The Chilcot inquiry report shows how intelligence and policy maker failure is linked

| July 7, 2016

This week the report following an inquiry led by Sir John Chilcot into the US-led coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been released. Security expert Patrick Walsh talks us through the relevant points and the ultimate ‘slam dunk’ moment of the report.

The overnight release of the massive report (12 volumes) of the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK Government’s intervention into Iraq is forensic in its detailed account of the Blair Cabinet’s decision-making pre, during and post invasion of Iraq.

It travails a lot of the detail already known from previous official reports about intelligence assessments provided to decision-makers in London, Washington and Canberra about whether Iraq had a chemical, biological (and perhaps even fledgling nuclear weapons capability)–and to what extent Saddam Hussein presented a clear and present danger to the West.

The difference with this report, however, is that it has dug much deeper than previous ones – particularly in gaining evidence directly from not only Tony Blair and his cabinet ministers, but also by drawing on testimony from senior intelligence officials and classified material never before made public.

While the Chilcot report shows some evidence that Blair was originally prosecuting a containment
strategy of Iraq post the Gulf War, sometime in early 2002 his position started to change to become more aligned with the US Bush Administration’s position, which was above all about regime change in Baghdad.

I think a ‘slam dunk’ moment in the report is the reference to a private letter written by Blair to Bush (which had not been seen by other key cabinet members) that said ‘I will be with you whatever’. This very much suggests that Blair started to develop a mind-set that the only sensible policy option was to give up the UN process and remove Hussein by invading Iraq. Blair says in his own testimony to the Inquiry that he believed the intelligence assessments stated unequivocally that Iraq continued to build chemical and biological weapons despite UN sanctions and previous weapons inspections.

Believing in something doesn’t make it true, and it is clear from Chilcot’s report and previous official reports into the intelligence justifying western coalition country’s invasion of Iraq that the
assessments were ambiguous on whether Hussein had continued to build his weapons programs and whether they were at a level that they really could threaten the West.

This is for me a crucial part of the report. There are plenty of other extensive sections that need careful analysis, for example on the legal basis used for military action and whether the UK achieved its strategic objectives after the withdrawing from Iraq in 2009. But the key point about Chilcot is to
highlight that Blair’s cherry picking of the intelligence to support his fixed policy decision is an example of the ultimate kind of intelligence failure.

Historically most intelligence failures are the result of how decision-makers use or misuse intelligence, not failures of collection or analysis. The UK intelligence community is also culpable in the flawed assessments it provided, and Chilcot rightly suggests that these should have been more hotly contested across all intelligence agencies in order to test potential biases over whether Hussein was being deceptive about still possessing weapons. An alternative view not greatly prosecuted was of course that he might (rightly as it turned out) not have weapons anymore.

It will be interesting to see how this report plays out here in Australia. Early indications are that former ONA analyst and now federal independent, Andrew Wilkie, believes there should now be
an Australian version of Chilcot to get at the truth about decision-making over Iraq in Canberra. Former PM John Howard in the driving seat at the time of the coalition invasion of Iraq thinks a review is not necessary given we already had the Flood Review in 2004. I think a forensic review like Chilcot would be very expensive and I wonder what it would achieve but I am not saying there are not good reasons to have one.