- Gordon Corera
- BBC Security Correspondent
Twenty years after the US invasion of Iraq, the debate continues over the existence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, a claim that justifies Britain’s entry into the war. New details about the search for weapons of mass destruction have been revealed in the BBC series Shock and War: 20 Years in Iraq, based on conversations with dozens of people who witnessed it.
“oops!”. That was the terse response of a senior MI6 officer told by colleagues in late 2001 how serious the Americans were about the war in Iraq.
CIA officials also remember the shock of their British counterparts. “I thought they were going to have a heart attack at the dinner table,” recalls Luis Rueda, head of the CIA’s Iraq operations team. “If they weren’t gentlemen, they’d slap me across the table.”
Word soon reached Downing Street. It was intelligence personnel, not diplomats, who delivered the message.
“I was probably the first to say to the prime minister, ‘Whether you like it or not, plan for a rainy day, because it looks like they’re preparing for an invasion.'” Richard Dee, then head of MI6 and a frequent visitor to Washington, said: Sir Richard Dearlove told the BBC in a rare interview.
MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, is about to become deeply involved in one of the most controversial and consequential events in its history.
For the United States, the issue of weapons of mass destruction was secondary to the overthrow of then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. “If Saddam Hussein had a rubber band and a paper clip, we would have invaded Iraq,” Rueda said. “We’d say, ‘Oh, he’s going to gouge your eyes out.'”
For the UK, the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological and nuclear weapons) is at the heart of its pitch to an uncertain public.
It has also been alleged that the British government has fabricated claims about weapons of mass destruction. But ministers at the time said they had been assured by their intelligence officers that the weapons existed.
“It’s really important to understand that what I’m relying on is the intelligence I’ve been given, and I think I have a right to rely on it,” former British prime minister Sir Tony Blair told me. On the eve of the invasion, he said, he asked for assurances from the Joint Intelligence Committee, which he received. He declined to criticize the intelligence community for mistakes.
Other ministers said they also had misgivings at the time.
“I have asked Richard Dearlow three times where this information came from,” said then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. “I just have an uneasy feeling about it. But Dearlo has assured me every time that these agents are reliable.” However, Straw said that in the end, it will be the politicians who bear the responsibility because they make made the final decision.
Asked whether he thought the Iraq war was an intelligence failure, Sir Richard’s answer was simple: “No”. He still believes Iraq has some sort of weapons program, and some parts may have been moved across the border to Syria.
Others disagreed with that statement. Sir David Omand, the UK’s security and intelligence coordinator at the time, said: “It was a major blunder”. Because of confirmation bias, he said, government experts only listened to bits and pieces of information that supported the idea that Saddam had WMDs, while ignoring those that did not.
Some within MI6 said they also had concerns. “At the time I thought what we were doing was wrong,” said a military officer who had served in Iraq. He requested anonymity, who has never commented publicly before.
“There is no new or credible intelligence or assessment that Iraq has restarted its WMD programs and that they pose an imminent threat,” the former official said of early 2002. “I think from a government standpoint, that’s the only thing they’re going to find … weapons of mass destruction are their only sign of legitimacy.”
The intelligence we had in the spring of 2002 was fragmentary. MI6’s long-term Iraqi operatives, who have little information on weapons of mass destruction, are desperately seeking new intelligence from new sources to back up the claim, especially when a dossier is due in September.
Another insider recalled that he deciphered a message saying there was no role for intelligence more important than persuading the British public to act. Questions were raised about the appropriateness of doing so, and the message was removed, they said.
On September 12, Sir Richard entered Downing Street with an important new source of information. The person claimed that Saddam’s plans were being restarted and promised that new details would be released soon. Although the source was not fully checked and their information was not shared with experts, the details were passed on to the prime minister.
Sir Richard dismissed allegations that he became too close to Downing Street as “ridiculous”, but would not comment on the details of the case or specific sources. This new source never materialized in the ensuing months, other intelligence sources said, and was eventually determined to be a hoax. Quality control, they argue, is breaking down.
Some of the new sources are likely fabricating information for money, or because they want to see Saddam overthrown. In January 2003, I met a defector from Saddam’s intelligence service in Jordan. He claimed to have been involved in the development of mobile laboratories for the development of biological weapons out of sight of UN inspectors.
In February 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell mentioned his claims in a report to the United Nations, although some in the US government had already issued a “burn notice” (Burn notice), saying that This information cannot be trusted. Another source, code-named Curveball, that the US and UK rely on is also spinning up details about the lab.
It is worth mentioning that Saddam did possess weapons of mass destruction. In the weeks before the war broke out in 2003, I visited the village of Halabja in northern Iraq and heard locals describe the day in 1988 when Saddam Hussein’s forces dropped chemical weapons on them. The truth about these weapons would only emerge after the war.
A top Iraqi scientist later told me that Saddam Hussein ordered the destruction of most of his WMD programs in the early 1990s after the end of the first Gulf War in hopes of getting a clean slate from U.N. weapons inspectors. health certificate. The Iraqi leader may want to restart the projects at a later date. But he chose to destroy everything in secret, in part to maintain a bluff that he might still have something he could use against his just-warring neighbor, Iran. So when UN inspectors later asked Iraq to prove that it had destroyed everything, it couldn’t.
An Iraqi scientist later revealed they handled a deadly compound that Western intelligence agencies said went unaccounted for, dumping it into the ground. But it was taking place near a Saddam Hussein compound, a fact they fear admitting would get them killed by the Iraqi leader. The upshot of all of this is that Iraq can never really prove that it no longer has weapons of mass destruction.
In late 2002, UN inspectors returned to Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction. Some inspectors who spoke to the BBC about their experiences for the first time recalled that they went to the location mentioned in the intelligence report of Western countries that there might be a mobile laboratory, but only found a “luxury ice cream truck” covered in spider webs.
The public at the time never understood, and as war loomed, there was concern as sources failed to provide valid information and investigators found nothing. One insider described it as “panicked”. In January 2003, when the pressure to find evidence of WMD was mounting, Blair half-jokingly told Sir Richard: “My future is in your hands.”
“It was frustrating. He accused the inspectors of being ‘incompetent’ for not finding anything,” Sir Richard recalls now. Hans Blix, who led the UN’s chemical and biological inspections, told the BBC that until early 2003 he believed Iraq had weapons (of mass destruction) but became suspicious after the intelligence turned up nothing whether it exists. He wanted more time for an answer, but it didn’t.
Failure to find “smoking guns” of WMD did not prevent the March 2003 war.
“Until the last moment, I was trying to avoid military action,” Blair told the BBC. US President George Bush, fearful that his ally would lose parliamentary elections on the eve of the war, did offer him an opportunity on a video call to back away from the invasion and only participate in the follow-up, but Blair turned it down.
Blair defended his decision, saying it was driven both by the need to deal with Saddam as a matter of principle and by the need to maintain Anglo-American relations. “It will have a big impact on the relationship between the two countries,” he said, adding: “When I was prime minister, whether it was under President Clinton or under President Bush, it made no sense who the president of the United States would pick up the phone first. Doubtful. That would be the British Prime Minister. Today we leave Europe, will Biden call Sunak first? I’m not sure.”
But no weapons of mass destruction were found afterwards either. A former MI6 official recalled the internal censorship of sources after the war: “Everything fell apart”, and it would leave a deep and lasting impact on the intelligence community and on politicians.