International Security Studies
Inquiries, Intelligence and Iraq: The British Case
This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's Division of International Studies and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the ongoing Nonproliferation Forum series.
After the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in April 2003, the failure of American and British forces to uncover weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – the avowed precipitant of the war – produced a crisis of credibility on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, the presidentially-appointed Silberman-Robb Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee examined the WMD intelligence pertaining to Iraq. In Britain, as Professor Danchev detailed, a parallel, broadly similar process unfolded through the work of 4 government-commissioned inquiries.
Two of the inquiries were conducted by key committees of the parliament. These investigations were conducted on tight timelines within months of the fall of Baghdad, were narrowly focused, and institutionally hamstrung. The Commons' Foreign Affairs Committee, which lacks the power and prestige of its U.S. counterparts, was only permitted to focus on the Foreign Office; indeed, officials from other departments and the prime minister's office refused to testify before it. "They didn't know what they didn't know," Danchev stated. The Commons' Intelligence and Security Committee had better access to officials and information, but was viewed skeptically in some quarters because of its reputation for coziness with the intelligence community. The Intelligence Committee's report laid out a pattern of misrepresentation and exaggeration, as well as analytical sloppiness (e.g., conflating the biological, chemical, and nuclear threats), but the committee declined to draw any inferences or to criticize the government.
The Hutton Inquiry was commissioned by Prime Minister Tony Blair to examine the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly, a Ministry of Defence official who committed suicide in July 2003 after testifying before the Commons' Intelligence Committee and the BBC's disclosure of his name as a source for its reporting on the UK government's "dossier" on Iraq's WMD programs. Kelly's death was a tragedy and triggered a politically charged battle between the government and the BBC. The Hutton Inquiry, which was widely expected to have a quite narrow focus, proved to be a surprise. Holding its hearings in public, extensively using its subpoena power, and posting this information on its website, the Hutton Inquiry disclosed more about the Iraqi WMD assessment than any previous commission. But its "leaden" report did not do justice to the material. Danchev speculated that if Hutton had been more openly critical of Blair in his press conference, the government might have fallen.
The Butler Inquiry, which published its findings in July 2004, was the closest to the Silberman-Robb Commission. Like its U.S. counterpart, the Butler report detailed the flaws in intelligence collection (notably, the paucity of human intelligence after 1998) and analysis (e.g., widespread inferential assessments based on thin information).
Overall, Danchev stated, the investigations had been quite revealing about the nature of the British government. Playing on Clausewitz's classic definition of war, he commented, "Inquiries are the continuation of politics by other means." Danchev concluded that the impact of these inquiries was typically British: the Intelligence establishment was "shaken, not stirred."