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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April, 2003, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK
Can we trust the intelligence services?

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The accusation by the chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix that the case against Iraq was "shaky" raises the question as to whether the US and British intelligence services can be trusted over one of the major issues of our day - the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Both the United States and UK issued dossiers last autumn making a series of accusations against Iraq.

Not only have no mass weapons systems been found (one has to add a "yet" here), but there were major flaws in the documents which will put in doubt any assessment of programmes elsewhere - in North Korea, Iran and Syria, for example.

Although many intelligence professionals prefer to keep any review of what went wrong (and right) private and in-house, some experts are speaking out.

One of the fiercest critics is Alex Standish, editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest.

He said: "The bottom line is that the intelligence services have not covered themselves with glory."

Where are the weapons?

Dr Blix mentioned technical flaws in the dossiers, especially a failure (in this case it was a failure by the British) to realise that documents alleging an Iraqi attempt to buy uranium from Niger were forgeries.

There has been a dereliction of duty
Alex Standish
Jane's Intelligence Digest

There has also been the non-appearance of 1.4 tons of VX nerve agent, 20,000 chemical capable artillery shells, 25,000 litres of anthrax, 12-20 Scud missiles, mobile biological warfare laboratories and chemical and biological weapons "deployable within 45 minutes", all of which Iraq was alleged to have had.

And perhaps more fundamentally there are allegations that the impetus for publishing the dossiers and interpreting the evidence in the most prejudicial way possible was not intelligence-led but political.

Mr Standish said the charges against Iraq were "politically driven."

"There were three planks in the argument," he said. "The first was to find links between Iraq and 11 September and when that failed, between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

"The second was to find weapons of mass destruction and the third was the human rights issue.

"Only the third plank remains and the details of those human rights abuses were well-known and cobbled together in a document which was a cut-and-paste job from other publications."

He concluded: "There has been a dereliction of duty."

He was especially critical of the uranium claim which appeared in the UK's dossier.

"The documents making the uranium link were faxes allegedly between Iraq and Niger," he said. "They should have been analysed more carefully.

"The result was they relied on documents which were fakes. If you put your heads above the parapet as they did and it all blows up in your face, then the situation is very serious."

What next?

Others question the decision to publish the dossier at all.

Lord Powell, who as Charles Powell was the former British prime minister Mrs Thatcher's private secretary for foreign affairs for many years said: "The whole point of intelligence is that it is secret. That was one of Mrs Thatcher's homely pieces of wisdom."

He said that "it sounds as if the publication of the dossier was politically driven and was not initiated by the intelligence community. "

He accepted, though, that Iraq was a "hard target" and said that in his experience, intelligence had provided excellent material in conflicts such as the Falklands war and during the Cold War.

The Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky, for example, had given the West "monumentally important" information about the Soivet leadership and had personally briefed Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan in advance of meetings.

There have been calls for an inquiry into the Iraq affair by the parliamentary body responsible for oversight of British intelligence, the Intelligence and Security Committee. This is a cross-party committee of nine members of parliament selected by the prime minister. No decision about any review has been taken.

The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw rejects the argument that if weapons of mass destruction are not found, then the war was not justified.

"Military action was justified on the day we took it," he told Talking Point on BBC News Online

"It was not conditional on finding ten thousand litres of anthrax. It was justified in terms of UN resolution 1441 and other resolutions."

Mr Straw also pointed out that it was the UN itself which said that there was material unaccounted for in Iraq.

The problem for the US and British services now is one of credibility.

Even if weapons systems are found in the extensive searches now going on, the weaknesses already revealed will reflect badly on the next assessments.

Already other analyses are being made. North Korea has an active nuclear power programme but the key question is whether it is trying to make nuclear weapons.

Unlike North Korea, Iran is working with the International Atomic Energy Agency which has some questions which have to be answered. But at some stage the US might want to make its own assessment.

Syria is already accused by Washington of having a chemical weapons programme. But will American accusations be believed now?

The history of intelligence is littered with false information as well as with triumphs.

The difficulty is often in telling which is which.

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