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Blair faces Iraq storm

A report Wednesday on prewar British intelligence could expose a credibility gap.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 2004


Inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic into the intelligence underpinning the Iraq war point to a simple conclusion: The spies got it wrong. But the bigger question now is whether their political masters will take the rap.

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President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair both face looming reelection bids with an uncomfortable perception stalking the hustings: The war to rid the world of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was made under false pretenses.

Last week, the US Senate Intelligence Committee seriously challenged prewar intelligence estimates.

This week, Mr. Blair will hear the outcome of the latest British inquiry into intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.

The most likely targets for criticism in the report by Lord Robin Butler are, as in America, not the politicians but the intelligence services and the process through which information was gathered, distilled, and collated. But this, analysts note, raises two key questions.

Can Bush and Blair convince their publics that they did not apply pressure to produce the intelligence they wanted to read? And can they maintain their electoral trustworthiness when the chief reason for the Iraq war has been discredited?

"The intelligence agencies will take quite a bit of blame, but some of the blame will go to their political masters," says Wyn Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University, England, anticipating Wednesday's verdict from the Butler inquiry. "There may be some suggestions that although intelligence was flawed, that it was also misused."

Last week's Senate report was seen as a partial exoneration for politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, as it skirted around the issue of whether the White House - and by association Downing Street - leaned on the intelligence services to produce the kind of damning assessments of the WMD threat that could be used as a casus belli.

But since then, the plot has thickened. Two former intelligence officers have told the BBC that Blair's efforts to justify the war based on the intelligence he was given were dubious. One said his extrapolations went too far.

In particular, his prewar assertion that Mr. Hussein posed a "current and serious threat" when intelligence evidence merely highlighted a possible capability went "way beyond" what any intelligence analyst would have agreed to, the ex-officer, John Morrison, said.

Other intelligence used by the government, such as the claim that Hussein could deploy WMD within 45 minutes, has been criticized by previous inquiries for being taken out of context.

Meanwhile, opposition candidates in both the US and Britain have indicated that flawed intelligence will be an election issue. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, insisted in weekend interviews that the intelligence community should not be made scapegoats for what were essentially political judgements.

James Lorge, a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, says that Blair's obvious response to any criticism over intelligence failures will be that he was merely supplied with information that wasn't true.