Disarmament DiplomacyIssue No. 73, October - November 2003
The Hutton Inquiry: was Iraq a Serious and Current Threat?
By Stephen Pullinger
I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current...
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, foreword Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government', September 2002.
1. Introduction: Political Context
This paper will explore some of those revelations arising from the Hutton Inquiry1 established following the alleged suicide in July this year of Dr. David Kelly, an adviser on biological weapons issues to the British government and a former senior member of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) in Iraq. Dr. Kelly's apparent suicide followed his naming in the media as the source for a controversial BBC report suggesting that the government had deliberately hyped the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes. While dealing with the direct subject matter of the inquiry now being conducted by High Court Justice Lord Hutton, the paper will focus on the light shed by the investigation into the extent and nature of the threat posed by Iraq's alleged WMD, and the relation of this threat to both the substance and presentation of the government's case for war.
Before the war, the intelligence agencies of the US and UK assessed that Iraq was pursuing a chemical and biological weapons (CBW) programme, but were unsure as to its extent, nature, and the degree to which that capability had been weaponised. In addition, they believed that Iraq was still seeking to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.
The Bush and Blair administrations also claimed that Iraq was continuing to produce CBW and that this posed a "serious and current" threat. The international inspection process - carried out by UNSCOM's successor organisation, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), together with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - was deemed by London and Washington not to be working, even though it was backed by the threat of military force. Instead, the situation was regarded as so serious it required urgent military intervention to rectify.
There was a high degree of scepticism regarding this conclusion amongst the British public and, of more immediate concern for the Prime Minister, amongst Labour Members of Parliament (MPs). For, although Tony Blair could rely on the support of the Conservatives to win the vote in the House of Commons in favour of going to war against Iraq, he desperately wanted to secure the support of a majority of his own Party's MPs. In order to do so he had to convince those who were wavering that the threat was so acute that to delay acting and persist with the inspection process would not suffice.
Although the Prime Minister did indeed achieve a comfortable majority in both the House of Commons as a whole and within his own Party's ranks, his decision to lead the country to war was not without its political casualties. The Leader of the House, and former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook stood down from the Cabinet. In his resignation speech, Mr Cook set out the case of those who remained unconvinced of the urgent need for war:
"On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain. They want inspections to be given a chance, and they suspect that they are being pushed too quickly into conflict by a US administration with an agenda of its own. Above all, they are uneasy at Britain going out on a limb on a military adventure without a broader international coalition and against the hostility of many of our traditional allies."2
It is these competing theses that can now be tested against the reality of subsequent events, upon which information arising from the Hutton inquiry has shed some new light.
The question of whether or not Iraq posed a serious and current threat comprises two elements. Firstly, was the nature of Iraq's WMD capability such that it posed a significant threat to UK and regional security? Secondly, did Iraq have the intention to use whatever capability it possessed aggressively?
2. What Is A Weapon Of Mass Destruction?
One of the problems during this debate has been arriving at a common understanding of what constitutes a 'weapon of mass destruction'. The traditional definition is inadequate because it lumps together very different types of weapons - nuclear, biological and chemical.
Whereas nuclear weapons can obliterate physical structures as well as people, biological and chemical weapons can only harm the latter. There is no defence against nuclear weapons, whereas one can protect people from the impact of biological and chemical weapons to an extent that their effects can be significantly diminished. Moreover, a nuclear explosion produces a more assured effect than that of chemical and biological weapons, which are heavily dependent on other factors such as favourable weather conditions, for example.
One should also distinguish between weapons programmes and actual weapons. Research and development of chemical and biological agents in the laboratory, which is relatively straightforward, can be referred to as 'weapons programmes'. Honing those agents into a form that can be delivered effectively to their target by means of artillery shell, air-launched bomb or missile warhead - thereby constituting actual weapons - is the next stage and a far more challenging proposition.
Robin Cook claimed that: "Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term - namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target. It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions..."3 This is a telling statement, coming as it does from a member of the British Cabinet and a former Foreign Secretary, who had responsibility for dealing with Iraq between 1997 and 2001.
The question of what constitutes a weapon of mass destruction is a moot point. In common parlance the term does span anywhere between an artillery shell filled with mustard gas for use on the battlefield with a range of a few kilometres to a nuclear warhead on a missile that can travel many thousands of kilometres. This point was acknowledged by Martin Howard, the Deputy Chief of Defence Intelligence, in response to a question from Lord Hutton:
"Lord Hutton: '...when the dossier refers to weapons of mass destruction, would that include artillery shells that might have been loaded with gas? When one thinks of weapons of mass destruction one tends to think of missiles that have a range of 200 or 300 miles. But the term includes artillery shells?'
Martin Howard: 'It certainly does, yes, that are filled with chemical weapons or biological weapons.'"4
Yet, in terms of effect, it is clear that some types and usages of chemical and biological weapons would not constitute weapons of mass destruction:
"James Dingemans QC: 'Is that sort of artillery shell delivery of chemical weapons something you would term a weapon of mass destruction?'
Dr. Brian Jones [former head of the scientific branch of the Defence Intelligence Analysis Staff]: 'No, I think personally I would struggle to make that particular scenario really fit into an equivalence of them facing a nuclear blast.'"5
3. The Imminence Of Threat
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the government's September Dossier was the claim that some of Iraq's WMD were deployable within 45 minutes, as this appeared to support the contention that Iraq posed an immediate threat. When he launched the dossier in the House of Commons the Prime Minister said:
"It [the dossier] concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons which could be activated within 45 minutes including against his own Shia population".6
In evidence to the inquiry on August 26, the Head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, revealed that the weapons being referred to in the context of this 45 minute claim were "related to munitions, which we had interpreted to mean battlefield mortar shells or small calibre weaponry, quite different from missiles."7
Interestingly, although Dr. Kelly expressed doubts about the ability of the Iraqis to use their CBW within 45 minutes because of the time taken to fill such weapons, he did acknowledge that the previous exception to this was in respect of mustard gas - munitions that previously the Iraqis had maintained already filled.8
So, what this claim actually amounts to is that if Iraq had dispersed some of its battlefield chemical and biological weapons, some of them - probably only pre-filled mustard gas shells - could be ready to be used within 45 minutes of an order to do so.
Notwithstanding the fact that Iraq should not have been in possession of such weapons at all, in another sense this claim is unremarkable. If Iraq did indeed continue to have battlefield CBW it would be extraordinary if it had not put in place plans to use them on the battlefield. (To date, of course, no such weapons have been discovered.)
And what is the military significance of such a capability? Against unprotected populations the use of battlefield CBW can be devastating - witness the massacre of Kurds at Halabja in 1988. But against US and UK forces wearing customised protective suits, the impact of such weaponry would be more as an inconvenience than a lethal threat. As Dr. Kelly said: "The threat from Iraq's chemical and biological weapons is, however, unlikely to substantially affect the operational capabilities of US and British troops."9
This does not mean that Iraq was actively planning to use CBW pro-actively against other countries at 45 minutes notice, but simply that it might have had the capacity to use these weapons on the battlefield within such a timeframe if it chose to do so.
The importance of the 45 minute claim in the debate immediately prior to the decision to go to war was that it gave the impression of an imminent threat. This was certainly a fear expressed by Dr. Kelly to Susan Watts of BBC's Newsnight.10 He felt that the emphasis placed on that element of the intelligence in the foreword to the dossier went too far and that it turned the possible capability into an imminent threat and a critical part of the government's case for war.
Although, even if true, this claim was largely unremarkable to the cognoscenti, Dr. Kelly's fears were well founded. The 45 minute claim was leapt upon by a media in search of sensationalist headlines. It is a damning indictment of the level of public understanding about these matters that this claim was allowed to metamorphise into a demonstration of imminent threat from Iraqi WMD.
It has now been revealed that no lesser official than Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, concluded that the September Dossier included "nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam". And that he went on to stress to the Prime Minister that: "We will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he is an imminent threat." 11
The government's case for taking action against Saddam rested more on what he might be capable of in the future than what he was capable of doing at the time. This was reflected in comments made by both Jonathan Powell and Dr Kelly:
"In the penultimate para you need to make it clear Saddam could not attack us at the moment. The thesis is he could be a threat to the UK in the future if we do not check him."12
"That was a real concern - not so much what they had now, but what they would have in the future. But that unfortunately was not expressed strongly in the dossier, because that takes the case away for war - to a certain extent."13
Consequently, although the word 'imminent' does not appear anywhere in the September Dossier, the Prime Minister instead referred to the threat being "serious and current". This implies immediacy but could also be consistent with a latent and growing threat that has yet to become imminent. This distinction is extremely important because under international law it can be legitimate for a state to pre-empt an imminent threat upon itself. To act on the basis of preventing a possible future threat, however, is far more questionable.
It was in the government's interests therefore to attempt to play up the urgency of meeting the threat whilst not actually describing it as an imminent threat because it knew it not to be correct. As a result, the government not only attempted to instil the greatest degree of immediacy that it could, it also sought to remove references that downplayed the extent of the threat. For example, the September 10/11 draft of the Prime Minister's foreword to the Dossier read:
"The case I make is not that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on London or any other part of the UK (he could not)".14 This draft also included mention that reports that Iraq could produce smallpox were "uncorroborated" and that Saddam abandoned work on a radiological bomb after failing to make progress beyond the "research stage".15 Yet all of these three points were excised during the drafting process and failed to appear in the final copy.
Another important aspect of the Prime Minister's case for disarming Iraq was the fear that its WMD capability might one day fall into the hands of terrorist groups hostile to the UK. Undoubtedly, this was a genuine concern. But there was also a counter argument that the Joint Intelligence Committee put to the Prime Minister in February 2003, namely:
"The JIC assessed that any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, not necessarily al-Qa'ida".16
The Prime Minister failed to pass on this piece of JIC assessment although he had publicly disclosed other assessments that were more supportive of the case for taking military action.
If we accept that Iraq did have a certain CBW capability, in order for that to translate into a "serious and current" threat an intention to use that capability is required. So, what intent did Saddam have to use his CBW?
Over recent years there has been an attempt by some security strategists, most notably in the US but also in the UK and elsewhere, to claim that some regimes are "undeterrable". In other words, despite the certainty of devastating retaliation, some dictators would be willing to use their WMD in a first strike against vastly superior adversaries. Yet it is difficult to conclude that Saddam Hussein was willing to sacrifice his hold on power by provoking the US and its allies in this way. He had not used CBW during the 1991 Gulf War, presumably because he calculated that by doing so he would have legitimised an extension of the Allies war aim beyond that of liberating Kuwait to include toppling the Iraqi regime. This demonstrated a degree of rationality that he appears to have maintained since.
One is left pondering how and why Saddam would start threatening to use his CBW in an aggressive manner. As Jonathan Powell concluded about the September dossier: "...while it showed Saddam Hussein had the means to launch an attack, it did not demonstrate that he had a motive."17
The most likely circumstance in which Iraq might well use CBW would be if the country was invaded and the future of the regime was threatened; in other words, in the very scenario being pursued by the Bush administration. Again, this was a point appreciated by the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff when referring to an earlier draft of the dossier: "I think the statement that 'Saddam is prepared to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat' is a bit of a problem." And again: "It backs up the... argument that there is no CBW (chemical and biological weapons) threat and that we will only create one if we attack him."18
5. Dr. Kelly's Concerns
According to government officials, Dr. Kelly was someone who "provided excellent authoritative and timely advice to the FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office] on all aspects of Iraqi WMD", was "recognised internationally as an expert", whose advice and input had "been in high demand across various Government departments during the last year", and whose "advice has helped formulate UK policy with respect to Iraqi WMD". Not only did Dr Kelly have a "deep technical knowledge" but also a "political awareness which enables him to operate in what is a high profile and politically sensitive area".19 His credentials in the field were, therefore, impeccable and his views carry significant weight.
Dr. Kelly believed that immediately prior to the conflict there was only a 30 per cent probability that Iraq had chemical weapons and, if it had had any biological weapons left, they would not amount to very much.20 Dr. Kelly described Iraq's weapons programme to the BBC's Defence Correspondent Andrew Gilligan as "small". Clearly, he believed that the inspection process was a worthwhile exercise because he told David Broucher, the UK's Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, that if properly carried out inspections would give "a degree of certainty about compliance". Yet he also came to the opinion that "only regime change" in Iraq would avert the long-term threat from Iraq, namely the development to military maturity of WMD.21 This demonstrates that, although he may have considered the government to be injecting an unsustainable degree of immediacy into the Iraqi threat, he essentially shared the official view of the serious potential of that threat if left to develop in the longer term.
Curious at why the Iraqis were not co-operating fully with the inspectors, Dr. Kelly was told by Iraqi officials that if too much was given away then the risk Iraq would be attacked might be increased. The Iraqis' contention was that if the US intended to invade their country regardless of their degree of cooperation with the inspection process, then to retain some ambiguity about their WMD capability may have served to deter a US invasion.
When asked why the Iraqis did not use their CBW during the conflict, Dr. Kelly said: "Basically early on in the war the weather conditions were such that you could not possibly consider the use of chemical and biological weapons and later in the conflict command and control had collapsed to such a state that you still would not be able to use them."22
Dr. Kelly believed that Iraq posed only a "modest threat".23 Robin Cook said that although Iraq probably had biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions it probably had no strategic WMD capability. It may have been able to use some battlefield CBW - possibly mustard gas weapons - within 45 minutes of an order to do so, although these would have had little impact on protected troops. The circumstance in which it was most likely to do so, however, was in the context of Iraq having been attacked. According to the evidence included in the September Dossier, the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff concluded that Iraq did not pose a threat let alone an imminent threat.
Clearly, all those involved in making these assessments truly believed that Iraq was continuing to pursue chemical and biological weapon programmes and that it held active stocks of actual weapons. Despite the inability of the occupying forces to discover any evidence of such programmes or weapons to date, it is too early to conclude that they did not exist. Nor, therefore, can one accuse the government of acting in bad faith in this respect. Those, including Dr. Kelly, who appreciate the nature of weapons based on poison and disease, could not rest easy in the knowledge that a regime such as Saddam Hussein's was developing and deploying such things and that they might also fall into terrorist hands. Nevertheless, we now know that the JIC was concerned that an invasion of Iraq might actually exacerbate that risk.
The charge is that the government knew the limited extent of Iraqi WMD capability, had concluded that it did not, yet at least, constitute an imminent threat to this country's or to the region's security and yet still sought (successfully) to persuade Parliament and the British people that the threat was sufficiently "serious and current" that it could only be dealt with through military action commencing in the Spring of 2003.
The government decided that the international community could not afford to wait and see if the United Nations inspection process would bring a peaceable solution, even though that process was incomplete and even though the consequence of acting prematurely would be to split the international consensus.
A question for the future is whether there are wider implications for UK security policy of the action taken against Iraq. What sanction is the UK prepared to consider against other countries suspected of being in possession of WMD? Is the UK now more willing to take preventive military action on the basis of intelligence assessments about what other states might possess and about what threat they might pose in the future? If the UK now adopts this approach would it not give a green light to states around the world to launch preventive strikes against their foes - real and imagined? And can we legitimately pursue the aggressive WMD disarmament of others when we continue to attribute such high value to the retention of by far the most devastating means of mass destruction in history - the nuclear weapon - ourselves?
Notes and References
1. For comprehensive documentation relating to the 'Investigation Into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Dr. David Kelly', see the official Hutton Inquiry website at http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk.
2. Hansard, March 17, 2003, Col.728.
3. Ibid., Col.727.
4. Evidence to Hutton Inquiry, August 11, 2003.
5. Evidence to Hutton Inquiry, September 3, 2003, paras. 66-67.
6. Hansard, September 24, 2002, col.3.
7. Evidence to Hutton Inquiry, August 26, 2003 (afternoon), para.144.
8. Evidence (uncorrected) to the Foreign Affairs Committee, 'The Decision to go to war in Iraq', HC 1025-i, July 15, 2003, Q138.
9. 'Only Regime Change will Avert the Threat', article published in The Observer, 31 August, 2003, p.9.
10. See written memoranda submitted by Susan Watts to Hutton Inquiry.
11. See Cabinet Office memoranda submitted to Hutton Inquiry.
12. Ibid; Jonathan Powell to Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's Director of Communications, and Sir David Manning, the Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser, referring to the revised foreword to the Dossier, September 17, 2002.
13. See written memoranda submitted by Susan Watts to Hutton Inquiry, op.cit.
14. Quoted by Nigel Morris in The Independent, August 25, 2003, p.6.
16. This quote appeared in the Intelligence and Security Committee's 'Report on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction - Intelligence and Assessments', which can be found at http://www.cabinet-office.gov.uk/news/2003/030911_iraqi.asp.
17. See Cabinet Office memoranda to Hutton Inquiry.
19. According to Dr. Kelly's personnel files, referred to during the Hutton Inquiry hearings on August 11, 2003, as MoD/3/16 at paragraph 2. para.119 of evidence and MoD/3/18, in part C.
20. Dr. Kelly to Mr. Broucher when he met him in February 2003 in Geneva, cited by Mr. Broucher during his evidence to Hutton Inquiry on August 21, 2003.
21. The Observer, August 31, 2003, op.cit.
22. HC 1025-i, Q134, op.cit.
23. The Observer, August 31, 2003, op.cit.
© 2003 The Acronym Institute.