Part Two of a Series of Backgrounders.
The Inquiry Report is expected to look behind Blair’s request around this time that a dossier on Iraq’s WMD be prepared. Was Blair’s order meant to be an intelligence-led evaluation of Saddam’s WMD, or an instruction to positively describe the existence of something that may or not be there?
The 45 Minute Warning
David Manning accepted the Blair command and informed the head of JIC and MI6. The dossier’s “publication” was scheduled to come out within a matter of weeks. The key sentence that appeared in the dossier offered an assessment that “biological and chemical munitions could be with military units and ready for firing with 20-45 minutes.”
Staff at the DIS may not have recognised the assessment, and Chilcot is expected to dissect this in detail.
The intelligence then available was not conclusive : the 45 minute upper limit meant a range of time to deliver munitions from a storage facility to selected military units. But as an earlier related assessment noted, there wasn’t much intelligence on this, and it wasn’t considered strong enough to be given any prominence. But if the general aim was the political marketing of an imminent war, rather than a serious evaluation of limited intelligence, then the 45 minute scare made sense. How much sense and how much salesmanship, will be part of the first searches of the Inquiry Report.
Tenet is understood to have privately referred to this as the “they-can-attack-in-45- minutes-shit.”
The CIA on this critical chapter may have already done some of heavy lifting for the Inquiry team. The then director of the CIA, George Tenet, warned Downing Street – through side channels of course – not to issue the 45 minute business. Tenet is understood to have privately referred to this as the “they-can-attack-in-45- minutes-shit.”
Government officials and cabinet ministers like the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, also knew it was “shit” when the figure was splashed across newspapers.
Hoon told the Hutton Inquiry, which focused on the death of Dr David Kelly, “I’ve spent many years trying to persuade newspapers and journalists to correct their stories. I’ve found it is an extraordinarily time-consuming and generally frustrating process.”
Away from the mannered atmosphere of the court room at the Royal Courts of Justice where Hoon’s evidence was being heard, inside the specially erected tent at the RCJ where the overspill audience of hacks was listening, there was an outbreak of sustained laughter at was Hoon was saying. A top comedian on stage in the West End has never heard such laughter. But amongst the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS), no one was laughing. Instead there was anger that an assessment was being pushed through based on information that had not been verified. At key points in the chain that led to Number 10, through MI6 and elsewhere, the dossier hadn’t been read nor studied.
Through oral testimony and through the study of unclassified Ministry of Defence documents, Sir John Chilcot and his advisers learned of the existence of material they began asking for. If, as suggested, Whitehall has complied with most of the demands from the Inquiry, this could prove a highly damaging chapter in the report.
Camp David: The ‘Cojones Meeting’
In the US capital, around September 2002, the issue of “credibility” had not gone away. The Inquiry team are understood to have wanted to see exchanges between London and Washington that covered the time when Powell in the State Department was pushing for a “re-engagement” with the UN. Cheney, the vice-president, was worried that UN weapons inspectors, according to Woodward, would “mire them [US efforts] in a tar pit.” There was concern they, the inspectors, wouldn’t be Americans, but international lawyers or experts that were less sceptical about Saddam and “likely to be fooled.”
Bush came in to the adjacent conference room and spoke to Alastair Campbell, Number 10’s spin master. “You’re man has got cojones”
It was against this Bush-Cheney tussle that Blair flew to Washington in September 2002 for a meeting with Bush in Camp David that was scheduled for just six hours. In the press conference that took place in the White House near the end of the day, the two leaders said they were committed to ending Saddam’s threat? Bush was clear with another answer: “Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction.”
According to Woodward there was no specific military planning in the talks that had taken place between Bush, Cheney and Blair. Instead, the trio focused on their “political strategy”. How diligently and effectively the Chilcot report can drill into the allegations that military planning – the stuff that ultimately saves lives – took a back seat, at this stage, to the business of politics and political strategy, could be one of the defining conclusions of the Inquiry.
What happened at the Camp David gathering could also be one of the more interesting analysis of the multi-volume report. Bush, according to Woodward’s inside account, pushed Blair hard on war and the sending of British troops to Iraq. Did Blair, as Woodward claims, really say – at this advanced stage – that “I’m with you” and that the British PM’s resolve to stand alongside the US made a “real impression”.
Woodward claims that after Blair had concluded the meeting, Bush came in to the adjacent conference room and spoke to Alastair Campbell, Number 10’s spin master. “You’re man has got cojones [Spanish for balls],” the president is alleged to have said.
Bush subsequently called that chat with Blair “the cojones meeting.”
Does it matter what it was called, what Bush said ? If true, it does because it shows that Blair was sustaining the promise made just after 9-11 and other assurances that America would not be left alone by the UK.
‘Cojones’, if analysed in any depth by Chilcot, may also show that Blair was buying into an US-led strategy that Bush appreciated brought with it dangerous political risks for Blair.
The report may need to decide, again on the basis of other testimony and evidence, whether Blair was quietly keeping Bush close, or whether his support for the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeldt axis was unconditional.
WMD: Deception or Self Deception
The second strand of Blair’s 2002 mission was the need for legality. And in November 2002 the United Nations delivered what was needed. The UN Security Council unanimously – despite some initial hesitation – adopted Resolution 1441. Iraq was being given a second chance to comply and disarm.
The small print of 1441 assumes that weapons are there and that Saddam has to give them up. How did that happen? Neither the US or UK intelligence knew with any certainty that WMD were there. Yet Blair behaved as though there was no doubt.
Ritter believed 95 percent of Iraq’s WMD had been “verifiably eliminated”.
Chilcot may not have the documented ammunition to say with any certainty what Washington knew and what Washington was faking. But a key chapter of the weighty report may decide whether or not Blair was being entirely honest in his public proclamations.
Was there justification for Blair’s confidence, or was this evidence of political fiction? Chilcot will have to decide the strength of evidence that came from Iraqi exiles, and whether or not there should have been flashing warnings of what was being fed to western intelligence sources from such loaded quarters.
The basic question of whether or not Saddam had WMD could have been answered by going outside the routine intelligence channels . Former UN weapons inspectors, like Scott Ritter, who had spent years inside the Iraq regime, offered insight into what was being ignored in certain circles where the advice should have been given greater weight.
Ritter believed 95 percent of Iraq’s WMD had been “verifiably eliminated”. They had gone, not by being turned over to the UN, who should have supervised its destruction, but had been destroyed by Iraq itself without UN supervision. Saddam could have been trying to conceal the existence of the weapons – and had a track record of lying to inspectors. But later verification pointed to perhaps “bits and pieces” of old prohibited programmes still hanging around, but which did not add up to a serious threat.
Blair and Bush could have said Iraq cannot be given a clean bill of health because the complete book on all WMD wasn’t closed.
But Chilcot may have to decide what scale the jump was between non-compliance with inspections, and the firm evaluation that Saddam held a dangerous capability worthy of mounting a US-led invasion.
‘Nothing Justified War”
When the UN weapons inspectors went back into Iraq, headed by Hans Blix, it was against a backdrop of advanced US war preparations.
By January 2003 Colin Powell was talking to the UN about the danger Saddam represented and what new intel the Americans had. Not everyone was impressed. The French foreign minister, Dominic de Villepin, shouted that “Nothing, nothing justified war.” The White House and Powell thought De Villepin inept for stealing the trump card they called “threat”.
If Chilcot is looking for the moment that UN compliance fell off the table, this could be it.
The White House at this point is said to have believed they’d gone down the UN route long enough, but according to Woodward’s inside account “had been thwarted by the French.”
Most of those in the streets didn’t know they were marching during a week when Dick Cheney believed the war should have already started.
After the UN fiasco, Bush spoke to a group of economists, effectively telling them that in order to secure peace, the ‘coalition of the willing’ needed to go to war and disarm Saddam. He told the group : “Make no mistake he will be disarmed.”
Without a second resolution at the UN, the expectations of imminent war heightened.
In February 2003, there were huge demonstrations across the world from London to San Francisco, and Barcelona to Auckland. Most of those in the streets didn’t know they were marching during a week when Dick Cheney believed the war should have already started. Chilcot, it is believed, has some documentary evidence that suggests both Bush and Cheney detested the idea of sticking with the UN at this stage of war planning, or holding out for another resolution. However they understood why Blair needed to keep the show going for the sake of appearances at Westminster.
Chilcot’s analysis won’t focus much on what was happening on the street. But inside the MoD, and the Civil Service, and amongst the government’s own team of lawyers, there were deeper and different worries. The level of concern over legality if the UK joined the US-led invasion was growing.
If Whitehall really has opened its files to Sir John and his team, this is a potentially explosive episode.
Goldsmith’s Legal Cover
The Cabinet Secretary, Andrew Turnbull, in March 2003, was still seeking legal cover. The Attorney General, Peter Goldsmith, is expected to have all the legal opinions he offered Blair examined in detail by the Inquiry report.
The questions Chilcot will need to answer centre on what initially Goldsmith told Blair, was there pressure on him to change his mind – both from London and from Washington – and what exactly came from the White House and the State Department which brought about the U-turn from Goldsmith on the legality of the non-UN route?
On March 17, 2003 Goldsmith briefed the Cabinet, telling them the advice both Blair and Washington had been holding out for. The war, just days away now, was legal he now claimed. Some 24 hours later, Blair offered the Commons a final chance to challenge his evidence. Labour, Blair’s own party was divided in its support, but the Tory Opposition benches were mostly solid.
“If war had tangible lessons that could be learned, will this therefore be the last one?”
Blair’s journey to war – from his 9-11 speech, to Crawford, to the meetings at Camp David and the White House, to the battles with his own intelligence community, and through the corridors of the UN in New York – were mostly complete now. Those on benches of the Commons backed Blair’s warning that Saddam represented a “clear and present danger to Britain.”
Two days later a military coalition led by the United States, and involving troops from Britain, Australia, Poland and other countries, invaded Iraq. Some 20 days later, on April 9, 2003, US troops entered Baghdad. Saddam took a further nine months to be hunted down, put on trial, and hanged in December 2006.
The Iraq Inquiry, began in June 2009 will deliver its report next week, seven years after it started. It will contain over 2.5 million words, is four times the size of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and is supposed to clear the political and military fog that covered the run-up to a war whose consequences the world is still feeling.
According to one adviser close to those who have devoted an unexpectedly large part of their lives to writing it, it does contain answers, important answers.
Will it satisfy those looking for more than just answers? The same adviser warned : “If war had tangible lessons that could be learned, will this therefore be the last one? I doubt it.”