What the Butler Committee Saw

What are we to make of the Butler Committee’s review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in connection with the Iraq war? It’s already trite to repeat the obvious conclusion, reflected in broadsheet and tabloid newspapers alike, that the report is a catalogue of criticisms, many of them serious and far-reaching, of the way intelligence on Iraq has been handled by the intelligence agencies, the intelligence analysts, the Joint Intelligence Committee and its Chairman, senior staff of No 10 Downing Street and the prime minister himself—yet according to Lord Butler in his answer to a journalist’s question at the public launch of his report, "You ask who is to blame for this. I think there is no single individual to blame. This was a collective operation in which there were the failures… but, in my view, no deliberate intent on the part of the government to mislead.â€? And: "There is no doubt that the government believed the judgments that were in the dossier.â€? "We found no evidence to question the prime minister’s good faith.â€? All were to blame, and none shall be blamed.

It’s probably wrong to describe the Butler report as whitewash, as some commentaries have done. That was a fair comment on Lord Hutton’s earlier reporton the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly, in which blame was dished out in generous helpings to the BBC, but none to the government, despite the indictment implicit in the body of the report and in the Hutton evidence. At the outset of his inquiry, Butler made it clear that he would investigate and assess institutions and processes but not individuals. His report departs from this in the extraordinary and explicit acquittal of John Scarlett, Chairman of the JIC, and the recommendation that he should be allowed to take up his new appointment as head of SIS, notwithstanding the condemnation in the report of the role played by Scarlett in the preparation of the infamous government dossier, errors for which others besides Scarlett were clearly also responsible. This is the more remarkable for being pretty clearly outside the committee’s terms of reference, and casts a slightly dubious light over the rest of the report. But apart from this, the committee largely eschews the casting of blame, bestows some selective praise, and sets out the facts, many of them implicitly damning.

It is perhaps surprising that the report makes no comment on one aspect of the handling of the dossier by Scarlett as Chairman of the JIC and his relationship with those senior luminaries of No. 10, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, entailing the regrettable blurring of the respective roles of the intelligence analysts and assessors on the one hand and the policy-makers and policy-presenters on the other. This is the fact that Scarlett, as an SIS officer but not the head of an agency or government department, was outranked by a number of members of his JIC, who included two Permanent Secretaries and the Chiefs of the three intelligence agencies. Why did none of these intervene when they saw how the intelligence role of their Chairman, and thus of the whole JIC, was being compromised by his over-close association with the No. 10 policy staff, indeed the chief spinners, as well as with the prime minister himself? How indeed did it come about that the person appointed as JIC Chairman was less senior and less experienced in this kind of work than several ordinary members of the Committee? These questions, posed privately by a former member of the JIC, ex-ambassador and co-signatory of the letter of the 52 ex-diplomats about middle east policy, surely require an answer.

A striking feature of Butler’s most damning criticisms of those concerned, from the prime minister downwards, is that very few of them indeed are new. Virtually all of them had already emerged months ago with lethal clarity from the Hutton report and (especially) the evidence given to Hutton:

* the breach in what should be an impregnable firewall between intelligence and policy; the failure to correct, or even (in the case of the prime minister) apparently to be aware of, the misinterpretation by the media and others of the 45-minute claim, and the flimsiness of the intelligence on which it was based;

* the systematic and deliberate elimination from the intelligence material of nearly all the vital caveats and qualifications about the reliability of that intelligence for the purposes of the dossier and the prime minister’s speeches in justification of the case for war, misrepresenting as certain and beyond doubt that which had explicitly been qualified as doubtful – a process that could not by definition have been anything but deliberate, and which is not unfairly if inelegantly described as ‘sexing-up’;

* the suppression of the misgivings about the language and some of the material in the dossier expressed by some expert intelligence officers and analysts below JIC level, and the apparent failure of JIC members adequately to consult their more expert subordinate staff about them;

* the search for intelligence to support policies already decided, rather than decisions on policy based at least in part on objectively assessed and impartially presented intelligence;

* the by-passing of normal Cabinet collective discussion and decision-making, based on the study of properly prepared documentation and contributions from their personal and departmental experience by Cabinet ministers and their officials, including those outside the prime minister’s inner circle: the prime minister and his coterie of No 10 staff and a random selection of other ministers and officials were taking life-and-death, peace-and-war decisions that were not properly recorded, at meetings which were not properly minuted, often without even a record of who was present at which stages of the proceedings, and without any meaningful contribution by other ministers who might have sounded notes of caution and warning if they had been in the loop. Paras 606 to 611 of the Butler report are as severe in their indictment of these sloppy informalities (my language, not Butler’s) as any others in this comprehensive survey.

Without risking the accusation of claiming to have ‘told you so’, I merely recall that all these serious criticisms were included in my own commentary of 1 February this year on the Hutton report and its many lacunae, as any reader of this can confirm by clicking the link to it. Did we need the expensive months of another enquiry by Lord Butler and his distinguished colleagues to tell us what we already knew, if we had had the wit to look at the evidence given to Hutton? Of course there is some value in having those critical conclusions spectacularly confirmed by the Butler committee after its privileged access to all the relevant intelligence material and associated documents, much of it not seen by Lord Hutton – especially as our own critical conclusions had to be gleaned from analysis of the Hutton evidence rather than being articulated in Hutton’s own findings. Indeed the picture painted by Butler is even more alarming (and even more damaging to the prime minister’s reputation and standing) than anything we had been able to extrapolate from Hutton.

Which brings us to the most baffling question of all: where does all this lead us? Apologists for Mr Blair have focused on the findings that there was no intention on the part of the government deliberately to mislead, and that the committee found no evidence to question the prime minister’s good faith. But Tony Blair’s ‘good faith’ is not the issue. Nor is his familiar ‘passionate belief’ that what he did was right, in spite of everything. Mr Blair himself has put up his usual spirited, polemical and counter-attacking defence, declaring that he accepts personal responsibility for all the things that went wrong but giving no indication whatever of any intention to translate that responsibility into a cleansing resignation. What does an acceptance of responsibility for numerous calamitous errors and shortcomings in the conduct of the country’s business mean in practice if the head of government who played such a uniquely personal role in those events carries on as if nothing has happened?

These were not mistakes and errors leading to the loss of a few million pounds of taxpayers’ money through waste and inefficiency in the National health Service. Thousands of lives have been lost as a direct result of what was decided on this deeply flawed basis. The world has been made a more dangerous place. We have removed a malign dictator from the necks of the Iraqi people and substituted terrorism and insurgency. We have inflamed Muslim opinion throughout the world, including in our own country, thereby fostering anti-western fundamentalist extremism and violence. We have divided the European Community, instead of acting in concert with our EU partners to press on Washington the need for patience and diplomacy rather than killing and destruction. The chairman of the Governors and Director-General of the BBC have been forced out of their jobs because of a single radio report in the small hours of the morning which contained one inaccuracy but which has subsequently been shown, not least by Butler, to have been basically correct and of the utmost importance. Yet it seems that no resignation by a single minister, official or intelligence officer is to follow the damning criticisms of their performance by Lord Butler, Lord Hutton’s witnesses and virtually every other serious commentator on these sad events.

It is difficult to see how a Labour government, in many respects the most successful in our history, can regain its credibility or resume its effective functioning so long as this irreparably damaged prime minister remains its leader.

Brian Barder
16 July 2004

3 Responses

  1. Brian,
    Just about everything has been said and written about the way the intelligence was moulded to fit the decision that had been made by Blair to follow Bush along a path of which the paving stones had been laid already by the US administration.
    What amazes me is paragraph 610:

    “610. One inescapable consequence of this was to limit wider collective discussion and consideration by the Cabinet to the frequent but unscripted occasions when the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary briefed the Cabinet orally. Excellent quality papers were written by officials, but these were not discussed in Cabinet or in Cabinet Committee. Without papers circulated in advance, it remains possible but is obviously much more difficult for members of the Cabinet outside the small circle directly Involved to bring their political judgment and experience to bear on the major decisions for which the Cabinet as a whole must carry responsibility. The absence of papers on the Cabinet agenda so that Ministers could obtain briefings in advance from the Cabinet Office, their own departments or from the intelligence agencies plainly reduced their ability to prepare properly for such discussions, while the changes to key posts at the head of the Cabinet Secretariat lessened the support of the machinery of government for the collective responsibility of the Cabinet in the vital matter of war and peace.�

    There are two key connected points. Firstly, the way in which Cabinet government seems to have been by-passed. Rather like the United Nations Security Council had been by-passed in the run up to war. Papers were prepared for Cabinet discussion but were not circulated. This presumably was because, as the clock ticked down to the pre-arranged kick off, those papers would have disclosed the shabbiness of the WMD intelligence. Ministers not allowed on the Blair sofa may have noticed, in Hans Blix’s wonderful phrase, “the question marks had been replaced by exclamations.� Secondly, either by accident or design, the meetings during which Blair and his cronies decided to go to war were not minuted. There are no documents from which fingerprints can be lifted. All very convenient you may think!

  2. Brian says:

    Thanks for those comments, Tony. They’re a valuable addition to the catalogue of errors which can be extracted from the Butler report and which are springing up like toadstools all over the media and the Web. The Blair project begins to unravel at last…


  3. Julian Nundy says:

    I remember from Soviet days that when Yuri Andropov, the non-too-gentle ex-head of the KGB, became president and communist party chief, the silver lining was `at last there’s someone who knows the truth.’

    For the given 20 years ago was that intelligence agencies gave their bosses warts-and-all assessments of the world around them.

    No longer it seems. Our God-inspired (but sadly, not God-fearing) leaders of today encourage and promote yes-men who tell them what they want to hear. How cathartic it might have been to see one, just one, cabinet minister resign a la Carrington (Falklands 1983). Instead of that, we’re rewarded with the spectacle of Mr Scarlett getting a nice new job. Here’s hoping he’s up to dealing with the aftermath of this disastrous adventure.