Blair’s dodgy dossier

Britain's evidence of an Iraqi threat is as weak as the opposition to war.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘I have been increasingly alarmed by the evidence from inside Iraq’, says UK prime minister Tony Blair in the foreword to the British government’s assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, published today.

According to Blair, ‘The assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme’ (1).

Blair has come a long way since 7 September 2002. Then, while at Camp David with US President George Bush, he said: ‘We haven’t the faintest idea what has been going on in the last four years…other than what we know is an attempt to carry on rebuilding weapons.’ (2) From not having the faintest idea to 50-plus pages of ‘irrefutable evidence’ in just 17 days? That ain’t half bad.

Of course there is nothing new or shocking in Blair’s dossier against Saddam. An early BBC analysis says, ‘He may be a barrister but it is doubtful Blair would want to go into a court of law with [this] dossier’ (3). Others point out that the dossier ‘consists of a reworking of information that was already public’ (4). According to one sceptic, ‘It has everything you would expect, but little that would convince you’.

The dossier doesn’t have everything you would expect. There is no mention of the alleged link between Iraq and al-Qaeda – even though British intelligence officials claimed just over a week ago that this would be Blair’s ‘major contribution’ to the Iraq debate.

On 15 September 2002, the Sunday Telegraph reported that the draft dossier’s central allegation was that ‘Abu Zubair, believed to be in custody in the USA, and Rafid Fatah, still at large, were trained in Iraq and sent to work with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan’ (5). The paper cited an intelligence official’s claims that the dossier identifies two leading al-Qaeda operatives as having ‘direct links’ to Saddam.

Yet the final version doesn’t mention al-Qaeda at all, or any of Iraq’s other alleged links to terrorists. One commentator asks if those allegations were ditched because, ‘amid all the speculation, there was no room left for lies’ (8).

Perhaps the British government learned from the American experience. There, too, officials have made wild claims about bin Laden and Saddam being in cahoots. In early August 2002, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed ‘there are al-Qaeda in Iraq’, accusing Saddam of ‘harbouring al-Qaeda operatives who fled the US military dragnet in Afghanistan’ (6). In early September 2002, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said: ‘Iraq clearly has links with terrorism that would include al-Qaeda.’ (7)

Yet by the time the Bush administration published A Decade of Deception and Defiance (its allegations against Saddam) on 12 September 2002, all claims of a bin Laden/Saddam love-in had disappeared – and there was just one page on Iraq’s alleged support for terrorism (8). It seems that some claims are just too insubstantial, even for Bush’s and Blair’s dodgy dossiers.

The British dossier alleges that Iraq is trying to build a nuclear weapon. ‘Iraq has been trying to procure items that could be for use in the construction of centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium’, it claims. The key allegation is that the Iraqi regime has attempted to ‘purchase vacuum pumps which could be used to create and maintain pressures in a gas centrifuge cascade need to enrich uranium’ (9).

But when the Americans made the same allegation on 12 September 2002, few experts bought it. Like Blair’s dossier, the White House document claimed that Iraq’s attempts to purchase vacuum pumps pointed to a ‘clandestine programme to make enriched uranium for nuclear bombs’ (10).

The US Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) wasn’t convinced, pointing out that: ‘By themselves, these attempted procurements are not evidence that Iraq is in possession of, or close to possessing, nuclear weapons. They do not provide evidence that Iraq has an operating centrifuge plant or when such a plant could be operational.’ (11)

In response to the US claims, the Financial Times reported three problems with the notion that Iraq’s attempts to buy such materials were evidence of a nuclear weapons programme: ‘First, it is likely but not absolutely clear that this is Iraq’s favoured method of uranium enrichment. Second, the tubes could have been used for something else. Third, the alleged attempt to import the [materials] failed. So even if it was destined for a uranium enrichment facility, it never arrived.’ (12)

It seems the British government has been reduced to rehashing refuted allegations in an attempt to convince us that Iraq wants a nuclear bomb, and will do whatever it takes to get it.

Both the American and British documents rely heavily on the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ September report for the claims about Iraq’s nuclear capability. The IISS document alleged that Iraq could potentially assemble nuclear weapons within months if another country supplied it with nuclear material.

In American and British statements, however, that claim simply becomes, ‘Iraq could make nuclear weapons within months’. Yet according to Gary Samore, author of the IISS report, it would take ‘several years’ and ‘extensive outside help’ for Iraq to kickstart a nuclear weapons programme. ‘We rate the chance of Iraq acquiring fissile material as low’, he says. ‘It would be difficult for Iraq or any other group to obtain enough fissile material to build a weapon.’ (13)

Blair’s dossier seems to consist of little more than speculation, rhetoric and rehashed allegations that have already been challenged. That it was released on the morning of the parliamentary debate, instead of being published weeks earlier so that MPs could pore over the detail and make some checks of their own, suggests that Blair and co are aware that there is little new in it. If it had been the substantial and convincing read that some have claimed, MPs might have been given a chance to actually read it.

But the lack of convincing evidence doesn’t mean Blair won’t win the argument on Iraq. Why? Because the opposition to invading Iraq is weak to non-existent.

The fact that so many of Blair’s anti-war critics have made The Evidence against Iraq their main focus – always demanding better evidence, more evidence, harder evidence – shows that they have no problem with Blair and Bush sitting in judgement on Iraq and deciding when and how to change the regime. They just need a bit more convincing, and would rather it was done through sanctions/enforced inspections/not so many bombs (delete according to how radical you are), rather than all-out war.

Take Clare Short, the UK international development secretary who has been described as ‘a thorn in Blair’s side’ for her ‘staunch opposition’ to war with Iraq. What Short really wants are ‘remedies that will hit Saddam and the elite, not the people’, an intervention that will punish Iraq’s leaders ‘rather than Iraq’s men, women and children’ (14).

This sounds remarkably similar to what the Bush administration is planning. According to The Times (London), the USA is keen on a ‘pinpoint attack’ that will hit Iraqi leaders while leaving the rest of the country intact: ‘The Pentagon has presented President Bush with detailed plans for a war to oust Saddam Hussein that is designed to destroy the Iraqi President’s power base but spare the country’s rank-and-file troops. Under the plan, which departs radically from the military strategy used in the 1991 Gulf War, a narrowly focused but “extremely intense” air bombardment will be aimed at Saddam’s “regime structure”.’ (15)

Short has more in common with Pentagon hawks than she thinks. For all the headaches they might cause Blair, Clare Short, Robin Cook and the other New Labourites critical of all-out war on Iraq do not question Britain or America’s right to intervene and decide who should and shouldn’t run the country. Their focus on the evidence against Saddam suggests that their opposition to war is based more on tactics than principle.

Blair’s evidence might be weak, but so is the opposition to Britain and America’s war. Despite the dodgy dossier, war with Iraq may already be a done deal.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
What ‘anti-war’ movement?, by Mick Hume

The first casualty is clarity, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) See Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government (.pdf), 24 September 2002

(2) Blair: I’ve no idea what Saddam’s up to, Daily Mirror, 9 September 2002

(3) Blair’s case for the prosecution, BBC News, 24 September 2002

(4) MPs debate Iraq evidence, BBC News, 24 September 2002

(5) See Blair’s dossier: Saddam linked to bin Laden, NewsMax, 16 September 2002

(6) Iraq harbours al-Qaeda, Rumsfeld says, Globe and Mail, 7 August 2002

(7) Iraq has links to al-Qaeda: Condoleezza Rice,, 15 September 2002

(8) A Decade of Deception and Defiance, White House, 12 September 2002

(9) See Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government (.pdf), 24 September 2002

(10) Evidence on Iraq challenged, Washington Post, 19 September 2002

(11) Evidence on Iraq challenged, Washington Post, 19 September 2002

(12) ‘Doubts over recent arms programme’, Financial Times, 22 September 2002

(13) Iraq lacks material for nuclear bomb, study says, Washington Post, 10 September 2002

(14) Clare Short defiant on Iraq war, Reuters, 22 September 2002

(15) Pentagon plans pinpoint attack to oust Saddam, The Times (London), 23 September 2002

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Topics Politics


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