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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 June, 2003, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Iraq weapons: Where does the buck stop?

by Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

In the aftermath of the Iraq war, you can almost hear the buck being passed between political leaders and their intelligence advisers.

Tony Blair
Blair says the charges are totally untrue
There are two main issues. The first is whether the British and US Governments exaggerated ("sexed up" in the words of one unnamed source) the basic intelligence on Iraq weapons in order to justify a war.

The second is whether the intelligence was wrong in itself.

There is another but subsidiary issue about a background paper from the UK Government listing Iraqi human rights violations.

This was found to have been partly based on work by an American student.

There is not a shred of evidence that we doctored or manipulated evidence
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair

On the first issue, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair has come under fierce attack from two former cabinet ministers Robin Cook and Clare Short. They both accused him of misleading the public and parliament by overstating the threat from Iraq.

Ms Short said he was guilty of deception.

Tony Blair has firmly defended himself. His line is, as he stated recently to a news conference in London: "There is not a shred of evidence that we doctored or manipulated evidence."

Confidence

On the specific charge that his officials, against advice from the intelligence services, insisted on including a claim that Iraq could launch some of its chemical or biological weapons "within 45 minutes", he stated: "I can tell you that is completely untrue."

Mr Blair sounds confident. And indeed, there is a sentence in the British Government dossier on Iraqi weapons issued on 24 September last year which he must be very pleased to know is there.

MI6 building in London
Security bosses were told procedures would be tightened

The sentence comes in the executive summary which lists all the alleged Iraqi weapons programmes.

It reads: "These judgements reflect the views of the Joint Intelligence Committee." The committee is the body which advises the prime minister on intelligence.

The name of the JIC is therefore clearly on the dossier.

It is the kind of sentence lawyers like to find in documents. The buck stops there.

To a politician it is very reassuring.

Inquiries

The issue of whether the government misused what it was being told is being investigated by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.

Some want a public inquiry.

This committee is appointed by the prime minister and takes evidence in secret.

On 8 May, it asked for the intelligence documents on which the Iraq weapons dossier was based and it has been given them.

It will report directly to the prime minister and he has promised that its report will be published.

That issue, however, is only half of the matter.

Reliability of intelligence

What is also at stake is the performance of the intelligence services in both the US and UK.

Weapons inspectors
No evidence of weapons of mass destruction has been announced

Here, it is worth listing some of the claims made before the war and the findings since.

The claims were made in two dossiers, one from the British government, the other from the CIA.

Several private think-tanks also issued their own broadly similar files.

  • Iraq had tried to get uranium from an African country (Niger) despite having no civilian nuclear programme. This claim was challenged by the UN's own nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It reported that the claim was based on forged documents.

  • Iraq had tried to import thousands of tubes which could be used in centrifuges to separate enriched uranium, a claim made in the CIA file. The IAEA reported that the tubes could have been designed for manufacturing small rockets.

  • The 45-minute claim, made only in the British document. It turns out that this was based on reports from an Iraqi defector and was not supported by other sources. No evidence from the field has been found to support it.

  • Iraq had up to 20 Scud missiles of a range banned by UN sanctions. No such rockets have been found. Iraq was also accused of developing aircraft able to spray chemicals. One crude plane was found.

  • Iraq had mobile biological warfare laboratories. The US Secretary of State Colin Powell produced drawings of these, based on reports from a defector, in his presentation to the Security Council. Three vehicles have been found and provide the strongest evidence so far of illegal Iraqi weapons production. The CIA recently issued a report describing the vehicles, concluding that they were for biological weapons. However some experts say they could have been used to make hydrogen for artillery balloons.

  • Iraq "continued to produce chemical and biological agents" (British dossier). Iraq has "continued its weapons of mass destruction programmes" (CIA). The CIA also said that Iraq had begun producing agents which probably included "mustard, sarin, cyclosarin and VX". No such agents or factories making them have been found, though Iraq did have a capacity to make chemicals which might have dual use (that is, they could be used for both peaceful and sinister purposes).

  • The UN weapons inspectors reported that large amounts of material were unaccounted for following previous inspections, including anthrax, biological material and VX nerve gas. None has been found. Does it exist? Was it destroyed?

  • There were also claims from the United States that Iraq was harbouring known al-Qaeda agents. No clear link between Iraq and al-Qaeda has been established.

It can be seen that the scorecard is patchy at best, blank at worst. It must be said, though, that if the biological laboratory allegation is proved, that would in itself show that Iraq had violated UN resolutions.

Questions in Washington

While the intelligence performance has caused less turmoil in Washington than London, the powerful US Congressional committees are stirring.

The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice-Admiral Lowell Jacoby, was called to see the Senate Armed Services Committee to explain why a leaked report from last September concluded: "There is no reliable evidence on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons."

Afterwards the admiral said that the quote was taken "out of context" and that it simply meant that "we were not able to pin down individual facilities".

The committees' Republican chairmen are reluctant to launch formal investigations as yet.

They might still do so. Remember that the Congress launched devastating inquiries after the disaster at Pearl Harbor.


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