Saddam Hussein's supposed active pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear "weapons of mass destruction" was the main justification that President George Bush and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, gave for launching the invasion of Iraq last year. However, when America's then-chief weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay, gave his interim report to Congress this year, he had to admit that months of post-war searching had turned up precious little evidence of such weapons programs. The American intelligence reports claiming they did exist were "almost all wrong," he admitted. By implication, so were the similar claims made by British intelligence. Bush and, in turn, Blair were thus forced to launch separate inquiries into where their spies went wrong.
On Wednesday, five days after its American equivalent, the British inquiry, led by Lord Butler, a former senior civil servant, announced its findings. Both inquiries reached essentially the same conclusion: Spy chiefs' reports, on which the case for war was based, had reached unjustifiably strong conclusions and failed to admit that these were based on shaky evidence. This means that the two intelligence dossiers presented to the American and British people by their leaders, just before the war, exaggerated the likelihood that Hussein's regime was a serious threat to the West.
However, there were notable differences in the tone of the two inquiries' reports. The American report, written by a bipartisan committee of senators, was scathing. A few weeks before its publication, George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, announced his resignation, for "personal reasons." By contrast, Lord Butler's report, in characteristic British civil-service fashion, went out of its way to insist that no individuals could be blamed for the misleading contents of the now-notorious "September dossier," as its failings were "collective." Lord Butler specifically recommended that the government reject any calls for the resignation of John Scarlett. As the chairman of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), Scarlett was the dossier's lead author. He has since been appointed director of the Secret Intelligence Service (familiarly known as MI6).
Lord Butler was not asked to look at how politicians and their advisers used the reports provided by the intelligence agencies - the U.S. Senate inquiry, by contrast, will go on to look into this question.
However, both inquiries have said they found no evidence that spy chiefs had been pressured to produce assessments that suited policy decisions their political masters had already taken.
No direct pressure perhaps, but as the Butler report noted, the Blair government's desire for a dossier that supported its policy on Iraq "put a strain" on the JIC as it tried to uphold "normal standards of neutral and objective assessment." Furthermore, the Butler inquiry's assertion that spymasters had not been under political pressure is undermined by its failure to question Alastair Campbell, Blair's former chief spin-doctor. An earlier official inquiry, by Lord Hutton - into how one of the September dossier's main assertions had led to the suicide of David Kelly, a British expert on Iraqi weapons - had expressed concerns about the closeness of the working relationship between Campbell and Scarlett.
The British dossier's most controversial assertion was that Hussein had biological and chemical weapons that could be deployed within 45 minutes. At the time, the Blair government did little to discourage the widespread assumption that this meant long-range weapons could reach British targets, such as the military base on Cyprus. However, the Butler inquiry (like an earlier inquiry by a parliamentary committee) said the dossier ought not to have included the 45-minute claim without making it clear that intelligence chiefs thought it referred to short-range, battlefield weapons - or at least it should have admitted that it was unclear what sort of weapons it referred to.
In general, the British and American inquiries criticized their countries' intelligence chiefs for omitting the strong caveats and doubts they ought to have attached to their assertions, especially in the dossiers. Another example of this was the aluminum tubes that Hussein had been seeking, supposedly to make centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs. The Butler inquiry criticizes the British dossier for failing to admit that the tubes would have had to be substantially re-engineered to make them suitable for centrifuges. The Senate inquiry criticized the CIA for implying in the public version of its dossier that the tubes probably were for making bomb materials, whereas in a second, secret version of the dossier shown to congressmen, it admitted that the Department of Energy had concluded they probably were not.
The two inquiries reiterate some of the weaknesses of intelligence-gathering that have become widely recognized since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America. The CIA, MI6 and other agencies had a poor reading of threats because they had too few firsthand sources in the region. Those sources they did have were not properly confirmed. Because both British and American intelligence were found to have underestimated Hussein's weapons programs in the run-up to the first Persian Gulf war in the early 1990s, they might have overcompensated for this by overstating the evidence this time around.
The latest inquiries - which will be followed in the next few days by a separate inquiry report on the intelligence failures relating to the Sept. 11 attacks - will give opponents of Bush and Blair plenty of ammunition. The failure to find illegal weapons programs in Iraq has helped undermine Bush's reputation, and he faces a struggle to get himself re-elected in November. Blair, who will probably face the voters' verdict next year, is also weakened; last week there was renewed speculation that he has been thinking of stepping down. However, their political opponents are not in such a strong position to attack: Sen. John Kerry, Bush's Democratic challenger, read the more detailed, classified version of the CIA dossier (or could have) and still backed the war. Michael Howard, the leader of Britain's main opposition Conservative Party, also supported the war.
Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Republican chairman of America's version of the Butler inquiry, said he did not know if Congress would have let the war go ahead if it had known what is now known about the quality of the intelligence. If the British dossier had been more frank, Blair might also have been unable to convince Parliament and the British public of the case for war.
Who knows, the fabled illegal arms might turn up. A senior official in the new Iraqi government suggested this week that materials for making such weapons might have been shifted into neighboring countries. Meanwhile, American inspectors continue to search for them in Iraq, which Lord Butler noted is a very large country, with "lots of sand" in which to hide things.