The most blissfully satirical moment during Lord Butler’s press conference was his remark that Iraq contained ‘a lot of sand’. His point was that the fabled weapons of mass destruction might yet turn up, buried in the dunes. The former Cabinet secretary is known as a man of boundless optimism. It may be that all kinds of long-lost objects will be excavated from the desert: the plane of Amelia Earhart, perhaps, or the racehorse Shergar. If we delve deeper into this abundant sand, we may find Lord Lucan, keen to join Lord Butler in service on the red benches. But there can be hardly anyone, surely, who now believes that we will find significant quantities of weapons of mass destruction. Even Tony Blair now has the grace to admit that his principal casus belli has turned out to be a delusion, no matter how much sand there may be still to dig up in Iraq. Saddam denied that he had them; the UN weapons inspectors came increasingly to agree with Saddam; and yet the existence of WMD formed the central plank of Blair’s case (though not of the case made by this magazine) for the invasion of Iraq. ‘The threat of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction is not American or British propaganda,’ said Blair, when introducing that notorious dossier of September 2002. ‘The history and present threat are real.’ He had ‘absolutely no doubt’, he told us, of a proposition which was essential to public support for the war, and which has turned out to be wholly fallacious. Why did he get it so wrong?
Some of us had hoped that Lord Butler’s inquiry would answer thoroughly the following questions: did the intelligence offered to the Prime Minister justify his hot-gospelling confidence? Did he accurately reflect that intelligence in his presentation of it to the public? Did the Downing Street machine put any pressure on the intelligence services to make the threat from Saddam sound more alarming, and the arguments for war therefore more convincing? To be fair to Lord Butler, he has made some relevant criticisms of the government and its methods. He rightly deplores the inclusion of the 45-minute claim against the advice of several British intelligence officers, and he at least admits that the dossier went to the ‘outer limits’ of what the intelligence data justified. But he mystifyingly seems to forget the impact that the claim — that Saddam had WMD ready for deployment in 45 minutes — had on the day of publication (‘45 minutes from attack!’ splashed the London Evening Standard); and above all he would appear to have let the Blair government off on the main charge, that it knowingly allowed the intelligence data to be embellished or, as Andrew Gilligan put it, ‘sexed up’.
Lord Butler yesterday said that he had not called Alastair Campbell as a witness. Why not? Campbell should have been asked about his astonishing interventions in the text of the September dossier, not least his demand that the language relating to the 45-minute claim be hardened up. Despite the reluctance of intelligence officers such as Brian Jones and David Kelly, the draft dossier said that ‘the Iraq military may be able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so’. Campbell said this was too weak, and John Scarlett, the chairman of the JIC, dutifully turned a conditional into an indicative, and nonsense was piled on nonsense. Why wasn’t Campbell quizzed about his email traffic with Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, in which they discussed the way in which they hoped the 45-minute claim would be projected in the press? Andrew Gilligan’s story was in essence that the intelligence world was alarmed at the way some of their data was being treated; they were sometimes ignored and tougher language was put in at the behest of Downing Street. He was right. He deserves an apology.
Twice on Wednesday Lord Butler defended the Prime Minister’s ‘good faith’ with the following argument. If Blair had known there were no WMD, he would hardly have pretended there were, since he would have been proved so readily to be lying. That is completely to misrepresent Blair’s crime. The Prime Minister was taking a punt, a risk, which is what politicians do. He thought it very likely indeed that Saddam did have weapons of mass destruction. The trouble was that he needed to make the case for their existence sound rather better — to a sceptical public and Labour party — than the evidence available to him would allow. That is why No. 10 played fast and loose with intelligence, bleached out caveats, and changed the moods of key verbs.
People will ask why Lord Butler has been less savage than the American congressional report in attacking the presentation of this intelligence. The answer is that the stakes in Britain are far higher. The Americans were reconciled to regime change, irrespective of whether or not Saddam had the WMD. For Blair that case was vital. His political life has been on the line, and Lord Butler, conceiving that it is not his job to end the Prime Minister’s career, has stayed his hand. That may be regrettable, but perhaps we do not need Lord Butler, these days, to destroy trust in Tony Blair.