How the Iraq war led to a legacy of public mistrust in intelligence

by Dr Jamie Gaskarth

24 Feb 2020

The UK’s participation in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has become a defining moment of the 21st century. It is also a turning point for public trust in government when it comes to justifying military action. Intelligence was at the heart of this decision and a series of inquiries identified failings that the agencies have sought to address. Nevertheless, trust in intelligence remains low and has affected political responses to crises ever since, from Syria to the Salisbury poisonings.

A TV journalist stands in front of the Al Furat military facility in Iraq.
A TV journalist stands in front of the Al Furat military facility in Iraq. Photo by Scott Peterson / Getty Images.

Why was intelligence important to the Iraq war?

The primary reason given for the UK’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was to disarm Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that it was believed to possess. It was also a product of the worldview of policymakers. These supposed weapons were mostly chemical and biological, but Iraq was also assumed to be pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. This belief was derived from the fact that Iraq had possessed WMD capabilities and used some of them in the past. Iraq was meant to declare its capacity in April 1991 but was perceived to be concealing weapons from UN inspectors and continuing its pursuit of nuclear material.

The problem was that Iraq was a dictatorship and it was hard to find reliable information about its activities. For this reason, intelligence became a key part of the UK government’s assessment of the threat, as well as its public justification for pursuing military options.

In September 2002 the government made the unprecedented move of publishing a dossier which included intelligence assessments. In a subsequent inquiry, Lord Hutton revealed that the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), John Scarlett, who was overseeing its production, had been told that “10 Downing Street wanted the dossier to be worded to make as strong a case as possible in relation to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s WMD”. Thus, it was not a neutral presentation of the intelligence picture. The foreword by the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair argued “the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt… that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons”. Introducing it in the House of Commons, Blair described the intelligence picture as “extensive, detailed and authoritative”. In February 2003 the government issued a briefing paper on ‘Iraq – Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation’. This document stated on its cover that it drew “upon a number of sources, including intelligence material”. However, unlike the September dossier, it was not drafted or overseen by the JIC, which coordinated intelligence advice for the government. Indeed, substantial sections had been plagiarised from internet sources and it was later withdrawn.

Thus, intelligence was being given a prominence it had never previously been afforded; it was being presented as a matter of fact (rather than information which may or may not be accurate); and it was being used to promote the idea that Iraq possessed WMD and represented a threat to the UK. It was also being conflated with open source material that was out of date.

No weapons of mass destruction

Following the invasion of Iraq, it became apparent that this intelligence picture was deeply flawed. Iraq had largely abandoned its WMD programmes after coalition air strikes in 1998. Coercion and containment had worked.

A series of inquiries, by the Foreign Affairs Committee (2003), Lord Butler (2004) and Lord Hutton (2004), criticised the government and the decision processes that led to war. Blair’s references to intelligence in the House of Commons were described as “misleading” although this was generally framed as “inadvertent”. Butler revealed that instead of being authoritative, the intelligence base was actually seen as “sporadic and patchy” by officials. However, each inquiry was only looking at a narrow aspect of the UK’s Iraq policy.

Learning lessons from Iraq

In 2009, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a formal inquiry would be held into every aspect of the UK’s involvement in the war, from September 2001 (when UK policymakers changed their attitude to the Iraq threat) to July 2009 (when the UK formally drew operations to a close). It finally reported in 2016. Unlike previous reports that had tended to equivocate over the blame for errors, the Iraq Inquiry (also referred to as the Chilcot Inquiry) was explicit in highlighting Blair’s personal failings. In particular, in his foreword to a dossier in September 2002 Blair had described Iraq as “a current and serious threat to the UK national interest”. The inquiry concluded this represented Blair’s beliefs and “did not reflect the view” of the JIC, which had assessed that the Iraqi leadership’s focus was on “the balance of power in the region and internal challenges”. Overall, the inquiry argued that the threat was “presented with a certainty that was not justified”.

A key problem identified by the inquiry was the lack of critical thinking about intelligence assumptions. It noted: “At no stage was the proposition that Iraq might no longer have chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons or programmes identified and examined by either the JIC or the policy community.”

Even before the inquiry was completed, it was clear that there needed to be changes in the machinery of government. A National Security Council was inaugurated, with a National Security Advisor who could coordinate intelligence and security thinking. Critical challenge was encouraged in the agencies. The Secret Intelligence Service appointed a Senior Officer to be responsible for the accuracy of intelligence reports, reporting to “two different members of the SIS Board, only one of whom is responsible for operations.” The JIC was made more independent and its Chair more senior.

Yet, in 2013, the government suffered a major shock when parliament voted against the government on military action – for the first time since the 1780s – in relation to Syria. Again, intelligence was used to justify the use of force but this time there was far greater scepticism and Iraq was a key reference point. In 2017, then-National Security Advisor Sir Mark Lyall Grant produced a detailed assessment of the lessons that needed to be learned from the Iraq failure, including a “Chilcot checklist” of ways to improve policy-making – named after the inquiry’s chair.

However, Iraq continues to be evoked by critics of the government. When in 2018 Russian intelligence officers were alleged to have attempted to kill Sergei Skripal, a double agent who had worked for British intelligence, the Labour Party spokesperson said “obviously the gov­ernment has access to information and intelligence on this matter, which others don’t; however, also there’s a history in relation to WMD and intel­ligence, which is problematic to put it mildly”. It will be some time before the UK government is able to present intelligence as proof and expect to be taken at its word.


Dr Jamie Gaskarth’s book Secrets and Spies: UK Intelligence Accountability After Iraq and Snowden is out now with Chatham House/Brookings Institution Press. The research was supported by the BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant.

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