tittle-tattle versus sexed-up…

Posted on Friday 30 July 2010

Lord Prescott admits intelligence doubts prior to Iraq war

by Hélène Mulholland
30 July 2010

Giving evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, the former deputy prime minister dismissed some intelligence about the Iraq threat as "tittle-tattle", said the former attorney general was "not a happy bunny" in the run-up to war and acknowledged that it was easy to blame the French when negotiations at the UN collapsed before the invasion….

Discussing the controversial intelligence before the war, Prescott told the inquiry he had the feeling intelligence about Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction [WMD] was "not very substantial". Prescott said conclusions in reports on Iraq prepared by the joint intelligence committee [JIC] went beyond the evidence available. He noted that the 2004 Butler inquiry found the recommendations made to ministers on the basis of pre-war intelligence about Iraq were "frankly wrong". He also said he felt "nervous" about the notorious claim, published in the government’s September 2002 dossier, that Saddam could launch WMD within 45 minutes.

Referring to the JIC reports on Iraq, he told the inquiry: "When I kept reading them, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Is this intelligence?’ It’s basically what you have heard somewhere and what somebody else has told somebody. Presumably that’s how intelligence is brought about. "So I got the feeling it wasn’t very substantial, but it clearly was robust. "As we knew more and more whether there was evidence of Iraq involved in weapons of mass destruction, the conclusions were a little ahead, I think, of what the evidence we had. Perhaps that’s the way it is."

Prescott expressed doubts about the way intelligence was collected. "Certainly what they do in intelligence, is a bit of tittle-tattle here and a bit more information there," he said. On the claim that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, he said: "I didn’t totally dismiss it, I didn’t have any evidence to feel that they were wrong, but I just felt a little bit nervous about conclusions on Iraq’s force that seemed to be limited intelligence"…
To listen to Sir John Scarlett [then Chairman of JIC] testify at the Chilcot Inquiry about the workings of the Joint Intelligence Committee, you would think it was the tightly run ship of our fantasies [mostly built from the James Bond movies]. Yet the British Intelligence in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq was actually sort of fantastic. They stuck with the Niger Uranium story even longer that the C.I.A. – so long that Bush used their intelligence in his January 2003 SOTUS [the infamous sixteen words: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."]. Of course it is to his shame that he didn’t mention that the C.I.A. did not believe the story. And Colin Powell did not use that evidence in his UN Speech a month later [because it wasn’t true]. Likewise, the British weapons inspector, Dr. David Kelly, directly accused the British of using "sexed up" intelligence. [Kelly was humiliated and then either committed suicide or was murdered]. Likewise, in the US, Joseph Wilson questioned the 16 words based on his own C.I.A. sponsored trip to Niger [for which he and his wife were punished]. The UN saw that the Niger claim was a forgery after looking at the document for a few hours. And the UK Intelligence claim of a "45 minute WMD" capability for Iraq has never been much believed by anyone. The point is that the British Intelligence smelled like three day old fish.

Which brings us to today’s testimony by Lord Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister under Tony Blair. I mentioned his defense of Lord Peter Goldsmith, the Attorney General who finally declared the war "legal." When Sir Rodric Lyne pressed Lord Prescott about that legal decision, he was adamant that all that mattered was legal? yes or no. He refused to give an opinion of Goldsmith’s opinion. The Attorney General said it was legal, that’s the end of the discussion. You’ll notice that he took the same stance with the Intelligence. It’s even more striking in the full transcript. While he freely admitted [above] that he didn’t actually believe that the Intelligence Report was justified from the raw data, he accepted the JIC Intelligence reporting at face value – WMD? yes or no.

Having lived in the UK for a while, I was initially inclined to accept this kind of blind deference to the decisions of the Ministers as the British way of doing business. They defer to authority in their orderly world in a much different way than Americans. They "mind the queue" [stand in line]. If there’s a coal strike, they gather odd lumps of coal for the sick and shut in and sit around for weeks with layers of clothing shivering. If the electricity is off for hours, they sit in the dark. They’re an obedient lot and they respect the authorities and the social order. So I can see accepting the judgment of Lord this or Sir that as just their way of being. It was a good way of being. I liked it and learned from it.

On the other hand, there’s good reason to question them in this particular instance. We know that they knew the US was trumping up the case for war. [from the Downing Street Memo]:


From: Matthew Rycroft
Date: 23 July 2002
S 195 /02

cc: Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Attorney-General, Sir Richard Wilson, John Scarlett, Francis Richards, CDS, C, Jonathan Powell, Sally Morgan, Alastair Campbell


Copy addressees and you met the Prime Minister on 23 July to discuss Iraq.

This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. It should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know its contents.

John Scarlett summarised the intelligence and latest JIC assessment. Saddam’s regime was tough and based on extreme fear. The only way to overthrow it was likely to be by massive military action. Saddam was worried and expected an attack, probably by air and land, but he was not convinced that it would be immediate or overwhelming. His regime expected their neighbours to line up with the US. Saddam knew that regular army morale was poor. Real support for Saddam among the public was probably narrowly based.

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action…

The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force…

The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change…

The Foreign Secretary thought the US would not go ahead with a military plan unless convinced that it was a winning strategy. On this, US and UK interests converged. But on the political strategy, there could be US/UK differences. Despite US resistance, we should explore discreetly the ultimatum. Saddam would continue to play hard-ball with the UN…

The Defence Secretary said that if the Prime Minister wanted UK military involvement, he would need to decide this early. He cautioned that many in the US did not think it worth going down the ultimatum route. It would be important for the Prime Minister to set out the political context to Bush.

(a) We should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action. But we needed a fuller picture of US planning before we could take any firm decisions…
(b) The Prime Minister would revert on the question of whether funds could be spent in preparation for this operation.
(c) CDS would send the Prime Minister full details of the proposed military campaign and possible UK contributions by the end of the week.
(d) The Foreign Secretary would send the Prime Minister the background on the UN inspectors, and discreetly work up the ultimatum to Saddam…
(e) John Scarlett would send the Prime Minister a full intelligence update.
(f) We must not ignore the legal issues: the Attorney-General would consider legal advice with FCO/MOD legal advisers.

The Prime Minister was there. John Scarlett was there. Lord Goldsmith was there. My guess is that Lord Prescott was there. They heard with their own ears that in the US, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." By the time of this meeting, Bush and Blair had already met at the Crawford Ranch [April 2002] and apparently agreed on regime change in Iraq, mentioned by Blair in a speech on that visit. This sounds like an action plan meeting to me. So I doubt very seriously that the fantastic and alarmist intelligence from the British was just happenstance. And I doubt Lord Prescott’s acceptance was simply "being British" – either with the Legal or the Intelligence reports. It just doesn’t add up.

Dr. David Kelly knew something was up, "many dark actors playing games." I tend to think he was right that the British Intelligence was being "sexed up" just like he said, like it was being "twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat" in the US as Joseph Wilson said.

As much as I respect the processes in the UK as they struggled with our despicable Administration and its deceit, I’m not convinced that the Blair Administration escapes the blame. While they certainly grappled more convincingly with being "legal," with denying the invasion was "regime change," when it came down to the wire, it was what it was. I now think Lord Prescott, Lord Goldsmith, and the all the Kings horses and all the Kings men knew exactly what they were doing. I admire their having these hearings to look at their part in things…
    July 31, 2010 | 9:58 AM

    Mickey — there’s certainly nothing I can add to your thorough and rigorous following of this story. I just want to say, once again, a big Thank You for doing this. I would know almost nothing about the Chilcot Inquiry otherwise.

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