British Intelligence Failures on Iraq WMDs
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RAY SUAREZ: The intelligence the British government used to lead the country to war with Iraq last year was “seriously flawed,” but not distorted. That’s the conclusion of the Butler Report, one of four British inquiries into intelligence failures. Lord Butler released the report at a news conference today in London. It echoed the findings of a similar report released just last week by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.
LORD BUTLER: Language in the dossier, and used by the prime minister, may have left readers with the impression that there was fuller and firmer intelligence than was the case. It was a serious weakness that the joint Intelligence Committee’s warnings on the limitation of the intelligence were not made sufficiently clear in the dossier.
RAY SUAREZ: The 196-page report says the British intelligence agency, MI-6, did not check its sources thoroughly enough, relied too heavily on third-hand reports. It further concluded: Iraq had no significant stockpiles of banned weapons ready for use; a September 2002 dossier justifying the war went to the “outer limits” of available intelligence; and the claim that Iraq could launch biological and chemical weapons in 45 minutes should not have been included. Prime Minister Blair today accepted “personal responsibility” for the findings even though the report absolved both him and the government from misleading the public. Blair spoke to members of parliament in the House of Commons.
TONY BLAIR: This report, like the Hutton inquiry, like the report of the intelligence and security committee before it, and of the Foreign Affairs Committee before that, has found the same thing. No one lied, no one made up the intelligence. No one inserted things into the dossier against the advice of the intelligence services. Everyone genuinely tried to do their best in good faith for the country in circumstances of acute difficulty.
GROUP: Hear, hear.
TONY BLAIR: That issue of good faith should now be at an end.
RAY SUAREZ: But conservative opposition leader Michael Howard questioned how the public could trust Blair in the future.
MICHAEL HOWARD: The prime minister has said that mistakes were made and he accepts responsibility, but it’s not a question of responsibility; it’s a question of credibility. I hope that we will not face in this country another war in the foreseeable future, but if we did and this prime minister identified the threat, would the country believe him?
RAY SUAREZ: And protesters outside the House of Commons today again voiced their opposition to the war, and their mistrust of Blair.
RAY SUAREZ: For more now on the British intelligence report and what it all means for Tony Blair, we get two views. Nile Gardiner is a visiting fellow in Anglo-American security policy at the Heritage Foundation. Lionel Barber is U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times. Well, Nile Gardiner, what was the most significant finding in the butler report for you?
NILE GARDNER: Well, I think that while the report was scathing in terms of its analysis of the failures of the British intelligence service, MI-6, the report did clearly clear the Tony Blair administration of actually in any way manipulating the intelligence information, and so I think that this report does exonerate Blair from charges that he sought to actually manipulate evidence ahead of the war against Iraq. So I think that Tony Blair does come out of this certainly not unblemished but fairly well on that particular charge. That for me I think is the most important aspect of this report.
RAY SUAREZ: Lionel Barber, do you agree, and what do you find worth noting about the report?
LIONEL BARBER: Well, I think it’s important to put this in some context. This is not the kind of sound and fury we saw in the senate intelligence committee. There is no talk of assumption trains, no suggestion, I think, that Prime Minister Blair exerted direct influence over the intelligence services to produce a false argument in favor of going to war with Iraq. However, the generally informal style of Mr. Blair working with a very small, tight-knit circle of advisers does come under some criticism. Also, I think, Mr. Blair does not come out of this very well in the sense that the original premise for war, which was that Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction, has proven to be utterly false.
RAY SUAREZ: And to what effect among the British people? Has the prime minister seen his approval ratings drop? Has he seen a general lessening of support for the war among the British people?
LIONEL BARBER: Well, the British people were not in favor of the war in the run-up to the invasion. In fact, it’s not widely appreciated in this country, but British opinion was probably closer to broader continental European opinion. Having said that, when the decision to send the troops was made, British opinion swung behind the prime minister. Since then, since the invasion, his approval rating has dropped dramatically, and as Michael Howard, the opposition leader, said, his credibility has also suffered.
One other point here: Mr. Blair knew that British public opinion was very skeptical about the case for going for war, for launching a preemptive war, and this is why he produced what is now known as the “dodgy dossier,” that is a collection of intelligence, which was faulty, about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction, and this was the dossier which was… contained exaggerated evidence, exaggerated case, which was, to quote the BBC, “sexed up.”
RAY SUAREZ: Nile Gardiner, in light of that, where does that leave Tony Blair? Today, he said he has no regrets about going into Iraq, even in the face of the intelligence failures and has no reason to revisit the reasons for going.
NILE GARDNER: Well, certainly Blair’s ratings, approval ratings are fairly low at the moment, around the mid-40s at the present time. I do believe Tony Blair is in still a strong enough position to take the Labor Party into the next election. The conservative party is still trailing Labor in the polls. It is still an uphill struggle for Michael Howard to be able to effectively challenge Blair for the leadership of Great Britain at the next election in probably May 2005.
So I think that Blair is still in the driving seat, although Blair will be under tremendous pressure from Labor backbenchers in particular to stand down in favor of the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, perhaps midway through the next parliament, should Blair win the 2005 general election/. And there is speculation that there may well have been a sort of gentleman’s agreement made between Blair and Brown to the effect that Blair may step down at some stage during the next parliament.
Also Blair will be facing a major challenge with regard to the European constitution referendum which is likely to be held in the UK in the next two years or so. The opinion polls do show a huge majority of the British public against Britain signing up to the EU constitution, and therefore this will pose a major political problem for Tony Blair.
RAY SUAREZ: What about the nearer term, Lionel Barber? Are the heads of the intelligence services in hot water? Are people who advised the prime minister during the run-up to the war now feeling political heat?
LIONEL BARBER: Well, it’s very interesting to draw a contrast here with the American experience. George Tenet, director of central intelligence, resigned ahead of the senate dossier. In Britain, no heads have rolled. This is a very British way of dealing with things. You set up a public inquiry or, sorry, an inquiry led by privy counselors, the great and the good, led by a previous head of the cabinet, cabinet secretary, and there is then taking of evidence and a very judicial even-handed report in which nobody is held accountable, no individuals are called for account, nobody resigns, but there is an assumption of collective responsibility.
Therefore, Tony Blair, “Teflon Tony,” as he’s known, survives. There are no institutional changes and indeed one last point here, the key official who is responsible for drawing up the dodgy dossier, John Scarlett, has not just not left, he’s actually been promoted to be head of MI-6, intelligence agency.
RAY SUAREZ: There’s been a lot made, Nile Gardiner, about the cooperation of the American and British intelligence services over the last years. In what we see in this report, is there evidence that points to collaboration and communication between two sides that believe the same things and just reinforced each other? Is it less of a coincidence that the Senate report resembles the Butler Report?
NILE GARDNER: Well, it’s no coincidence. I think British and U.S. Intelligence services are very closely intertwined. There was a huge amount of intelligence sharing between the two services. Hopefully the damning criticism of both the CIA and MI-6 over the past week or so will not damage the close relationship between London and Washington with regard to fighting the war against terror. I think it’s imperative that Downing Street and the White House continue to collaborate in order to win the war against terror. Hopefully we will see President Bush and Prime Minister Blair continuing to maintain the increasingly strong Anglo-U.S. Special relationship, which I think is vitally important for winning the war on terror.
RAY SUAREZ: Are the two fates, that of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, intertwined? If bush wins in November, does that help strengthen Tony Blair? If the president is not reelected, does that hurt him?
NILE GARDNER: I think certainly a bush win will help Tony Blair. A bush defeat will be bad for Tony Blair, no doubt about it. However, I do think the Iraq question will be a much bigger issue for American voters than it will be for British voters next year.
RAY SUAREZ: Lionel Barber, do you agree?
LIONEL BARBER: Well, I think it’s really interesting about Tony Blair. He was best friends with Bill Clinton and he’s now best friends with George W. Bush. I believe that if John Kerry were to win in November, you could be assured that Tony Blair would be best friends with Sen. Kerry. That, perhaps, is the best exposition of this special relationship. This British prime minister believes so fundamentally in the importance of the UK-American relationship, strategic relationship, that he will get on with any president.
RAY SUAREZ: And in the next couple of days, I guess he has to send his party to the polls in two special elections. Is there danger waiting for him there, as well, Lionel Barber?
LIONEL BARBER: He could lose one of those elections. These are local elections where the seat is up for grabs. It would be… these are Labor seats. They’re pretty safe, but even if he were to lose, this would not threaten his position. The opposition is very weak — not a serious challenge to the Labor Party, but if Mr. Blair lost, this would be I think more a question of his general stature as prime minister. And you’d sense that Blair is moving towards the twilight of his premiership, and perhaps he, along with the rest of us who watch the situation in Britain, will remember that Margaret Thatcher, after ten years, was looking a little tired, too, at the top.
RAY SUAREZ: Lionel Barber, Nile Gardiner, thank you both.