‘Butler Report’ author calls intelligence prior to Iraq invasion a fiasco

A former British Cabinet Secretary and the author of the “Butler Report” calls the intelligence used by the United Kingdom, the U.S. and other nations prior to the Iraq invasion the “biggest intelligence fiasco of the modern age.”

Lord Robin Butler, Master of University College, Oxford, and a Cabinet Secretary under Prime Ministers Edward Heath, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, discussed “Iraq: Why did the intelligence go so horribly wrong?” at a noon luncheon for faculty across campus in the Worrell Professional Center on Thursday, Jan. 21.

Lord Butler and his wife, Lady Butler, became friends with School of Law Dean Blake Morant and his wife, P.J., when Dean Morant was on a visiting fellowship at University College. “It was a great delight to get to know Blake and P.J. when they came over and a great privilege to come here,” he said.

In 2004, Butler led a major investigation of the British decision to go to war in Iraq. The document produced by that investigation — known as the “Butler Report,” the equivalent to the American 9/11 Commission Report — concluded that some of the intelligence about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was flawed.

“My focus was always the embarrassing question of why it was that the intelligence communities of the United States and the United Kingdom, of Russia, of Israel, all came to the conclusion that there were stocks of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq and aspirations to have a nuclear weapon, and when we had possession of the country, it turned out this basis for the military action turned out to be false.

“This was not a fabricated view on the part of the intelligence community. And the most obvious proof of that, I think everyone saw this, was when you are going to get possession of a country as the result of a military action and you investigate it, why should you say something beforehand that is going to be proven to be untrue?”

Butler continued, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the intelligence community, both professionally and morally, had come to the conclusion that such a program existed and that the threat of acquisition of nuclear weapons was very real and yet that turned out to be false. When I was conducting my review, we had huge cooperation from the intelligence agencies because they themselves were embarrassed about what must have been the biggest intelligence fiasco of the modern age.”

So where did the intelligence agencies go wrong?

According to Butler, Iraq was a difficult target for intelligence, in part because there were few human sources, and the ones they did find were unreliable.

“A lot of the human sources had agendas of their own, a lot wanted to get rid of Saddam, they wanted money, so they were inclined to tell the West what the West wanted to hear,” he said.
“And then even when there were good human sources they didn’t have direct evidence, they were relying on second and third sources.”

Another reason was that Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction previously. Hussein used chemical weapons against in the war against Iran and against the population of his own country, the Kurds, so the intelligence agencies of the world started from the assumption that he would use them again. Moreover, Saddam behaved as if he had weapons of mass destruction.

“He behaved deceptively; he had made every sort of difficulty for the U.N. inspectors and overhead inspections showed U.N. inspectors arriving at the plants and people going out the back door scurrying with boxes,” Butler said. “What were they trying to hide?”

A third reason is known as mirror imaging, according to Butler. “That’s when the intelligence analysts think their adversary will behave as rationally as they would themselves,” he said. “And of course it seemed, and seems, crazy that with the U.S. and Britain amassing at the border, that Saddam would still try to give the impression that he had this material when his military forces had absolutely no prospect whatsoever of resisting the invasion.”

Butler said the intelligence community didn’t compensate for past mistakes. “After the first Gulf War, after Iraq repulsed from Kuwait, the West was alarmed to find there was a nuclear weapons program in Iraq, and they wanted to not make the same mistake again so they were disposed to play safe.

“The risks of underestimating what was happening in Iraq was greater than the risks of overestimating what was happening in Iraq,” he explained. “When you are preparing for military action, it’s much more of a disaster to send your troops into a theater of war without protection of a weapon you may face rather than overprotection.

Butler that he is not saying any of the intelligence communities twisted their conclusions simply to satisfy the politicians, but there was tremendous pressure to justify the military action. “The military was there and there was tremendous pressure to produce results,” he said.

The list of what went wrong with the intelligence in the war with Iraq is formidable, Butler said.

“But I would like to believe those lessons will be a staple diet for our intelligence communities of the future,” he said. “If there’s one conclusion, we shouldn’t give up on intelligence or think it is hopeless, or unreliable or not worth investigating. It is crucial to know that with intelligence, you should always be prepared for it to be the wrong intelligence.
“My conclusions were that this presented absolute object lessons for any collective intelligence and any assessment for intelligence in the years to come the traps that lie in the way of the use of intelligence as the basis for foreign policy decisions,” he said. “Intelligence is crucial but it should also be treated with skepticism.”

– By Lisa Snedeker