David Gardner: Iraq intelligence fiasco could happen again

By David Gardner, Financial Times – 22 July 2010
www.ft.com/

So now we know. Iraq posed no real threat prior to the Anglo-American invasion of March 2003. There was no credible intelligence to suggest any link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. But what the assault on Iraq did do was proliferate jihadism across the Middle East and incubate Islamist extremism in the UK, leading to the London Tube and bus bombings five years ago and 15 other “substantial plots”.

“Arguably we gave Osama bin Laden his Iraqi jihad,” Eliza Manningham-Buller, former director-general of MI5, the British domestic security service, told the UK war inquiry this week.”

There are those who say there is nothing new about this. We have known it all for some time. Moreover, those, in and outside government, with more than a cursory knowledge of the region, knew it well enough beforehand. But what makes Lady Manningham-Buller’s testimony so devastating is that this was the advice her service gave Tony Blair’s government at the time. Indeed, MI5 refused a request “to put in some low-grade” intelligence to beef up the September 2002 government document making the case for war “because we didn’t think it was reliable”.

As documents released by the inquiry make clear, the government was warned the invasion would increase the threat of terrorism to the UK. All this was disregarded, as Mr Blair embarked determinedly on his great adventure with George W. Bush into the mire of Mesopotamia, creating laboratory conditions for the urban warfare urged on jihadis by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s strategist.

It is now harder than ever to avoid the conclusion that the Bush and Blair governments cherry-picked morsels of intelligence. Why does any of this matter now?

Aside from Lady Manningham-Buller’s account, the most suggestive reasons are to be found in the testimony this month of Carne Ross, a UK diplomat in charge of the Iraq dossier at the United Nations, who resigned from the Foreign Office over the war. Mr Ross, basing his exposition on prewar documents and government policy consensus, says containment of Saddam was working but neither the UK nor the US seemed interested in taking obvious steps to reinforce it. Instead, they gradually exaggerated the threat he posed, suppressing contrary opinion.

“This process of exaggeration was gradual, and proceeded by accretion and editing from document to document, in a way that allowed those participating to convince themselves that they were not engaged in blatant dishonesty. But this process led to highly misleading statements about the UK assessment of the Iraqi threat that were, in their totality, lies,” Mr Ross said.

Why is all this so important? Because it lays bare the ways in which governments can ignore reasoned advice, embellish fragmentary evidence and manipulate public opinion over matters as great as going to war – and that this could happen again. There is now a ratcheting up of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, since the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, in February came close to accusing Tehran of running a covert atomic weapons programme.

Clearly, the clerical regime in Tehran does want the deterrent capability to make a bomb: mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle and almost certainly the ballistic ability to build a weapon. But there is no evidence it has decided to move from capability to weaponisation. Even top securocrats acknowledge the intelligence for this is thin.

The US intelligence consensus remains there is no evidence Tehran has decided to build a bomb. But there is an update of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran in the works – and a lot of speculation about why it keeps on being delayed.

Ahead of its arrival, it is worth pondering the main lesson Lady Manningham-Buller draws from the Iraq intelligence fiasco: “The main one would be the danger of over-reliance on fragmentary intelligence in deciding whether or not to go to war. If you are going to go to war, you need a pretty high threshold, and I think there are very few who would argue that the intelligence [on Iraq] was substantial enough on which to make that decision.”

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