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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 February, 2004, 09:55 GMT
Intelligence: what kind of inquiry?

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

Just before the war against Iraq was launched last year, a senior British officer assured an audience in London that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Placing his hand over the medals on his chest he remarked: "Believe you me, I know it has them."

George Bush and Tony Blair face demands for inquiries
Blair will follow Bush and hold an inquiry
He would not have made such a statement without believing it. But he would not make such a statement today.

Indeed, the failure of the intelligence about Iraq is perhaps only now getting the attention it really deserves.

Holding a proper inquiry goes beyond a convenient way of deflecting attention from political decisions and dumping responsibility in the laps of officials.

It is a necessary part of the intelligence process, which needs constant care and maintenance and occasional overhauls. Intelligence often has to go back to basics.

A diplomat of the old school, highly critical of the way intelligence was used in relation to Iraq, remarked recently: "Intelligence is not fact. If it was, it would not be intelligence."

'Need to flesh out'

Yet intelligence has rarely been so important. It lies at the heart of President Bush's new doctrine of the pre-emptive attack.

The American way has usually been to go for the big and bold inquiry

Without reliable intelligence, there obviously can be no credible policy.

The former weapons inspector David Kay, who has done more than anyone to declare that the emperor has no clothes, said in an interview with Fox News over the weekend:

"When you make mistakes, you need to flesh out, you need to be seen as understanding why you made those mistakes, so the next security crisis [comes along] - whether it be Syria or Iran or whatever - and we tell our allies: 'This is why we think it dangerous', they understand that we've taken the steps to be sure that we're correct."

President Bush is setting up a major inquiry into what happened over Iraq. But he is expected to widen its terms of reference to include other recent lapses.

Wide brief

These include the failure to predict the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998, the moves by Iran to develop uranium enrichment capabilities, the development of a weapons programme by Libya, the role of Pakistani scientists in furthering the spread of nuclear weapons and the failure to act swiftly against al-Qaeda before the 11 September 2001 attacks.

US troops examine a suspected mobile biological weapons facility in Iraq (archive)
No WMDs have been found in Iraq
Mr Bush will model his inquiry on the Warren Commission into President John F Kennedy's death in 1963. This will give it sufficient weight, and its wide brief will ensure that its light will be cast on previous administrations and that its findings will not come before the elections in November.

The seven-strong Warren Commission was under the chairmanship of Chief Justice Earl Warren. It was bi-partisan with two senators and two members of the House of Representatives, plus former CIA head Allen Dulles and John J McCloy, who had been High Commissioner for Germany after the war.

Its 10-month investigation led to a conclusion which has stood the test of time: "On the basis of the evidence before the commission it concludes that [Lee Harvey] Oswald acted alone."

The British way, by contrast, tends to be more gentlemanly
The American way has usually been to go for the big and bold inquiry. After the disaster of Pearl Harbor, Congress held its own investigation to complement the military courts of inquiry.

The Americans are often quite prepared to lay blame on individuals. In the case of Pearl Harbor, responsibility was placed on the local US commanders, Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short.

Single-person inquiries

The British way, by contrast, tends to be more gentlemanly. And the intelligence services are rarely criticised.

There has already been one inquiry into Iraq, by the parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security. It concluded: "There was convincing evidence that Iraq had active chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes."

A British inquiry is often put into the hands of a single person. Lord Hutton was on his own most recently.

Single person inquiries can command widespread support. Lord Scarman's investigation into riots in Brixton in South London in 1981 led to a much greater understanding of the frustrations among inner city black youth.

But they can also lay themselves open to the criticism that they are too narrow. Lord Widgery's finding that the army was not generally at fault on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972 is currently under re-examination by a new inquiry.

There is also the issue of how open an inquiry should be.

After the Falklands war in 1982, Lord Franks, a former ambassador to Washington, carried out an inquiry in secret into why the Argentine invasion had not been anticipated.

He concluded that it could not have been, and his finding attracted many adverse comments at the time and since.

The Israelis took the precaution of having multi-member panels when they set up inquiries into the failure of intelligence before the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Phalangists at Sabra and Shatilla in 1982. Both came to vigorous conclusions.

The new British inquiry appears to be a hybrid. It will chaired by a former senior civil servant Lord Butler but he will be assisted by members of parliament and some outside experts.

But will it be gentlemanly or will it be bold?

The BBC's Linden Kemkaran
"The Iraq survey group has found nothing of substance"

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