By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005
Seven months before the invasion of Iraq, the head of British foreign intelligence reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair that President Bush wanted to topple Saddam Hussein by military action and warned that in Washington intelligence was "being fixed around the policy," according to notes of a July 23, 2002, meeting with Blair at No. 10 Downing Street.
"Military action was now seen as inevitable," said the notes, summarizing a report by Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, British intelligence, who had just returned from consultations in Washington along with other senior British officials. Dearlove went on, "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
"The case was thin," summarized the notes taken by a British national security aide at the meeting. "Saddam was not threatening his neighbours and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."
The notes were first disclosed last week by the Sunday Times of London, triggering criticism of Blair on the eve of the May 5 British parliamentary elections that he had decided to support an invasion of Iraq well before informing the public of his views.
The notes of the Blair meeting, attended by the prime minister's senior national security team, also disclose for the first time that Britain's intelligence boss believed that Bush had decided to go to war in mid-2002, and that he believed U.S. policymakers were trying to use the limited intelligence they had to make the Iraqi leader appear to be a bigger threat than was supported by known facts.
Although critics of the Iraq war have accused Bush and his top aides of misusing what has since been shown as limited intelligence in the prewar period, Bush's critics have been unsuccessful in getting an investigation of that matter.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has dropped its previous plan to review how U.S. policymakers used Iraq intelligence, and the president's commission on intelligence did not look into the subject because it was not authorized to do so by its charter, Laurence H. Silberman, the co-chairman, told reporters last month.
The British Butler Commission, which last year reviewed that country's intelligence performance on Iraq, also studied how that material was used by the Blair government. The panel concluded that Blair's speeches and a published dossier on Iraq used language that left "the impression that there was fuller and firmer intelligence than was the case," according to the Butler report.
It described the July 23 meeting as coming at a "key stage" in preparation for taking action against Iraq but described it primarily as a session at which Blair favored reengagement of U.N. inspectors against a background of intelligence that Hussein would not accept them unless "the threat of military action were real."
During the July 2002 time frame, Bush was working to build support in the United States for a war against Hussein, while a U.S. base in Qatar was being expanded and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was trying to get Turkey to assist in potential military action against the Iraqi leader.
A spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington said he would not comment on the substance of the document.
Blair's senior advisers at the July 2002 session decided they would prepare an "ultimatum" for Iraq to permit U.N. inspectors to return, despite being told that Bush's National Security Council, then headed by Condoleezza Rice, "had no patience with the U.N. route," according to the notes. "The prime minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the U.N. inspectors."
Although Dearlove reported that the NSC had "no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record," the Blair team soon set in motion preparation of the public dossier on Iraq, which was published in late September 2002.
Another piece of the British memo has relevance now, as the United States battles an insurgency that some say was exacerbated by faulty planning for the post-invasion period. "There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action," the notes say, without attributing that directly to Dearlove.
The "U.S. has already begun 'spikes of activity' to put pressure on the regime," the British defense secretary reported, according to the notes. Although no final decision had been made, "he thought the most likely timing in U.S. minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the U.S. congressional elections."
As it finally worked out, the Bush administration's public campaign for supporting a possible invasion of Iraq began the next month, in late August, with speeches by Vice President Cheney, followed by a late October vote in Congress to grant the president authority to use force if necessary. Later in October, the British and the Americans introduced their resolution on Iraq in the U.N. Security Council and it passed in early November, shortly after the Nov. 2 elections.