Talking up terror

Intelligence officials systematically inflate the terrorist threat. Ministers must ask the right questions
November 20, 2003

Dramatic events often bring long submerged problems to the surface. The Iraq war and subsequent failure to find weapons of mass destruction highlight several issues about scrutiny, accountability and the use of intelligence. They can be summarised in three questions. Who is to be held responsible for bad advice? How can parliament better scrutinise complex material such as intelligence reports? And should law officers be more accountable?

The key question post-Iraq is: who misled whom about the existence of WMD? Did the government mislead the public, or was the government misled by intelligence assessments? The doctrine of accountability has always stated that ministers are responsible for everything they do, including the advice they take. Even before Iraq this government was developing a new doctrine, which involves fingering officials - as in the Byers/Sixsmith affair. Now the joint intelligence committee (JIC), having been invoked to justify the war, is left to carry the can for failure to find the casus belli. In effect the new approach says that if advice proves flawed the adviser is to blame: if all goes well ministers will take the credit.

At first sight the traditional doctrine seems pretty unrealistic. If ministers are being fed duff advice or erroneous information by civil servants, what is gained by changing the minister and leaving unreliable officials in place?

But the old doctrine does still make sense. Ministers should not just be passive recipients of civil service advice. They should evaluate it. They should allow for the fact that every department has its own view or vested interest. That is as true of the intelligence services as of any other department.

I got a whiff of this from my first contact with them. Shortly after becoming a junior treasury minister, an appointment appeared in my diary with a Mr X. My private office could only say that he was from "the agencies." It turned out that he had come to tell me that "despite the collapse of communism, the world remained a very dangerous place full of threats to British interests - terrorism, rogue states, militant Islam and potentially devastating weapons." When my private secretary asked what it had been about it suddenly dawned on me: this had simply been a departmental expenditure bid. The agencies felt vulnerable to spending cuts.

Ever since the collapse of communism the intelligence services in all western countries have been seeking a new role. Like every other department they have to emphasise the importance of their task. And there is a law of institutional behaviour which states that organisations whose original roles disappear or diminish do not volunteer to fade away. For centuries customs and excise existed primarily to collect tariffs on imports. Once we joined the common market, half our imports became tariff-free, at which point customs and excise realised the crucial role customs officers could play in the war on drugs. As the cold war ended, the war on terror began. Such coincidences abound.

I am not suggesting that the problems of terrorism and WMD do not exist. Still less am I suggesting that the intelligence agencies will deliberately distort assessments. But it is for elected ministers to put threats in perspective. In dealing with evidence about the Iraqi threat, ministers should have been aware that the intelligence services would not be understating it. They should have probed and questioned, ascertained the reliability of sources and so on.

Most problems in government arise not where there is friction between ministers and officials but where they share enthusiasm for a project. I suspect that the problems of the child support agency were not foreseen because officials shared ministers' commitment to make absent fathers pay. On the issue of the threat posed by Iraq, it seems that the prime minister wanted to hear the message that the security services wanted to convey to him. Neither was inclined to ask whether the evidence fully justified the assessment.

It is up to parliament and the fourth estate to hold ministers to account. In this case that was made easier as the government published an account of the intelligence information available to it, as well as the UN inspectors' report. These merited closer reading than they received. Civil servants would never falsify information, but they are willing to leave false impressions intact. I was struck by the complete absence of any claim to current intelligence directly confirming Iraq's possession of chemical and biological weapons. We can be confident that if they had such direct intelligence (from a deserter, informer, or intercept of someone with personal knowledge of WMD) they would have referred to it.

Rather than referring to biological and chemical "weapons," the main conclusions refer to "capabilities." The JIC concluded that Iraq had "sufficient expertise, equipment and material to produce biological warfare agents within weeks using its legitimate bio-technology facilities." On chemicals, "the JIC assessed that Iraq retained some chemical warfare agents... These stocks would enable Iraq to produce mustard gas within weeks and nerve agent within months." The JIC concluded, "These chemical and biological capabilities represented the most immediate threat from Iraqi WMD."

In short, "the most immediate threat" would take weeks or months to manufacture. The implication of this was that Iraq probably did not possess currently usable WMD. The intelligence that Iraq could deploy WMD within 45 minutes drew attention away from the fact that it would have no WMD to deploy for several weeks.

One explanation for the fact that these signals were not picked up is the way parliament and the media can be bounced into comment on complex documents before they have time to read them. This was exploited by Jack Straw when he employed Hans Blix's final report to allay scepticism about the existence of WMD. He told parliament that the report "sets out, in 173 pages of painstaking detail, the terrible nature of the weapons Saddam has sought ... to develop." He urged us to read the whole document and promised to put copies in the Commons library. He then gave one illustration of what it contained: "the inspectors found evidence of anthrax where Iraq had said there was none." The clear impression was given that at last these inspectors had found current evidence that Saddam possessed anthrax. In fact the document revealed that the discovery of these traces of anthrax was made way back in 1996 by the previous team of inspectors. Straw had clearly judged correctly that no one would check since only one copy of the report, which could neither be copied nor removed, was placed in the Commons library. I was only able to obtain one to peruse in my room by raising a point of order. I was struck by the absence - as in the government's dossier - of references to current evidence of the existence of WMD. So far as I know, no journalist checked Straw's illustration against the document. The single most valuable reform of parliament would be to insist that government statements are made available to all MPs (if need be in a closed reading room) an hour or two before any statement.

Given time to read the published information, anyone might conclude, as I did, that Iraq probably had few, if any, usable WMD. Equally they would have to conclude that Saddam had past form, current intent and future capability to acquire them. Arguably there was a case for war to pre-empt such a risk by removing the regime, which in any case was a tyranny. Those were the grounds on which, albeit with reservations, I voted for war, conscious that there were probably no WMD.

The government's subsequent problem springs from the fact that it presented the war as a war of disarmament against a "current and serious threat." This was because they thought presenting it as a war of disarmament would maximise support from the Labour backbenchers and the UN.

By all accounts there were also legal constraints arising from the law officers' opinions. This raises the issue of the power and lack of scrutiny of the law officers. When I was in the cabinet, once the law officers had given their opinion on the legality of any action, it was binding. Presumably the same is true under this government. If it were ever revealed that ministers had done something their own law officers considered to be illegal, their position would be untenable. For that reason ministers are reluctant to seek formal opinions from the law officers.

Unusually, the attorney general's views on the legality of war in Iraq were published. His full opinion was not. It is said to have argued that war to change the regime would be illegal.

But especially where issues of defence and security are concerned it is vital that, while behaving lawfully, Britain is not rigidly constrained by one lawyer's subjective assessment of such a fluid concept as international law. For even lay arguments can influence a law officer's opinion. I discovered this as a minister when I was informed that the attorney general was "minded to opine" that a policy I was proposing was contrary to international law. I asked to discuss this with him privately and, to the amazement of my officials, my proposal was duly declared to be compatible with the law.