2002 was when the U.K.’s assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction dramatically changed. British intelligence became more assertive about Iraq producing WMD and restarting its nuclear weapons program despite the sources being very sketchy. This was topped off by the Blair government’s dossier on Iraq which had headline grabbing claims such as Iraq being able to deploy WMD in 45 minutes. This kicked off London’s information campaign to win support for war.
During the summer of 2002 London officials voiced their doubts about the threat Iraq posed. On July 23 for instance, Blair’s Communications Director Alastair Campbell told Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that Iraq was the fourth most dangerous country with WMD behind North Korean, Iran and Libya. He added that Baghdad didn’t have nuclear weapons either. That led Campbell to question whether the prime minister was going to move on Saddam for regime change or WMD. The discussion led Blair’s foreign policy advisor David Manning to ask the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) John Scarlett to review all the intelligence on Iraq. This meeting showed that Blair’s advisers saw Iraq differently from the premier. He had been focused upon Iraq’s WMD since the 1990s and was convinced that Iraq had them which made the country a threat. Some of his aides were not so sure.
Scarlett sent two assessments to Blair on Iraq’s WMD. One was “Proliferation Study of Iraq.” It claimed that Iraq had restarted research into nuclear weapons but it faced severe problems. It might also be producing WMD. The other was “Aide memoire on Weapons of Mass Destruction and Proliferation.” It noted that intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear program was limited but that Iraq might have mobile biological weapons labs and could be developing UAVs to deliver WMD. These were not clear-cut reports on Baghdad. There were many questions and the intelligence was far from sure. The problem was the government was looking for more certainty and stronger claims as Blair launched his campaign to win public and political support for war with Iraq.
That started with a press conference Blair held on September 3, 2002. The Foreign Office helped with the briefing advising Blair that Iraq had WMD and was hiding it. It didn’t say that the intelligence was mostly old and largely based off assumptions about Iraq rather than hard facts. Based upon that information Blair said that there was no doubt that Iraq had WMD and allowing Saddam to keep it would be irresponsible. He promised a dossier on Iraq as well. This highlighted the process the British government went through as intelligence was passed up the chain of command. The intelligence services had assumptions and spotty intelligence and often times noted they didn’t really know what was going on in Iraq. That was given to the ministries that dropped the qualifications. This was the political mandate the Blair government set out because it wanted to build support for war and needed the strongest proof possible. A similar situation happened in the U.S. with the Bush administration.
The center piece of PM Blair’s information campaign was the weapons dossier which was largely based upon a JIC assessment from September 9. It said Iraq had WMD, was producing it, and that Saddam would use it if he felt threatened. That could include Iraq firing missiles filled with WMD at Israel. Most famously it stated that Iraq could deploy WMD in 45 minutes. The Butler Report which investigated pre-war U.K. intelligence found that much of the dossier was based upon judgements of what Iraq was likely doing rather than actual evidence. The intelligence the JIC had was also not based upon firsthand knowledge. For example, in August and September 2002 the British got four new reports on Iraq from three sources. These were Iraqi officials that had no direct contact with WMD. JIC head Scarlett later admitted the 45 minutes claim had a lot of questions about it but it was included anyway. The dossier was no different from other reports the British intelligence community was making at the time. It believed that it was getting consistent reports about Iraq’s activity but the evidence was all very questionable and should have never been turned into conclusions.
All of these assumptions were included in the September 24 Iraq WMD dossier. It said that intelligence had “established beyond doubt” that Iraq was producing WMD. That was not in any report however. The Butler investigation would say the dossier made judgements into certainties that didn’t exist and that the weakness in British intelligence on Iraq was never made clear. Another inquiry the Hutton report on the other hand found that the dossier was not “sexed up” by the Blair government. Instead, it said that Downing Street was simply trying to make the strongest case possible against Iraq. That seems like semantics as the dossier went beyond what the Joint Intelligence Committee, MI6 and other sources were saying.
Unlike the Bush administration WMD had always been PM Tony Blair’s main concern about Iraq. He believed that Iraq had hid its weapons from United Nations inspectors in the 1990s and after they left it restarted everything including its nuclear program making it a growing threat. This was the same view as British intelligence. He dropped the caveats when he made speeches or when his government released the WMD dossier because they all had the same assumptions and talking about the details would just convolute their point of view and arguments against Iraq. The U.S. did the exact same thing.
The Iraq Inquiry, “The Report of the Iraq Inquiry,” 7/6/16
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