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Use and abuse of intelligence
Tony Blair takes advice from his security experts when it fits with his foreign policy, and ignores it when it doesn't
Tuesday July 19, 2005
If ministers and MPs cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that the invasion of Iraq has increased the threat from terrorism, then let others do so. We can begin with senior officials responsible for protecting our national security and Britain's interests abroad.
On February 10 2003, a month before the onslaught on Iraq, Whitehall's joint intelligence committee told Tony Blair that "al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq". It added that the collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare agents or technology finding their way into the hands of terrorists.
Yesterday the Royal Institute of International Affairs published a paper co-written by Paul Wilkinson, a professor at the University of St Andrews. He is no radical polemicist, rather an epitome of conventional wisdom.
"The UK is at particular risk," warns the paper, "because it is the closest ally of the United States" and joined US-led military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. It says a key problem facing the government is that it "has been conducting counter- terrorism policy 'shoulder to shoulder' with the US, not in the sense of being an equal decision-maker, but rather as a pillion passenger compelled to leave the steering to the ally in the driving seat".
Iraq has imposed particular difficulties for Britain, the authors continue, since "it gave a boost to the al-Qaida network's propaganda, recruitment and fundraising, caused a major split in the coalition, provided an ideal targeting and training area for al-Qaida-linked terrorists, and deflected resources and assistance that could have been deployed to assist the Karzai government and to bring Bin Laden to justice".
Al-Qaida is now as much of a concept as an organisation or network. It blossomed in Afghanistan, and the US soon became a target, partly because of its military presence in the Middle East. Al-Qaida would have continued out there anyway, on videos and websites. But Iraq has helped to spread its influence and encourage young Muslims. MI5 is already concerned about the number who might come, or return, to Britain armed with new bomb-making skills.
In what sounds like a perverse justification of the invasion, Blair and Bush say Iraq has become a magnet for terrorists. Britain and the US must ensure the insurgents and foreign fighters are defeated and not allowed a victory in the "war on terror" - a phrase that makes security and intelligence agencies and military commanders cringe, for it suggests that the fight against terrorism can be won by force of arms. It is the causes, they say, that matter. And these include the government's foreign policy.
The security and intelligence agencies, along with most among the senior ranks of Whitehall, opposed the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it could not be justified. They knew the Bush administration was not telling the truth when it claimed there was a link between al-Qaida and Baghdad. Officials who expressed concern about the claims were slapped down by Foreign Office diplomats - though they also, privately, opposed the war - because of the damage such honesty might do to US-UK relations.
If Whitehall opposed the war, it was horrified at Washington's failure to consider the consequences and its dismissal of British suggestions.
The security and intelligence agencies had their own specific concerns: Britain's alliance with the US did not help their attempts to recruit agents or informants where they most needed them, in the mosques and the souks. They were angry at the way the Pentagon paraded pictures of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.
"Intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, told a meeting chaired by Blair on July 23 2002, the minutes of which were leaked to the Sunday Times and are now making waves on websites in the US (but not here).
At the meeting, Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, described the case for military action as "thin", and the attorney general warned that the "desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action".
Another secret Whitehall memo, also leaked, was drawn up for ministers on July 21 2002, eight months before the invasion. It urged them to prepare the "conditions", not for the reconstruction of a post-Saddam Iraq or to prevent an insurgency, but to con the British people.
The memo spoke of the need to "create the conditions necessary to justify military action". It noted that when Blair discussed Iraq with Bush at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, the previous April, "he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change, provided that certain conditions were met: efforts had been made to construct a coalition/shape public opinion ... "
The memo emphasised: "It is necessary to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action ... Time will be required to prepare public opinion in the UK that it is necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussein".
The Iraqi weapons dossier was the result. MI6, responsible for gathering secret intelligence, has still not recovered from Blair's disastrous handling of that exercise. There are many in Whitehall who believe that the public will forever treat "intelligence" with dangerous cynicism. They are telling ministers to read the first chapter of Lord Butler's report on the use of intelligence on Iraq's weapons programme. Intelligence, it says, "can be a dangerous tool if its limitations are not recognised by those who seek to use it ... "
The limitations of intelligence were amply demonstrated in London on July 7. The security and intelligence agencies have said they will learn lessons. Is it too much to hope that Blair and his foreign policy makers will too?
· Richard Norton-Taylor is the Guardian's security affairs editor