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Exclusive: Downing Street reporter dissects pre-war Iraq intelligence

Michael Smith

Details 'chill factor' imposed around Iraq intelligence; Putting Downing Street docs in perspective

LONDON -- "The [U.S. WMD] Commission found no evidence of political pressure to influence the Intelligence Community's pre-war assessment of Iraq's weapons programs."

That is only one of a number of strange conclusions by those charged with investigating the way flaky intelligence was used to justify the 2003 Iraq War.

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The most vociferous advocates of an attack on Iraq were Dick Cheney, the vice-president, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld deputy Paul Wolfowitz. They needed Congressional support and set about obtaining it in an aggressive fashion, insisting that not only did Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction threaten America and its allies but that the dictator was closely linked to al-Qa'eda.

This was a bit of a problem for the CIA, and in particular CIA director George Tenet. The CIA's 2001 annual assessment of 'worldwide threats' had played down any immediate threat from Iraq while the Agency had repeatedly dismissed the ludicrous idea that Saddam was in league with Osama bin Laden, a claim that was also strenuously denied in private by British intelligence officials.

By early 2002, US media reported the CIA had come under intense political pressure to back up the neo-cons' claims on Iraq with Rumsfeld's Pentagon even setting up an office of special plans which looked back through all the previous intelligence, hyping up any reports linking al-Qa'eda with Iraq in order to prove the CIA wrong.

Meanwhile, Dick Cheney took to visiting CIA headquarters in Langley and discussing the threat from Iraq with analysts. According to former CIA officials, the visits created a "chill factor" among those working on Iraq. There was "a kind of radical pressure" throughout 2002 and on into 2003, one said.

Tenet eventually agreed to put out a special National Intelligence Estimate. Published in October 2002, shortly after the first British dossier, it was this document that was quite rightly pulled to pieces by the presidential commission. There is no doubt that Tenet buckled under political pressure. The classified version of the National Intelligence Estimate did contain caveats, although they were heavily buried. The unclassified version had no caveats whatsoever. It was far harder than anything produced in Britain.

On the supposed nuclear program, the US National Intelligence Estimate said that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program and could assemble a device by the end of the decade. The British joint intelligence committee (JIC) said that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear weapons program but it would not be able to indigenously produce a weapon while sanctions are in place. The Iraq Survey Group concluded that Iraq had not tried to restart its nuclear weapons program after 1991 but Saddam remained interested in reconstitution of the nuclear program after sanctions were lifted.

On biological weapons, the US National Intelligence Estimate said Iraq had biological weapons, and that its biological weapons programme was larger and more advanced than before the Gulf War. The JIC said that Iraq had some biological agents, either from pre-1991 stocks or from more recent production, and could produce weapons within weeks. The Iraq Survey Group found no evidence of biological weapons production. Iraq could resume production of biological weapons, but not within days, and Saddam probably intended to resume the biological weapons program at some time.

On chemical weapons, the US National Intelligence Estimate said Iraq had not only renewed production of chemical weapons it probably had stockpiles of up to 500 metric tons. The JIC said Iraq could resume production of chemical weapons within months and might have 1.5 metric tonnes of VX. The Iraq Survey Group concluded a capability to produce weapons probably existed and production would resume once sanctions were lifted.

The JIC doesn't speak confidently about any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The closest it gets is the 'might' have 1.5 metric tons of VX gas.

Blair spoke repeatedly about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction as if there was not an iota of doubt as to whether they existed or not.

The transformation of the JIC drafts into the very much firmer September dossier, was explored in detail by the Hutton Inquiry, with particular reference to the 45-minute claim. It is probably best not to dwell on Lord Hutton's conclusions although even he admits that he cannot rule out that the JIC was influenced 'sub-consciously' by the Prime Minister's desire for a dossier which presented the threat in the strongest possible light.

There was of course nothing sub-conscious about the way in which the 45-minute claim was hardened up. The source did not specify the precise context for this timing and no-one in either British spy agency MI6 or the JIC Current Intelligence Group on Iraq seemed to know.

But among military intelligence experts on artillery and missile systems, the figures rang some very loud bells. They appeared to be straight out of the old Soviet artillery and rocket troops manual. The most likely systems the Iraqis would use to deliver chemical or biological weapons were all Soviet-made mortar, artillery and missile systems.

These included the al-Hussein surface-to-surface missile. This was an Iraqi version of the Scud missile, which was the Soviet army-level surface-to-surface missile system. In common with all other Soviet workers, Red Army troops were given 'norms' for the time it should take them to perform particular tasks. The 'norm' for the time it should take for warheads to be moved from a forward storage site to the missile firing point and the missile to be ready to fire was 45 minutes.

There was a certain amount of debate between the JIC, the British Defense Intelligence Staff (DIS) and MI6 over whether or not the draft dossier should make clear precisely what the 45 minutes was believed to mean. At first the suggestion from within the JIC was that it should point out that the warheads had to be already stored on the frontline and the original form of words chosen was: 'intelligence indicates that, from forward-deployed storage sites, chemical and biological munitions could be with military units and ready for firing within 45 minutes.'

But there was a widespread nervousness within the intelligence community about the way its material was being used and eventually the argument from within the DIS and MI6 - that since the source had not spelled it out in his report, no assumptions on what it meant should appear in the draft dossier - won the day. As a result the claim was couched in careful terms, but the important qualification that the weapons should be ready in 'forward-deployed storage sites' was not made.

It is not clear whether the Prime Minister spotted the 45-minute claim when it first landed on his desk in the shape of the original CX report from MI6. But it had certainly caught his eye in the days following its first mention in a draft of the dossier circulated on Sept. 9, 2002. At this stage it was only mentioned twice and, since it was not qualified, couched in very cautious terms. The Sept. 9 draft said the intelligence merely 'suggested' Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes.

But amid the confusing, and often uncertain, intelligence reports on Iraq it was a detail that Mr Blair and his advisers, not least Alastair Campbell, his Director of Communications, knew the public would understand. Despite the conclusions of the Intelligence and Security Committee, there is no doubt that as far as Campbell and Blair were concerned, it was the sound bite that would sell the war to some of the many people who remained unconvinced, not least a large number of backbench Labour MPs. It would only take Saddam 45 minutes to fire his chemical or biological weapons.

Put at its simplest, as Campbell knew the tabloid headline writers would, British bases in Cyprus were '45 minutes from doom.'

Campbell told the Hutton Inquiry that it was the Prime Minister who insisted that the claim had a prominent place in the dossier. James Dingemans, counsel to the inquiry, said Campbell had 'plainly had selected 45 minutes as a message worth including in the Prime Minister's foreword.' Campbell asserted that the Prime Minister had.

It was 'one of the points that he felt was worth covering,' he said.

So Campbell placed the unqualified 45-minute claim at the very heart of the evidence against Saddam. The Prime Minister said in his foreword that the JIC assessment revealed that Saddam's 'military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.' This was true, if the weapons existed and had been moved to forward storage sites, but the foreword failed to make this clear. It was also far harder than the JIC was initially willing to be.

The next draft, dated Sept. 16, mentioned the 45-minute claim no fewer than four times. The main body of the draft remained cautious, saying that the Iraqi military 'may be able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes.' But the executive summary and Blair's new foreword were in no doubt and the very much firmer line taken by the Prime Minister was also about to be imposed on the rest of the draft dossier.

In his famous Sept. 17 email to Scarlett, Campbell listed 16 different queries on the JIC draft, including at point 10 the differences between the main body of the report and that of the summary and the Prime Minister's foreword. The 'may be able to deploy' the weapons in 45 minutes in the main body of the report was weaker than in the summary. The following day, Scarlett responded to all of Campbell's points and, on the issue of the 45-minute claim, said: 'The language you queried on the old page 17 has been tightened.' Put simply 'may be' had become 'definitely.'

PAGE TWO: Deception, and putting the Downing Street documents in perspective

Comments at end of page two.

Originally published on Wednesday August 24, 2005.

 


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