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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
WMD claims rattle the coalition

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC defence correspondent

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is having to fend off critics who insist he misled his colleagues and Parliament over the imminence of the alleged threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

On the other side of the Atlantic there are clear concerns too about the intelligence assessments that under-pinned the Iraq war.

Iraqi rockets
Was the evidence over Iraqi WMDs manipulated?

In the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency has begun a review of the information available to policy-makers which will be compared with what has actually been found on the ground.

And more investigations could follow.

The row over Iraq's missing weapons is important for a number of reasons.

It goes to the heart of the justification made for the war in the first place.

It raises questions about how politicians may seek to manipulate information.

And it also points to fundamental issues about intelligence gathering and analysis which could have a critical impact on the ongoing struggles against terrorism and weapons proliferation.

Iraq's weapons programmes were talked about in ways that suggested that a smoking gun would be found if only the veil imposed by the regime could be removed

This last point is in many ways the most worrying.

Intelligence is central to the war against terrorism.

All policy-making depends upon the assessments that are made.

If, as seems possible in the run-up to the Iraq war, US intelligence was at least partly telling politicians what they wanted to hear, policy-making could falter at the first hurdle.

Intelligence specialists have frequently failed to identify threats properly.

The strength of the Soviet Union was consistently over-stated during the Cold War so that its eventual collapse came as something of a surprise.

Speaking to senior US intelligence analysts of that era, it is clear that the Reagan Administration in particular got the sort of intelligence assessments that it wanted.

Imminent threat

And there are concerns that this time around a specially established unit within the Pentagon gave intelligence the spin that it knew the neo-conservatives within the Bush Administration were eager to hear.

Of course the argument in Britain is slightly different in that the allegation is that some intermediary chose to play up material contained within intelligence assessments to make a clearer case for war against Iraq.

The most obvious example is the claim that Iraqi forces could use chemical weapons within 45 minutes - an imminent threat indeed!

Was the war sold to the public in Britain under false pretences? Well, on the face of it this argument cannot be discounted

Nonetheless, the US and British governments clearly believed that the threat was real.

That was why their troops wore their uncomfortable protective clothing and remained at a high-state of alert for much of the war.

It should be noted that the Security Council as a whole, while it did not back military action, did believe that Saddam Hussein's regime had a clear case to answer.

That is why it voted through a resolution giving Iraq one last chance to come into compliance with its obligations.

Maybe the intelligence about Iraq's weapons was simply wrong. It would not be the first time.

'Smoking gun'

Was the war sold to the public in Britain under false pretences? Well, on the face of it this argument cannot be discounted.

So did Iraq have a weapons programme at all? The jury is still out.

But many analysts do wonder at the way the case was made for this war.

There was little to make one think that Saddam Hussein's regime had totally changed its spots

Iraq's weapons programmes were talked about in ways that suggested that a smoking gun would be found if only the veil imposed by the regime could be removed.

But so far, apart from a couple of suspicious mobile laboratories, that smoking gun has not been found.

There was of course a much more subtle argument to be made.

Did Iraq have the know-how and expertise to make such weapons? Unquestionably.

Did it have the means in terms of dual-use equipment to manufacture them? Quite probably.

Did the regime see the possession of such weapons as a strategic goal? There was little to make one think that Saddam Hussein's regime had totally changed its spots.

Would this have made such a convincing case for a war? I leave that to you to judge.

But this was of course not the argument that was made by Mr Blair or Mr Bush.

With hindsight it now seems that the imminence of the Iraqi threat was grossly over-played. And Mr Blair for one is now feeling the heat.


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