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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 July, 2004, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
Analysis: Devil in the detail
Analysis
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The Butler report is a serious indictment of the failings of British intelligence over Iraq and of the government's failure to provide warnings about the thinness of the evidence.

Bombs falling on Baghdad in the first week of the war
Bombing at the start of war
It turns out that human sources used by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) were unreliable, including the source which reported the claim that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.

And the report criticises the government for not making clear in its September 2002 dossier that much of the intelligence should have had a health warning attached.

Very British conclusion

But the report came to a very British conclusion - yes, there were failures but no, no individual can be blamed.

Indeed, the report says that John Scarlett, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee which drew up the government's September 2002 dossier, should not resign from his promotion as head of the Secret Intelligence Service(SIS).

One is left with a picture therefore of weak sourcing by SIS and a government dossier which hid, as Lord Butler put it at a news conference, the "thinness" of the original evidence.

This contrasts with the report from the Senate Intelligence Committee in the United States. There, strong conclusions were drawn and the head of the CIA George Tenet resigned in advance.

The "45 minutes to launch" claim is a typical example of how things went wrong.

The report says that the original information was "vague and ambiguous". Its validity "has come into question". Yet it was used as an "eye-catching" part of the dossier without making clear, the report says, that only battlefield weapons were being referred to.

The untested source

One of the most illustrative incidents in the report is an account of how a new and untested source was used as the basis for the hardening up of the government dossier. Yet this source was later (after the war) found to be unreliable and the information was withdrawn.

The incident demonstrates the double weakness in both the sourcing of the intelligence and its presentation in the dossier.

What happened was that the Chief of SIS Sir Richard Dearlove (who is retiring to a Cambridge college this summer) presented information from this "new source on trial" during a meeting with the prime minister on 10 September 2002. On the basis of what this untested agent said, the dossier was rewritten to include stronger language on Iraq's ability to produce chemical weapons.

We conclude that it was a serious weakness that the JIC's warnings on the limitations of the intelligence underlying its judgements were not made sufficiently clear in the dossier
Butler report

The new agent's information, regarded as highly sensitive, was not even presented to the scientists in the Defence Intelligence Service led by Dr Brian Jones.

"The fact that it was not shown to (Dr Jones) resulted in a stronger assessment in the dossier in relation to Iraq's chemical weapons production that was justifiable by the available intelligence," the Butler report said.

But nor did the dossier indicate that this was untested information. So it appeared to be stronger than it was.

Weak sources

The unreliability of this agent was matched by the unreliability of two others, one of whom simply passed on what he had heard in his circle. Two further sources, regarded as reliable, were actually much more cautious about Iraq's capabilities but were not apparently listened to properly.

The report points the finger at SIS. It had failed to validate the sources, partly because of a lack of experienced agents. Overall it did not have good sources in Iraq: "SIS did not generally have agents with first hand, inside knowledge of Iraq's nuclear, chemical biological or ballistic missile programme."

Warnings left out

The Butler team commented that while there was "no evidence of deliberate distortion or of culpable negligence", the dossier generally left out warnings about the strength of the intelligence.

"We conclude that it was a serious weakness that the JIC's warnings on the limitations of the intelligence underlying its judgements were not made sufficiently clear in the dossier."

One is left with a picture therefore of weak sourcing by SIS and a government dossier which hid, as Lord Butler put it at a news conference, the "thinness" of the original evidence.

This raises the issue of whether the intelligence agencies were being pressured by the government to, in the famous phrase, "sex up" their language.

Lord Butler's team says that this did not happen though Lord Butler himself said to the press that there was a "strain" between the two sides and the report recommends that in future it should be the government not the JIC which takes responsibility for any document published.

One of the review team, Field Marshal Lord Inge, indicated that the line had been blurred too much. "Intelligence and public relations should be kept apart," he told reporters.

There are some specific findings on incidents which have been previously highlighted:

Uranium: Here the report stands by the SIS report that Iraq had indeed sought uranium from Niger. It adds in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well. It even says that the inclusion of the statement in President Bush's State of the Union address was "well founded," a finding which is at variance with that of the CIA.

Mobile biological labs: Some aspects of the intelligence are "now unsafe" it says. It accepts that vehicles found during and since the war were not even the vehicles to which the source was pointing.

Perhaps surprisingly, though perhaps not, the Butler team does not even rule out the possibility of WMD being found even now "hidden in the sand".

"It would be a rash person who asserted at this stage that evidence does not exist or will never be found," it states.

That statement alone shows how cautious this panel was in drawing conclusions.

It is in the detail where the devil is to be found.




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