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Déjà vu? The Iraq dossier and the publishing of intelligence on Syrian WMDs

By Rory Cormac

On 29 August 2013, the British Government decided to publish the Joint Intelligence Committee’s assessment of Syrian use of chemical weapons.

The committee has concluded that it was ‘highly likely’ that President Assad’s regime was responsible for the chemical attacks on his own population on 21 August, killing at least 350 people.

A covering letter to David Cameron from the committee’s chairman, Jon Day, also summarised the JIC’s views.

This decision to go public is striking. It brings back memories of the search for Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction from a decade ago.

The Joint Intelligence Committee, or JIC as it is more commonly known, gained notoriety in 2002 in the run up to the Iraq war. In fact, it has existed since 1936 and has long served as the government’s intelligence assessment body, issuing reports which have been agreed by all relevant departments. For over 75 years, the JIC has provided ministers with objective assessments designed to inform some of the most important policy decisions.

The current publishing of JIC intelligence is nearly unprecedented. Back in 1964, JIC material was used in the United Nations to justify a British decision to launch air strikes against Yemen. Meanwhile throughout much of the Cold War, Whitehall’s propaganda department unattributably released sanitised intelligence material into the worldwide press in an attempt to counter communism. Similar tactics were used in Northern Ireland to discredit the IRA.

It is the shadow of Iraq, however, that looms darkly over the current decision to publish intelligence. In the summer of 2002, Tony Blair’s government grew increasingly concerned about the direction of public debate in the UK. The media presented military action as imminent and sought answers about why Blair was apparently planning to invade Iraq. To alleviate the pressure, Blair released a dossier on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction based heavily on JIC material. It has remained controversial ever since.

With debate about intervention in Syria growing and the situation escalating quickly, Cameron’s government have been forced to do something similar. Ten years after the Iraq controversy, the government probably thought it even more important to publish intelligence this time around.

Firstly, today’s governments are cautious. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq and political leaders in both Whitehall and Washington have therefore been careful not to point the finger towards Assad too quickly. Moreover, an earlier intelligence failure can create over-compensation next time around. Analysts do not want to be wrong twice.  Evidence has to be found.

Secondly, the public need convincing that evidence has been found. Myriad investigations into intelligence failures over Iraq have surely soured public perceptions of the intelligence-policy relationship.

As a result, Downing Street has published the JIC conclusions regarding Syria – but with some key differences from the infamous dossier of 2002.

  • The report is a JIC assessment not a government dossier. It clearly maintains objective JIC ownership. There is seemingly no room for the accusations of political spin and “sexing up” that hounded Alistair Campbell.
  • The assessment is introduced by a letter to the Prime Minister from Jon Day, the JIC chairman. This is a stark contrast to the foreword covering the 2002 dossier, which was written by Blair. Indeed, Blair’s foreword has been heavily criticised for pushing the available intelligence to its limits and he has since regretted ever writing it at all. The former Prime Minister concedes that he should have simply published the sanitised intelligence. This is exactly what Cameron has done, thereby ensuring that the published intelligence is free from politicisation.
  • Both Day’s letter and the attached assessment clearly state what the JIC does know and crucially what it does not know. It acknowledges limitations and gives confidence ratings to its conclusions. This contrasts with Blair’s foreword and accompanying parliamentary performance which reinforced the impression that firmer intelligence underpinned the dossier. Accordingly, Members of Parliament have voted against the principle of military intervention in Syria. The JIC’s ‘highly likely’ assessment based on ‘limited but growing’ intelligence was clearly not enough. Ministers and the press must remember, however, that intelligence does not work in certainties.

Iraq set the precedent for the publication of JIC intelligence – but the government is learning from the mistakes made a decade ago.

Dr Rory Cormac is the author of a book on the Joint Intelligence Committee and Counterinsurgency. Rory Cormac is also co-author of a forthcoming documentary history of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inBritish PoliticsIntelligenceSecret Intelligence and Covert Action

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