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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 October, 2003, 23:17 GMT 00:17 UK
No smoking gun, but ammunition?

By Paul Reynolds
BBC world affairs correspondent

The Iraq Survey Group (ISG) has not found a smoking gun in Iraq, but maybe it has found some bits of ammunition.

Critics of the war will point to the fact that no actual weapons of mass destruction have been located and that, since Iraq was accused of having such weapons, the case for war has been shown to be not well founded.

US soldier at suspected weapons site
Evidence of weapons programmes was discovered
Supporters will argue that there is now evidence at least that Saddam Hussein and his scientists were hiding facilities and, in one case, even a vial of botulinum toxin in someone's house.

This toxin is described by the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies in the United States as "the single most poisonous substance known".

Plans for a 1,000-kilometre range missile (625 miles) are also said to have been found.

Such a missile would have violated United Nations sanctions.

Weighing the evidence

Whether such clandestine work amounts to a "programme" for weapons of mass destruction remains unclear.

The full ISG report is still classified and a judgment is hard to make therefore.

The work will go on with the Bush administration asking Congress for more money for the search operation.

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw immediately seized on the evidence as proof that Saddam Hussein was violating Security Council resolutions.

In a statement he said: "The ISG has discovered dozens of WMD-related programme activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations during the inspections that began in late 2000.

"And Kay reports that evidence from Iraqi scientists and senior government officials was that Saddam Hussein remained firmly committed to acquiring nuclear weapons, and some of those officials indicated a resumption after Iraq was free of sanctions."

Intelligence failings

It seems as if Saddam Hussein was trying to keep at least the kernel of expertise going in case one day attention was taken off Iraq and he could resume his ambitions.

Weapons inspectors in Iraq
No banned weapons have yet been found
Dr John Chipman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies spoke of Saddam Hussein hoping to "resuscitate" his programmes.

But that of course was not the basis for the British Government and CIA dossiers which were released a year ago.

Both made assertions that Iraq had actual weapons and both governments declared that it constituted such a threat that it had to be dealt with immediately and by force, not by weapons inspectors.

So questions inevitably are being raised about the intelligence assessments at the time.

These have been proved to have been way off the mark.

MI6 'flawed'

Alex Standish, editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest, says that "the quality of intelligence sources and the capacity to assess them was very poor".

"There was a failure to learn from the Cold War here," he told BBC News Online.

Assessment and evaluation was not good enough
Alex Standish, Jane's Intelligence Digest
"Emigres and defectors, on whom we relied over Iraq, must be corroborated, especially the political refugees who can exaggerate. Never take anything at face value."

Mr Standish said that there was a lack of linguists with security clearance, making the wading through documents and intercepts extremely hard.

"One of the problems was that assessment and evaluation was not good enough."

There has also been criticism of the modus operandi of MI6, the British overseas intelligence service.

In a remarkable article in the London newspaper the Guardian, a former British diplomat, Sir Peter Heap, poured scorn on MI6 agents based in British embassies around the world.

On one occasion, he said, a British ambassador "threw down in front of me a secret report that an MI6 officer had sent to London. He asked me if its contents sounded familiar. 'That's why,' he said, handing me an article from the previous day's local newspaper."

Sir Peter, who was British ambassador in Brazil in the 1990's, said that MI6 characters stood out from other diplomats and were easily spotted by local people.

They often paid their contacts who "had a strong temptation to embellish their reports".

Some payments were made directly to private British schools for the education of these contacts' children, he said.

Fact or fiction?

It appears therefore that the reputation of the intelligence organisation is going to have to be reassessed.

The British intelligence services emerged strongly from the Cold War, having had rings run round them in earlier years by the KGB.

But relying on a reputation made up of a combination of James Bond and John le Carre is no longer enough.

One is tempted to say that the days of "Our Man in Havana" have returned.

In that witty novel by Graham Greene, a British vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana, Jim Wormold has to find some money to pay for the extravagances of his daughter and is recruited - while standing side by side in a lavatory - by an MI6 officer.

Wormold makes up a string of agents and uses his vacuums as the basis of drawings of fictitious secret installations.

In the end he is found out but it is in nobody's interest to punish him and he is actually rewarded.

The BBC's Ian Pannell
"This report could not be more important"

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