by Tony Rennell, UK Daily Mail
The exhausted secret intelligence officer was heading home after a heavy session analysing reports from Iraq. As he stepped out through the high-security air-lock exit from MI6’s grand headquarters beside the Thames in London, a newspaper-seller’s placard caught his eye — ‘45 minutes from attack,’ it proclaimed.
It was September 2002, and Prime Minister Tony Blair had that day unveiled with great fanfare the government’s dossier detailing Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, as a justification for going to war. He knew, in a way the public did not, the precise background to that headline. His first thought was that this was not what the original intelligence report had said. ‘If this goes wrong, we’re all screwed,’ he muttered to himself.
It did go wrong, spectacularly so, as a new history of MI6 by the BBC’s well-informed security correspondent Gordon Corera recounts. It’s a disturbing story of how tiny sparks of dubious information picked up in the backstreets of Baghdad and elsewhere were fanned into giant flames.
The result was a firecracker of a dossier which was pivotal in the run-up to the deeply divisive British and American invasion of Iraq. For many people, the scary information it disclosed — that Saddam was so advanced with his chemical and biological weapons that he could fire them with a mere 45 minutes notice — was a tipping point.
Millions who had been sceptical about the reality of the Iraq threat were brought up short by the Prime Minister’s assurance that the evidence of Saddam’s evil intentions was ‘extensive, detailed and authoritative’. The case for confronting him was cut and dried.
Only later would it emerge how dodgy that dossier actually was.
Yet disastrous consequences flowed from its false and exaggerated claims. They were cited as a pretext for the conquest of Iraq, which led to tens of thousands of deaths.
They also caused a damaging clash between the government and the BBC over suggestions that the dossier had been ‘sexed-up’ and the mysterious death of a respected weapons inspector, Dr David Kelly.
For MI6, the dossier brought the biggest crisis of confidence since the infamous Cambridge spy ring and the defection of one of its top men, Kim Philby, to the Soviet Union in 1963.
What happened was a lesson in the distortion that can arise when the painstaking craft of intelligence-gathering — MI6’s pride and joy since its inception in 1909 — was over-ridden by the wishful thinking and unrelenting ambition of politicians.
From the start, Blair had put his weight and his reputation behind U.S. plans to topple Saddam, believing in his heart that the world would be a better place without the Iraqi dictator. But selling a war to a sceptical public would be very difficult. Regime change on its own was not accepted in Britain in the way it was in post-9/11 America.
So the decision was taken to base the case for war entirely on Iraq’s possession of chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons. This meant leaning heavily on intelligence. From his spymasters Blair sought material to make a public case for armed intervention.
They, in turn, were eager to oblige. MI6 was still in shock from having missed signs of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and Washington and was determined never to be caught out again.
There was a more deep-seated reason too. ‘One of the cultural weaknesses of MI6 is that it is too eager to please,’ one former senior official told Corera. For all the secret service’s James Bond-ish bravado, it has always been beset by a fear that one day it will no longer be needed.
The ending of the Cold War and MI6’s legendary cat-and-mouse tussles with the KGB seemed to herald that redundancy. Then the post-9/11 era offered a new mission.
Out to prove it still had a vital use in the modern world, MI6 set to work.
Early drafts were begun of a dossier on Saddam’s weapons programmes.
Some MI6 officers were unhappy with the idea of working to so precise an agenda. ‘All our training, all our culture, bias, is against such a thing,’ one complained.
But there was no stopping what quickly became a juggernaut as Britain’s two most senior spies — Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, and John Scarlett, chairman of the government’s Joint Intelligence Committee, whose job was to sift and assess MI6’s information — became central to the build-up to war.
Dearlove in particular became one of the Prime Minister’s closest advisers and, according to officials, enjoyed a ‘privileged relationship’. Blair was open about his reliance on him to provide the central plank of the argument for intervening in Iraq. At one point he turned to his spy chief and said: ‘Richard, my fate is in your hands.’
Meanwhile, Scarlett was working closely with Downing Street, to the extent that Alastair Campbell, Blair’s all-powerful media director, would talk of him as a ‘mate’ and ‘a very good bloke’.
The JIC’s brief was to make its dossier suitable for publication to the public, in itself an unprecedented step in the publicity-shy world of spies. Campbell called for it to be ‘revelatory’. As the drafting process continued, Scarlett attended meetings chaired by Campbell to look at the presentation.
Intelligence was being sucked closer to policy than it had ever been before in MI6’s history.
Scarlett disputes this, maintaining that he was just putting information in the public domain not taking sides. Subordinates disagree.
‘We knew the purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war,’ one senior military intelligence officer later complained. ‘Every fact was managed to make it as strong as possible.’
Direction and pressure were being applied on the JIC and its drafters, he maintained. A line had been crossed. Intelligence was being used as a tool for political persuasion.
But what intelligence was there to gather? Not a lot, in reality.
Iraq had long been a backwater for MI6, with information about it, on the spy masters’ own admission, ‘sporadic and patchy’.
Then, suddenly, in the wake of 9/11, it was rocketed into top priority. All the dirt on Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was required as a matter of urgency.
The problem was that it takes years to build up reliable intelligence sources. Potential agents have to be spotted, researched, cultivated, approached and their veracity and good faith validated.
But that was not the time-frame on offer. Though MI6 had a small stable of agents reporting from within Iraq, one or two long-standing and reliable, none of them had any ﬁrst-hand knowledge of the WMD programme.
But, knowing exactly what MI6 was looking for — and with cash bonuses on offer — they managed to find it by recruiting (or claiming to recruit) sub-sources with what was little more than gossip to spill and the product of their own imaginations.
What the handful of agents didn’t report on — because they knew it was not wanted — was the large number of people they met in Iraq who knew nothing about special weapons and doubted their existence.
Herein lay another problem. Saddam was clever and cunning, a master of deception. So MI6 decided they would have to deal with him in the same double-bluff and double-cross way they had treated the Soviet Union during the great espionage and counter-espionage days of the Cold War.
This has an inherent difficulty. If you are convinced that your enemy is practising deception, and you can’t ﬁnd what you are looking for, the logic — which, of course, is utterly flawed — is that your opponent is simply very good at deceiving you.
Absence of evidence, as U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it, was not evidence of absence. It was a doctrine that was about to implode over Saddam’s non-existent WMDs.
Any claims he now made that he had destroyed his chemical and biological weapons and halted his nuclear programme were simply dismissed in Washington and London as disinformation. Because Saddam had lied and cheated in the past, the overwhelming view was that he was doing the same now.
As things stood, though, the dossier proving that he still had WMDs was still looking thin.
Much of the ‘crucial’ material came from Iraqi defectors who pimped stories to the Western intelligence agencies, making wild assertions in return for asylum. One such ‘fabricator’, codenamed Curveball, was set up with a new life in Germany after making up information about biological weapons being manufactured on mobile trailers.
But in the climate of the times no one wanted to have a major source knocked out from under them. Curveball’s reports became the main evidence for Britain’s case that Saddam was still producing biological weapons.
Even so, as time marched on and deadlines approached, the JIC and Downing Street were increasingly desperate for something more concrete to still the nation’s doubts about war. Emails whizzed back and forth, pleading for more information to put into the dossier. ‘Has anybody got anything more they can put in it?’ was the constant cry.
Then, with a flourish, the magicians at MI6 pulled a rabbit or three out of their hat. They produced new intelligence, in the nick of time, that seemed to save the day.
From Baghdad, a long-serving agent had sent an encrypted message over a tiny transmitter. One of his sources had produced a rather vague and ambiguous report saying that biological and chemical munitions could be with military units and ready to fire within 20 to 45 minutes. Quite what the weapons were he could not say.
The source was untested but his identity was known, and he seemed to be in a position to know the information. The will for him to be right outweighed caution.
Not everyone was convinced. Some at the JIC thought MI6’s description of its new sub-source too vague. It was also unclear what sort of weapons he was referring to.
If the 45 minutes related to battlefield shells, as the JIC assessment staff believed, then it was not particularly surprising. In fact it was pretty pathetic rather than scary if it took the Iraqi army 45 minutes to ﬁre a shell. But if it was referring to a ballistic missile, it was unrealistic to the point that it should be ignored.
Basically, what the source had provided was what Corera describes as ‘just a lonely piece of intelligence ﬂoating in a sea of uncertainty, to which those who wanted to could cling’. It was more local colour than hard intelligence, but the spooks grabbed at it gratefully.
Then, out of the blue, another piece of intelligence dropped. MI6 had apparently bagged an important new agent, who claimed that Iraq’s production of biological and chemical weapons was being accelerated and new facilities built.
The source was untested but Dearlove and senior officers around him were bullish. This was crucial in hardening up judgments and overcoming doubts. The reports were passed straight to Downing Street, bypassing assessors who could judge its technical credibility.
Some inside MI6 believed this was emblematic of what had gone wrong. Too much unproven intelligence, hot off the printer, was rushed into the welcoming arms of No 10.
‘Everything was supposed to go through the assessment staff,’ one officer recalled, talking about intelligence reports in general, ‘but often we got it half an hour after it had gone to Downing Street, with it post-dated to cover their backs.’
But confidence was high. The new source promised another consignment of crucial intelligence soon, including details of WMD sites. This, it was hoped, might be Blair’s eagerly sought ‘silver bullet’.
The dossier, now stiffened by the new sources, was ready for the outside world. In a foreword, Blair wrote that Saddam’s continuing production of WMDs was ‘established beyond doubt’.
Any hint that there were limits to the intelligence and even major gaps had been lost, along with many other caveats.
Armed with MI6’s dossier, weapons inspectors for the United Nations — which still hoped to forestall war — now went back to Iraq to hunt once again for WMD. They inspected 300 sites and found nothing. ‘We went to a lot of chicken farms,’ one said,’ but there were just chickens’.
The response in London was that this proved only how devious and duplicitous Saddam was and how incompetent and naive the inspectors were. In any case, proof of WMDs was largely irrelevant now. Nothing was going to stop the momentum.
When hard intelligence of Saddam’s preparedness or otherwise for war suggested Iraq did not have usable weapons able to attack at all, let alone in 45 minutes, this was never revealed to the British public.
‘The books had been cooked, the bets placed,’ as an American intelligence officer put it. The conquest of Iraq began.
In no time, Saddam’s forces were caving in, and it seemed odd that with Coalition troops approaching Baghdad, he did not use any of his ‘special weapons’. When it was all over, the issue resurfaced.
Site after site was searched for evidence of WMDs. None was found.
One by one MI6’s prized sources melted away like mirages in the desert heat. Three months after the fall of Baghdad, MI6 interviewed in person the cherished new source in whom so much had been invested and who had dispelled so many doubts.
He denied ever having said anything about accelerated production of biological and chemical weapons.
The military officer who had passed on the 45-minute claim also denied having ever said such a thing, and it became clear that he had made it all up. So too had ‘Curveball’.
The impact on MI6’s reputation was calamitous. The use of intelligence to sell a war to the public might not have mattered much if it turned out to be true.
But once it was proved to be wrong, it left the public, and especially those who had been persuaded by the intelligence, feeling bitter.
The recriminations began. Who was to blame for this fiasco, which had justified a war on a false premise? Who was responsible for launching Britain’s very own WMD, a weapon of mass deception?
MI6 over-promised and under-delivered, was the verdict of one JIC member. This is disputed by some at MI6, who maintain that they
always made clear the intelligence was scant.
Others argue that they had been left exposed by the politicians. The decision to go to war was a political choice by a prime minister who settled on intelligence as the best means by which to sell it to Parliament and the public. When it didn’t materialise: ‘We got dumped on.’
Many inside MI6 believed their organisation should take it squarely on the chin. Their sources had been wrong, and that was an end of it.
The politicians may have pushed and pressed and spun the intelligence, but ultimately, the problem was that MI6’s reporting was dud.
But others thought it was their own leadership who had let them down and left them exposed by getting too close to power.
Scarlett and his committee were accused of making a dreadful error in entering Blair’s ‘magic circle’. They had allowed themselves to be engulfed by the heady atmosphere and failed to keep their distance and objectivity.
The same criticism was made of Dearlove, who was said to have relished being at the epicentre of power, having informal meetings with Blair and even brieﬁng Bush in the Oval Office. The truth — as we can now see nearly a decade later — is that politicians and spies became far too close in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Corera is clear that, if the spooks and politicos must sup with each other, then it is better for all of us that in future they do so with a very long spoon.