WMD in Iraq – The Butler Report

I went to a lecture recently in our Old College; we’re lucky to have so many esteemed visitors talking to us about their research and work. It’s really a sign of how well-connected and reputed the department is, that this week’s guest was Lord Robin Butler of Brockwell.

Lord Butler’s career spans an impressive 37 years – he served as a civil servant from 1961 to 1998. He was also Private Secretary to five British Prime Minsters, including Margaret Thatcher, and Cabinet Secretary from 1988 until his retirement in 1998. He was also a prominent figure in HM Treasury and now serves as non-executive Director of the HSBC Group.

In 2004, the British government launched an inquiry into the use of intelligence in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces in March 2003. Lord Butler states that it was a “great debacle to look for weapons that weren’t there” and his report was “a review which the government did not wish to have.”

The Butler Report was announced a week after the Hutton inquiry into the death of BBC source David Kelly was published, and was part of a similar media storm on the availability of information about Iraq before and during the invasion. Then Prime Minister Tony Blair didn’t feel there was a need for such a report, but in light of a similar one commissioned in the United States, changed his mind.

Lord Butler had retired and was travelling by train when he received a phone call requesting that he head this report. The train passed between two hills and transmission was cut off – the only thing he could hear clearly was the voice of a friend saying, “Robin, your country needs you again.” That was enough; soon Lord Butler was joined by four other civil servants – Sir John Chilcot, a career diplomat; Field Marshall Peter Inge, former Chief of Defence Staff; Ann Taylor, Labour MP and Michael Mates, Conservative MP. Ms. Taylor and Mr. Mates both supported the coalition invasion prior to their involvement in the report.

The BBC published this brief summary of the general points covered in the report:

The reliability of intelligence

  • Doubt has been cast on a “high proportion” of human intelligence sources – and so on the quality of intelligence assessments given to ministers and officials
  • The problems were partly caused by weaknesses in the way MI6 carried out its checks on sources
  • There was third hand reporting of information about Iraqi chemical and biological weapons -with a sub-source reporting to a second MI6 main source
  • One MI6 source reported authoritatively on some issues but on others was “passing on what he had heard within his circle”
  • Reports from a third MI6 main source have been withdrawn as unreliable
  • Information used to justify the certainty of claims to the public about Iraq’s production of chemical weapons came from “a new source on trial”
  • Information from another country’s intelligence agency on Iraqi production of biological and chemical agents “were seriously flawed” and the grounds for British assessments that Iraq had recently produced such stocks “no longer exist”
  • There was no “over-reliance” on dissident Iraqi sources

Iraqi weapons

  • It would be rash to say now that no evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programmes will ever be found
  • Before the war Iraq wanted to get banned weapons, including a nuclear programme
  • Iraq was developing ballistic missiles with a longer range than allowed
  • It did not have significant, if any, stocks of chemical or biological weapons in a state fit for use, or developed plans for using them.

The war decision

  • There was “no recent intelligence” to lead people to conclude Iraq was of more immediate concern than other countries, although its history prompted the view there needed to be a threat of force to ensure Saddam Hussein’s compliance
  • The inquiry is surprised ministers, officials, and intelligence agencies did not reassess the quality of intelligence as UN weapons inspectors failed to make finds in the months immediately before the war
  • Intelligence only played a “limited” role in determining the legality of the war
  • No evidence was found that Britain went to war to secure continued access to oil supplies
  • Tony Blair’s policy to Iraq shifted because of 11 September, not the pace of Iraq’s weapons programmes.

The 45-minute claim

  • The claim that Iraq could use weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes should not have been made in the government’s weapons dossier without explaining what the claim referred to
  • MI6 now says the intelligence report on the claim “has come into question”, with doubts cast about one of the links in the reporting chain

Uranium from Niger

  • British intelligence on the claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger was “credible”. There was not conclusive evidence Iraq actually purchased the material, nor did the government make that claim.

Mobile biological weapons laboratories

  • It was “reasonable” for intelligence chiefs to report about Iraq seeking more mobile biological weapons labs
  • But the intelligence from the source did not show Iraq had recently produced stocks of biological agents
  • This evidence could not have existed if MI6 had talked to the source directly from 2000 onwards.

The weapons dossier

  • “A serious weakness” was that the intelligence chiefs’ warnings about the limitations of their judgements were not made clear enough
  • Judgements in the dossier “went to (although not beyond) the outer limits of the intelligence available”
  • The impression there was “firmer and fuller” intelligence backing up the dossier was reinforced when Tony Blair told MPs on its publication day the picture painted by intelligence agencies was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”

Joint Intelligence committee (JIC)

  • No evidence has been found of “deliberate distortion or of culpable negligence”
  • In general, original intelligence was reported correctly in JIC assessments, with the exception of the 45-minute claim
  • An intelligence report important in drafting the dossier should have been shown to key experts in the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS), who were right to raise concerns
  • JIC chairman John Scarlett should not withdraw from taking up his new job as director of MI6
  • There is a strong case for future JIC chairmen being people with experience of dealing with ministers in very senior roles and being “demonstrably beyond influence” and so probably in their last post.

The workings of government

  • The inquiry team is concerned about the “informality” of government procedures reduced the “scope for informed collective political judgement” – a reference to cabinet decision making

Other countries of concern

  • Uncovering Libya’s weapons programmes was a “major intelligence success”
  • The dismantlement of Pakistan nuclear scientist AQ Khan’s efforts to sell nuclear technologies to countries of concern is a “remarkable tribute” to the work of the intelligence agencies, with good cooperation between US and UK agencies
  • It is difficult to get intelligence about North Korea but the agencies’ ingenious tactics have provided important insights on exports of missile delivery systems.
  • Intelligence work in Iran, North Korea, Libya and the AQ Khan problem show the importance of exploiting links between supplies and buyers when fighting weapons proliferation.
  • These “success stories” also show there can be “lucky breaks” but they come from the foundation of knowledge developed over several years and close collaboration between all involved.


  • All British intelligence agencies are developing new techniques and there is “clear evidence” they are cooperating at all levels
  • The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre has proved a success after working for more than a year
  • International collaboration on counter-terrorism has been significantly improved in the last six or seven years
  • The inquiry team is worried the procedures of the international community “are still not sufficiently aligned to match the threat” of terrorism

Osama Bin Laden

  • In January 2000, the Joint Intelligence Committee said Bin Laden had some toxic chemical or biological materials and an understanding of their use. But there was no hard intelligence he owned genuine nuclear material
  • A JIC assessment in 1999 said one of Bin Laden’s followers claimed Bin Laden “intended to attack US and UK targets in India, Indonesia and the US, by using means which even the US could not counter, implying the use of chemical or biological material”.

At the end of the first Gulf War, a Security Council resolution banned the production of nuclear weapons in the country; a 1994 review showed that a chemical-biological weapons program was in development and could very quickly become a nuclear one. Iraq was 3 years away from having nuclear powers. PM Blair was concerned about this development long before the US, according to Lord Blair, and talked often of containment – this soon turned into a neo-conservative agenda.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the importance of Iraq as a strategic tool of warfare increased. An invasion plan was called for as early as November 2001, and in light of President Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ speech in January 2002, ‘immediate action’ became the new phrase associated with Iraq. Lord Butler recalls the mentality: “If you don’t couldn’t find Obama’s arse to kick, you had to find someone else’s.” There was no question of self-defence in light of this invasion because Iraq wasn’t seen as a threat.

With growing suspicion and no real face to the ‘danger’ ahead, Security Council resolutions became less and less relevant to politicians, as did the norms of international law. Enforcing the resolution banning chemical and biological weapons was seen to be too long a process, and as the days passed, a quick solution became more and more important. This sense of urgency led to international efforts to uncover what really was going on in Iraq. Lord Butler was keen to state here that he doesn’t feel PM Blair was wrong to be worried and desperate for a quick solution as Iraq genuinely seemed a large threat.

He does add as well, that it was an “international intelligence failure” and that it was only natural that such a report was soon to follow. Lord Butler stated that we should believe the intelligence information that we’re given, to an extent. But this does not automatically mean that we should believe the government; immediate credence shouldn’t be given simply because governments receive frequent intelligence briefings.

Lord Butler then went on to list lessons that he hoped world leaders, the press and the general public would take away from his work on the report and its findings.

1. Saddam Hussein had all the records of biochemical weapons and their development. If governments had treated this issue with more respect, he might not have been so opposed to sharing information. Instantly ruling out a potential source because of differing politics is hardly a wise move.

2. His behaviour, and that of his government, suggested deception and covert action – this should have been met with similar covert action rather than a military response.

3. An enemy will generally behave rationally by your standards, until he violates your territory or crosses a certain line in terms of political action. It is important to remember that after this point, he is still the same person. Do not get carried away by the rash act that encourages you to take stronger action – remember that once, you merely had a difference of opinion.

4. Always compensate for past errors and be very cautious in adopting the same policies again. If they failed, there’s a reason they did. If they were successful, there’s no guarantee they will again. The same goes for using the same Defence staff decades later (a key example being the US Cabinet)

5. Keep in mind the dangers of erring in one direction versus another – weigh up the benefits of making a smaller mistake as a result of cautious policy over making a large mistake over an irrational policy, such as a military occupation.

6. Be wary of untrustworthy sources. They will all have their separate political agenda and it is unwise to judge paradigms by their scales.

7. Always inquire about the chain of intelligence information made available to you – if it comes from a tertiary source, be aware that it may be highly unreliable. Do not set much store by information that has passed more than 15 hands.

8. There is a danger inherent in Groupthink. Intelligence reports from nation A may be influenced by the fact that nation B has reached the same conclusions. Do not jump into a decision on intelligence simply because your allies have taken a certain stand.

9. Be careful of political pressure. Do not be in a rush to reach a conclusion, especially when more information is still needed to reach a fully balanced opinion. Do not allow time or political pressures sway you – one week, or a month, is not long to wait if the decision at the end of it could save lives and preserve dignity.

Despite his findings, Lord Butler maintains faith in intelligence agencies. Intelligence reports are much closer to the truth than what a politician tells his people, and more store needs to be set by them. If we heeded the reports provided to our governments – which are slowly working their way into public access libraries -, our response to Iraq would be very different. We may not even be there at all.

What a humbling thought for us all as we left. I spoke to Lord Butler after the talk, and we discussed the political process involved in making the decision to invade on such little intelligence information; how a country can bypass international laws of intervention and combat; and what he felt we should do from here. We read reports in the news every day about how wrong this war is, but it wasn’t until they saw this man and heard his opinion that many of the students there really understood the illegality and irrationality of it all.


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