PAUL BARRATT. Faulty intelligence, or a war pre-ordained?

Jul 12, 2016


In releasing his momentous report on 6 July Sir John Chilcot stated that the judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMD – were presented with a certainty that was not justified. He also said it is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments, which should have been challenged.

In my view Chilcot is too kind to Blair and, by implication, to John Howard. There may have been flaws in the intelligence picture – there always are – but flawed intelligence is not the reason Blair and Howard took their nations to war.

Nevertheless, both former British PM Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard have relied heavily on these remarks in justifying the actions they took at the time, insisting that they took the right decision based upon the evidence that was available at the time.

The question arises, therefore – were the US, UK and Australian Governments lured by faulty intelligence into their catastrophic decision to invade Iraq? 

The March 2003 invasion of Iraq was presented to the Australian public as a regrettable necessity resulting from the dire threat presented by Iraqi possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), a threat rendered more dire by the impression that was created in the United States and Australia that these WMD might fall into the hands of terrorists.

In fact, for anyone paying attention there was abundant evidence in the late 1990s that in the event of a Republican being elected in 2000 to succeed President Bill Clinton, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by military force would be very much on the cards. Accordingly, the foregoing representation of the threat from Iraq was part of a calculated strategy to market a war that had long been planned.

Pursuit of the agenda to remove Saddam saw the establishment in 1997 of the neoconservative-dominated Project for the New American Century (PNAC) to promote “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity”. Among its foundation principles was the “need to accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles”[1]. Several leading members of PNAC, such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Richard Armitage, were to become prominent members of the defence and foreign policy establishment in the Bush Administration.

In January 1998 PNAC published an open letter to President Bill Clinton calling for a new strategy to remove Saddam Hussein from power; the letter made explicit that this meant a willingness to undertake military action[2]. In September 1998 Paul Wolfowitz testified to the House National Security Committee in favour of the use of American military power to liberate “ourselves, our friends and allies in the region, and the Iraqi people themselves, from the menace of Saddam Hussein”[3]. On 31 October 1998 President Clinton signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act, the central purpose of which was regime change[4]. This legislation provided almost $100 million in military assistance to anti-Saddam forces in Iraq[5].

In November 1998 PNAC Project Director Robert Kagan editorialised in The Weekly Standard that it was time to complete the unfinished business of the 1991 Gulf War and get rid of Saddam[6].

Ten days after becoming president in 2001, Bush met for the first time with his national security principals, with “Mideast policy” as the advertised subject. The principal outcome of the meeting was that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton, were to examine “our military options” and “how it might look” to use U.S. ground forces to challenge Saddam Hussein[7].

When the principals reconvened at the end of February, Rumsfeld cut into a discussion about sanctions against Iraq to say “Sanctions are fine, but what we really want to think about is going after Saddam”[8]. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who was at the meeting, said later:

“From the beginning, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country. And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The President was saying, ‘Fine. Go find me a way to do this’”[9].

In his 2010 book Intelligence and US Foreign Policy, Paul R. Pillar, the CIA’s national intelligence officer responsible for the Middle East 2000-05 observed that policymakers were not choosing an objective in response to dangers and demands being made known to them regarding WMD or anything else, they were “building the case” for an objective upon which they had already decided, the ouster of Saddam Hussein[10]. Top officials knew what policy they intended to pursue and selected intelligence assessments to promote that policy based on their political usefulness, not their credibility[11].

Pillar went on to say that what was most remarkable about prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq was not that it got things wrong and thereby misled policymakers; it is that it played so small a role in one of the most important U.S. policy decisions in recent decades[12].

Following 9/11, which drastically changed the mood of the American public[13], the opportunity was taken to condition public opinion to the notion that invading Iraq would be part of a global “war on terror”. Throughout this campaign the Bush administration used its control of intelligence information to present to the public and the world a false picture of U.S. information about Iraqi threats. Analyses that supported the administration’s inflated claims were publicised, while those that contradicted pro-war claims remained classified. Further, at least some of the favourable analyses were produced by coercion of intelligence agencies and analysts[14].

While publicly constructing the case for war, throughout 2002 President Bush maintained the deception that he was not preparing for it, saying repeatedly in press conferences and in private conversations with members of his cabinet that there were no war plans on his desk[15]. By mid-year, however, America’s British allies were well aware of what was afoot. The head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Richard Dearlove, told Prime Minister Tony Blair and his senior national security advisers at a meeting on 23 July, ‘Military action [is] now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD”. He went on to say that ‘the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy’, the Bush Administration ‘had no patience with the UN route’, and ‘there was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action’[16]. On this latter point, Pillar observed, ‘If the entire body of official intelligence analysis on Iraq had a policy implication, it was to avoid war – or, if war was going to be launched, to prepare for a messy aftermath’[17].

What did the Howard Government know?

In any examination of the specifics of how, when and on what terms Australia became committed to the invasion of Iraq, the central question is whether John Howard was, like Tony Blair, an ‘eyes open’ participant in the Bush Administration’s machinations, or whether he was duped by them.

If the Howard Government did not know what the Blair Government knew, it should have, both directly from the Americans and indirectly from the British. That is the reason Australia maintains diplomatic missions abroad, and why it has very senior and well-connected people at the helm in the most important of them.

In fact there is good reason to believe that the Howard Government was in on the game. Garry Woodard says the Australian Government would have seen most of the neocons’ aspirations as legitimate, if they could be achieved at acceptable cost[18]. Howard was in Washington at the time of 9/11, would likely have been briefed on the possibility of war with Iraq, and was a paid-up member of the war club from that point. His Ambassador and former senior adviser (international) Michael Thawley (Ambassador to the United States 2000-2005) is often paid the compliment of having been as close as any ambassador to the neocons[19].

It is the view of other well-informed observers that Australia committed itself to participate in the war at an early stage. Hugh White argued that the decision to invade Iraq was taken not in early 2003 as represented by the Government, but the year before:

“In the weeks after George Bush put the invasion on the agenda with his ‘axis of evil’ speech in January 2002, Australia clearly indicated it would be willing to join. Of course no formal commitments were made until the eve of battle – they never are. But the key political decision had already been taken[20]”.

Garry Woodard notes that it is acknowledged publicly that Australia participated actively in the war planning from July 2002, and cites Thawley as stating that on Iraq we set out clearly what forces we were prepared to provide and what we were prepared to do[21].

John Howard’s protestations to the effect that he was led into error by faulty intelligence are difficult to sustain.

Paul Barratt AO is President of Australians for War Powers Reform and is a former Secretary to the Department of Defence.

[1] Project for the New American Century, Statement of Principles, 3 June 1997, at, (accessed 22 August 2013 – account now suspended). An archived copy of the page may be found at

[2] Project for the New American Century, Open Letter to President Clinton, 26 January 1998, at (accessed 22 August 2013 – account now suspended). An archived copy of the page may be found at

[3] Paul Wolfowitz, 1998 Statement Before the House National Security Committee, at (accessed 22 August 2013 – account now suspended). An archived copy of this page may be found at

[4] William Clinton, Statement on Signing the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, 31 October 1998, The American Presidency Project, at:

[5] Robert Kagan, ‘How to Attack Iraq’, The Weekly Standard, 16 November 1998, 17-18 at,98.pdf (accessed 22 August 2013 – account now suspended). An archived copy of this page may be found at,98.pdf

[6] Ibid.

[7] Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy, 24.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neil, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), p 86.

[10] Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy, 25.

[11] Chaim Kaufmann, ‘Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas: The Selling of the Iraq War’, International Security 29:1 (Summer 2004): 9.

[12] Paul R. Pillar, ‘Intelligence, Policy and the War in Iraq’, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006: 15-16.

[13] Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy, 25.

[14] Ibid., 37.

[15] Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy, 29.

[16] Ibid., 28

[17] Pillar, ‘Intelligence, Policy and the War in Iraq’, 16

[18] Garry Woodard, We Now Know About Going to War in Iraq (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007), 5. Monograph originally posted on Melbourne University Press website, now available on Nautilus Institute website at

[19] Woodard, We Now Know, 10-12.

[20] Hugh White, ‘Why Howard took us to war’, The Age, 26 February 2004.

[21] Woodard, We Now Know, 14.

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