Intelligence forces on defensive over WMD




By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 11 July 2003

Weapons inspectors are unlikely to find military hardware from banned weapons programmes in Iraq and in the end may discover only documentary evidence of the ousted regime’s intentions, senior US and UK officials say.

“The whole debate can be expected to evolve into one about the capabilities that Saddam had, and the fact that he had ambitions,” a senior US official said on Friday.

“The argument will come to rest less on whether we should have found munitions.”

The US-led hunt for Iraq’s banned weapons stocks has led only to the discovery of two trucks which were first thought to have been mobile biological weapons laboratories, but whose past use is now uncertain. In addition, some documentary evidence dating from the early 1990s and relating to the nuclear programme has been found, along with material already identified by UN inspectors.

Political leaders, especially in Washington, continue to assert that the weapons themselves will still be unearthed.

However, a senior UK official noted on Friday that the document released by the British government on the weapons of mass destruction issue last September “was very cautious, and talked about capabilities rather than huge stockpiles of arms.

“What is going to be less likely, and was never going to be likely, is that very large quantities of WMD will be found.”

The difficulty now facing the Central Intelligence Agency and the British Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, lies primarily not in the political issue of whether the threat from the deposed regime was exaggerated, but in the question of whether their original intelligence was accurate.

The British parliamentary foreign affairs committee this week asked the government to state whether it still considers its September 2002 dossier to be accurate. This request is likely to be viewed unfavourably by officials, who stress that the intelligence assessment was made at a specific time without the benefit of hindsight. Even so, the committee concluded that the dossier’s conclusions “were in all probability well founded on the basis of the intelligence then available”.

Critics of the war say the committee’s exoneration of the government from accusations that it manipulated intelligence on Iraq to suit its case has thrown the spotlight on the accuracy of what was provided by MI6.

“Without a major find in Iraq, the September dossier remains deeply flawed,” said Glen Rangwala, a political scientist at Cambridge university, who has analysed intelligence on Iraq’s WMD. However, he says the fault probably lies in the process of drawing up the document, during which political pressures diluted the pure intelligence content.

But Middle East experts go further, blaming the failure to assess the character of Saddam Hussein’s regime accurately, and whether it was likely to have retained its WMD arsenal, on the erosion of the “human intelligence” capability.

“The intelligence service has come out of this very badly, because clearly the intelligence provided to the government was poor,” a former UK ambassador in the Middle East, who has knowledge of intelligence issues, said on Friday.

“They didn’t expect a crisis to occur in Iraq, and the country was a nuisance but not a worry. So there wasn’t an effort to build up a serious intelligence programme to understand it any better. And now we are paying a very high price.”

Some UK officials had expected Saddam Hussein’s regime to provide proof of the weapons’ existence by using them to confront invading UK and US forces, though this was not a uniform view. This assumption was also subject to different interpretations by US and UK officials during the conflict. The UK never believed the US view that a “red line” existed around Baghdad, which if crossed would trigger use of chemical weapons.

“Our assessment was what we knew about the nature of the threat from Saddam at the time we put the document out,” said a senior UK official. Seeking to explain the failure to find the evidence, he added: “The most likely explanation is that there was a decision just before the arrival of the UN inspectors to destroy some of what they had got. What we don’t know is what happened in the last days of the regime.”

The intelligence agencies have sought to explain the failure to find the arsenal by stressing that the deposed regime had become skilled at concealing its weapons and weapons programmes. However, the inclusion in the dossiers of detailed accounts of concealment suggested that these measures were known about through intelligence sources on the ground, who had knowledge of the locations where the concealment took place.

The failure to find these sites has increased the anxiety: “Whenever your credibility is called into question it’s a cause of great concern, and these are difficult times for that reason, though it’s not quite as acute a state of recriminations in the US as it is in the UK,” said a US official.

Nonetheless, the official added: “The great majority of officers in the intelligence community believe that the basic integrity of the community has been maintained.”


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.