MI6 searches for cover as it prepares for onslaught




By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 10 July 2004

MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, is steeling itself for the most intensepublic criticism it has faced in its95-year history. But the spies are also looking to avoid taking the flak for decisions that were not their responsibility.

Distinguishing the quality of the intelligence from the quality of political decision-making derived from it will influence the reputation of MI6 as it emerges from the criticism to be levelled against it in Lord Butler’s report.

The intelligence agencies now accept that the informa tion about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programmes was inadequate and that many of their conclusions were wrong. The failure to find WMD in Iraq has exposed shortcomings in intelligence gathering that are not new to spy agencies.

But the public glare and the weight given to intelligence material by the government mean the implications of their failure for their own credibility are unprecedented.

Lord Butler’s report is expected to make strong criticisms, and is likely to single out for particular scrutiny the claim that Iraq could deploy WMD within 45 minutes of an order being given. The single source depended upon for the information, as well as the process of assessing its credibility, will both be analysed and are likely to be declared inadequate.

But the report is also expected to recognise that there have been significant successes in intelligence gathering, particularly on Libya’s and Iran’s clandestine weapons of mass destruction programmes. It is also expected to refer to the unravelling of the nuclear proliferation network run by A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist, whose exposure was part of an operation involving MI6 and the Central Intelligence Agency.

By examining the failings in Iraq against the backdrop of the success in forcing Libya to renounce its nuclear programme, the report is expected to conclude that the difficulty of gathering intelligence on Iraq specifically, rather than the failure of the intelligence-gathering process as a whole, underlies the issue.

“The Butler review will demonstrate how idiosyncratic intelligence is. In some cases intelligence is very strong and in some cases it’s weak,” said Gary Samore of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, which published a report on Iraq’s WMD which was also later found to have been flawed.

“In Iraq we knew from the beginning that the intelligence was poor and everybody understood from the beginning how difficult Iraq was because the Iraqi counter-intelligence service was good,” Mr Samore said. At the heart of the errors of judgment about Iraq was a profound misunderstanding of the regime’s military strategy, he said.

Suspicion of the Iraqi regime rather than tangible evidence that these suspicions were well founded was an important factor influencing the government’s assessment of the few pieces of secret intelligence it gathered from inside Iraq.

Intelligence agencies had extensive evidence of Iraq’s concealment activities, for example, but they had far less evidence of what it was trying to conceal. Suspicion about the regime contributed to the assumption that it was concealing something, when in fact it might simply have been bluffing.

These suspicions were held by intelligence agencies from states opposed to the war – notably France and Germany – which had shared information with Britain over several years and had contributed to the global intelligence picture that has since proved to be so seriously wrong. Equally, concern about Iraq was reflected in the United Nations’ final report in February 2003, which listed numerous unresolved issues regarding Iraq’s WMD programmes.

The absence of tangible proof to support the suspicions is expected to lead to Lord Butler strongly criticising the intelligence assessment process carried out by the joint intelligence committee. He is expected to say that its standards were not rigorous enough when assessing the credibility of raw intelligence and the sources of the information.

The report is also expected to reject the credibility of some of the raw intelligence passed to the JIC by MI6. By failing to gather tangible proof, as well as misreading the regime’s intentions, the intelligence service will be seen to have failed badly.

Officials are said to be determined to prevent a hiatus within MI6. But criticism of the JIC will inevitably have serious consequences for John Scarlett, the committee’s chairman who will take over as chief of MI6 on August 1.

By taking the legacy of his responsibilities as JIC chairman with him into the intelligence service from which he originally came, Mr Scarlett risks weakening the agency by increasing the level of scrutiny at a time when it already knows it must improve its performance.

However, the extent to which Mr Scarlett will arrive in his new post already damaged – and therefore the extent to which MI6 will suffer continuing damage to its credibility – is seen by some analysts familiar with the intelligence community as likely to be determined by the way the issues are debated at Westminster.

One analyst said: “The strength John Scarlett has is that he is profoundly experienced and has been through the fire. The only things that would mean he could not go on would be if Blair decided to use him as a scapegoat, or if he didn’t come up to scratch at MI6.”


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008