opposition was not that opposition to Blair's policy was impossible; it was that to have provided it would have forced Howard to make the case for Europe, something he dared not do. Many leading Tories were in fact highly critical of US policy on Iraq. Michael Portillo probably speaks for many when he says that the US has now given up winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqis, preferring instead to kill large numbers of the people it liberated from Saddam.

The significance of the failure to find WMD for British politics is not that it undoes the justification for the invasion of Iraq, merely that it casts real doubt on Blair's day-to-day political judgement in wanting WMD (which was the spooks' claim and not his invention) to be the lead justification for ousting Saddam. This is not to minimise the WMD issue. It is very serious but mainly because the intelligence was wrong. This must create major doubts in the public mind about the usefulness of secret intelligence in policy-making. We must not forget that Dr David Kelly and Hans Blix [see Butler, p. 112] were convinced that Saddam possessed WMD, although the latter kept it to himself (a point Runciman ignores), and that even Robin Cook and Clare Short, at the time, thought Saddam had the capacity to develop WMD (but neither believed this represented a 'serious and current threat'). They were, in fact, as wrong as Blair.

It is equally plain that senior American intelligence officials passed similar information to the Bush administration. As Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack demonstrates beyond any doubt Blair was initially more certain that the WMD intelligence SIS was giving him was accurate than Bush about the material that he was getting. Whilst it was taken for granted by both leaders that Saddam probably had residual WMD from before the first Gulf War, and that he would use it (which seemed perfectly reasonable) as late as April 2002 Bush spoke about the danger of 'allowing Saddam to develop WMD' and in a speech delivered on 1 June 2002 he said [Woodward, p 186-197].:

the war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge [sic].
In answering press questions about whether Saddam actually had WMD on 16 August, Bush said [Woodward p 161-2]: 'Saddam desires WMD', but he did not say he had them .

Blair, however, was patently convinced about WMD and Iraq's place in the network of terror from the moment he arrived in No 10 - and not without some reason. SIS's successful penetration of the A Q Khan network had produced evidence before 2000 that international terrorists could get their hands on 'dirty' nuclear weapons [Butler Report p 17]. It was not until after Blair's second visit to the US on 7 September (he was there for just six hours) when he will have certainly briefed the President on the contents of the September dossier, that Bush's probabilities and possibilities turned to certainties, in public at any rate. At their joint press conference Bush said unequivocally [Woodward, p. 177]: 'Saddam possesses WMD'. Twelve days later he told a private meeting of political leaders [Woodward, p 186-90]:

The war on terrorism is going OK…the biggest threat, however, is Saddam Hussein and his WMD. He can blow up Israel and that would trigger an international conflict [Woodward p 186-90].
Privately Bush seemed less sure, it is true. On 21 December 2002 Bush was briefed by George Tenet and John McLaughlin, the two most senior CIA chiefs (neither in office today). Although both insisted Saddam possessed WMD (Tenet said, infamously: 'it's a slam dunk case') Bush said [Woodward, p 247 ff]:
I don't think this is something Joe Public would gain a lot of confidence from…it needs more work…make sure no one stretches to make our case.
The National Intelligence Estimate of 2 October 2002, which insisted that
Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons…the intelligence agencies assess that it has begun renewed production of mustard, sarin, cyclosarin and VX
seems slowly to have worked its way into Bush's thinking [Woodward p 196-7]. By January and February 2003 Bush, Colin Powell (especially in his UN presentation on 5 February) made it obvious that they no longer had any personal doubts about what the spooks were telling them. Meanwhile, all the secret plans for attacking Iraq drawn up by Tommy Franks took it for granted US forces ran the risk of a WMD attack (Bush even received smallpox vaccine, one of millions of doses prepared were war to break out).

The failure to understand that a Prime Minister got the WMD issue wrong because he lacked the knowledge to get it right raises serious questions about the objectivity of institutions that are meant to be objective. The Cabinet failed to test the WMD issue but not because it never discussed it, the reason Peter Hennessy gives in his chapter (he seems unaware of Butler's conclusion that 'the Cabinet discussed Iraq twenty four times' in the year prior to the attack; 'there was no lack of discussion…it was substantial' even if there were limits to it). Parliament failed. The Intelligence and Security Committee failed. The JIC (whose neutral assessment skills had been honed for more than fifty years) failed, not just once but twice. First, when it failed to distinguish good SIS intelligence (such as the material on the Pakistani nuclear scientist A Q Khan) from bad intelligence on WMD, and second when it agreed to publish a dossier based on its reports.

The BBC also failed twice. Once when it refused to check Gilligan's story and secondly when its Governors initially accepted the false proposition - which Michael Beloff most bizarrely supports in his chapter - that what mattered was its freedom to attack the Government not whether its story was true. In a classic reductio ad absurdam, he points out the BBC could hardly correct every little inaccurate press report. Gilligan's report, however, was hardly a common or garden error. Had the BBC not belatedly dealt with this, its word would never have been trusted again – and its ability to influence the course of events gone for ever. It was hardly surprising that Alastair Campbell as a propagandist himself saw at once precisely where, and how the BBC had made itself vulnerable. As Onora O'Neill so forcefully points out Gilligan's facts should have been checked and has no time for the argument that this did not matter. Its accuracy was its authority.

We cannot blame Blair for believing what he was told on Iraqi WMD. We can blame him for presiding over institutions that do not do what modern civil society rightly requires of them: to check the facts and provide balance to the judgements of those who govern us. It is true that Sir Michael Quinlan, in a brilliant piece, does at least reflect on what he calls the 'lessons for governmental process'. But his fire is muted, spraying here and there but chiefly on the person of the Prime Minister. He says that:

a great deal of this [the Hutton and Butler revelations] came as neither unexpected nor particularly disquieting to anyone who had worked closely in Whitehall across a span of administrations.
Not particularly disquieting? Quinlan continues:
It is neither surprising nor illegitimate that a Prime Minister of Mr Blair's ability, energy and self-confidence…should have chosen to operate in a more centralised way than almost any predecessor.
It is hard to follow this argument because a few sentences further Quinlan contradicts himself:
It is, however, open to question whether the changes…always rested upon sufficient understanding that existing patterns had not been developed without practical reason.
He rightly criticises the lack of 'thorough analysis' within government and the Prime Minister's lack of interest in
distinctions of function and responsibility between different categories of actor within the Government machine
and his tendency to regard all participants as
an undifferentiated resource for the support of the central executive [that is, Blair himself].
This may be true (it is certainly partisan). But it may not be the full truth which has as much, if not more, to do with the presidential power now given to Prime Ministers than with the individuals themselves. It is revealing that Quinlan resurrects Lord Hailsham's curious phrase 'elective dictatorship' in respect of Blair without explicitly making the point that it applied as much to Margaret Thatcher (although Quinlan would not accept this).

However, the basic issue is not that strong Prime Ministers like Thatcher and Blair should try to cow institutions into doing their will but that institutions, in a democracy as strong as ours, agree to be cowed. It would have been interesting to know from a former senior civil servant of Quinlan's stature why our civil servants no longer support a culture of speaking the truth to those in power, and rarely, if ever, resign to make their points. Those who, in an advanced liberal democracy, should be part of the leadership of this country have transformed themselves into the led.

Quinlan is, of course, no admirer of the Prime Minister. In a letter to the Sunday Times 28 November 2004 he accuses Blair of:

having concluded in the Spring of 2002 that there was little or no chance of deflecting President Bush from war…and having accordingly committed himself to Bush by mid-summer 2002.
Next he says Blair failed to mention the fact to his Cabinet, to Parliament or the public. Then the Prime Minister:
exerted or connived in unprecedented pressure on the intelligence structure to acquiesce in grave overstatement of the evidence [and, finally] arranged the workings of the Cabinet that colleagues had no…opportunity to consider the merits of his policy in an informed manner.
Even if only one of these charges were true (and the jury really still is out on the 'unprecedented pressure on the intelligence structure' theory, the issue is not that Blair tried to get his policy through (that, after all, is what he is paid for) but that no part of our national institutional structure had the cojones (as Bush would put it) to challenge him. What are civil servants for? What is the JIC there to do? What is SIS paid for? It really does begin to sound like Weimar when those with power blame others for their own weakness, whatever the power the others possess. As the Hailsham point shows, this is a process which started in 1979, not 1987.

What this book lacks is a fundamental ability to see the wood for the trees, to understand that the overarching issue laid naked by Hutton and Butler comes not from the technical issue of WMD intelligence and its input into policy but from the potentially catastrophic failure of a whole series of top ranking institutions to meet their national obligations. Their failure, ultimately, prompts questions about the real health of our democracy. In the US, a less indolent democracy than ours, similar questions have led to serious attempts at institutional renewal amidst much public debate. Here, a few wrists have been slapped at No 10 and SIS, much will carry on as before and no one seems to care very much about it. Without such renewal here, the mistakes that were made over WMD will be repeated time and time again.

Professor Anthony Glees is Director of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies and co-author of Spinning The Spies: Intelligence, Open Government and the Hutton Inquiry.


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