The Butler report: where did Iraq’s weapons go?

Ron G Manley
20 July 2004

The recent British Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction, produced by a committee headed by the former cabinet secretary Robin Butler – informally known as the Butler Report – provides one of the most informative insights into the intelligence gathering process ever released into the public domain.

It does so by illustrating the difficulties and uncertainties attached to each stage of the process, from information collection and validation (checking the reliability of the information and its source) to assessment (what the information reveals). Throughout, the report emphasises that intelligence assessments are invariably based on a balance of probabilities and almost always come with carefully chosen caveats. The reader and user of the intelligence information, when deciding on what action to take on the information provided, ignores these caveats at their peril.

Also by Ron Manley in openDemocracy, an extraordinary account of his experiences as a weapons inspector in Iraq, and informed comment:

  • “Iraq and chemical weapons: a view from the inside” (July 2003)

  • “The Iraq weapons report: a review” (October 2003)
  • Thus, to understand the nuances and limitations of an intelligence assessment is not an easy task for the non-specialist reader. In this sense, the decision to produce a document suitable for distribution to a non-expert readership, based on intelligence assessments but without the inclusion of the normal caveats, was probably from the outset a guarantee of grievous disappointment. Even if weapons of mass destruction (WMD) had been found in Iraq after the seven-week war launched in March 2003, questions would still have remained regarding some of the non-caveated statements in the September 2002 dossier which the British government presented to the public as part of its case for war. As it is, that dossier is now wholly discredited and the intelligence services have, however unjustly, shared the blame.

    How to assess intelligence?

    Robin Butler’s report also stresses the importance of the assessment role and highlights the particular difficulties associated with the assessment of intelligence relating to WMD. For example, the report states:

      “Analysis can be conducted only by people expert in the subject matter – a severe limitation when the topic is as specialised as biological warfare or uranium enrichment….” [paragraph 32]

    Later, the report comments specifically on the difference between the quality of assessment in relation to, first, nuclear activities and, second, chemical and biological weapon (CBW)-related activities:

      “Our fourth impression is of differences in the quality of the assessments carried out by the JIC. We have been impressed by intelligence assessments on Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. …” [paragraph 208]

      “We recognise that assessments in the chemical and biological weapons fields are intrinsically more difficult, and that analysis draws on different intelligence techniques..…Our impression is that they were less complete.” [paragraph 209]

    Butler suggests that a key reason for this difference is the dual nature of much of the equipment and facilities necessary for the development and production of chemical and biological weapons; this, it argues, makes detection and identification of covert activities in this area more difficult.

    This is clearly a factor but not, I would argue, the principal one. The UK still has nuclear weapons, retains the capability to design and build them – and thus has the expertise to help assess intelligence relating to nuclear programmes.

    The situation with respect to chemical and biological weapons, however, is very different. The United Kingdom gave up the development and production of these weapons many years ago and its hands-on expertise in this field is now severely limited.

    Charles Peña assesses the political lessons of the United States intelligence failure over Iraqi WMD in America’s intelligence wars: asking the wrong question (July 2004)

    The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, usually known as MI6) can still draw on experts within the Defence Intelligence Service (DIS) and from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down who understand the practice and theory of chemical and biological weapons production. But even these experts are today likely to have only limited, if any, practical experience of the actual production processes used to manufacture such weapons.

    They may have had the opportunity to visit production facilities in other countries and to talk to their operators, but it is unlikely that any of them will have had the opportunity to actually work in such facilities. This lack of experience makes the assessment of intelligence information relating to the development and production of these weapons much more difficult; and it is not just a UK problem.

    The case of VX

    One example of the consequences of this lack of practical knowledge is the judgment that Iraq was continuing with the industrial production of the chemical agent VX – the most toxic of the nerve agents. In 1997, experts from a number of countries concluded that – since the Iraqis clearly understood the chemistry of VX production and admitted that they had tried to develop a large-scale industrial production process for its manufacture – they must have been capable of such production. On the basis of this expert report, American and British government officials later stated that Iraq had produced and hidden up to 3,000 tonnes of VX.

    If the experts had some practical experience of operating a VX production unit and a better understanding of Iraq’s technical capabilities, they might have reached a different conclusion – perhaps giving more credence to Iraq’s claim that it was able only to produce three to four tonnes of very poor quality VX that had rapidly decomposed. To know the chemistry and be able to produce a few grams in a laboratory is one thing; producing the same material on a tonne scale is a very different matter. Doubts must remain as to whether Iraq ever had the technical skill and facilities to complete such an operation. The lack of any evidence, in the period since the war, that they had successfully produced VX on a large scale suggests that such doubts are well-founded.

    Most countries in the world have renounced the development and production of chemical and biological weapons and, therefore, the global knowledge base in this field is rapidly shrinking.

    While this is the long-term objective of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions, it presents the problem – as long as the risk of the development and use of such weapons remain a threat – of ensuring that sufficient expertise is retained to enable the accurate assessment of intelligence information in this area.

    It is noteworthy, however, that, despite these limitations, some experts within DIS did voice serious concerns over the statements in the dossier that Iraq had resumed the large scale production of chemical and biological weapons after the UN inspectors left in 1998. As events have subsequently shown, it was unfortunate that their superiors and colleagues within the SIS chose to brush aside these concerns.

    Are there any WMD in Iraq?

    Before the 2003 war in Iraq and immediately after, government officials in the United States and United Kingdom alike frequently asserted that the American and British intelligence position on Iraq’s possession of stocks of chemical and biological weapons was also supported by Unscom and its successor Unmovic. But was this the case?

    While the Butler report concludes:

      “it would be a rash person who asserted at this stage that evidence of Iraqi possession of stocks of biological or chemical agents, or even of banned missiles, does not exist or will never be found” [paragraph 392]

    it also qualifies this statement:

      “We were told that the volume of biological and chemical agents unaccounted for at the time of UNSCOM’s departure, even if they were all held together, would fit into a petrol tanker….” [paragraph 391]

    To put this quantity into perspective: the US stockpile of chemical weapons declared under the Chemical Weapons Convention was about 32,000 tonnes of chemical agent, the Russian stockpile around 40,000 tonnes. Immediately prior to the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq’s known chemical weapons stockpile was estimated to be between 6,000 and 10,000 tonnes [see paragraph 174].

    The small amount of chemical agent (approximately four to five tonnes) that could be contained in the volume of a petrol tanker would be useful as a terrorist weapon, but it could in no way be considered a significant military threat.

    Lord Butler’s comment [paragraph 392] suggests that the intelligence services were fully aware that any unaccounted for, pre-1998 CBW material remaining in Iraq did not pose a military threat.

    Although it has not been widely reported, a small number of pre-1991 filled shells and chemical rockets have been uncovered in recent months in Iraq. Analysis of their contents reveals that their sarin (nerve gas) component had decomposed to the extent that it no longer presented a danger – further confirmation that any pre-1991 chemical or biological weapons remaining in Iraq are unlikely to pose any significant threat.

    Each week in openDemocracy, Paul Rogers writes a column analysing the security, intelligence, and political issues surrounding the war in Iraq

    The performance of Unscom and Unmovic

    In recent years, numerous authorities have cast doubt on the ability of Unscom and Unmovic to find and eliminate – or at least contain – Iraq’s WMD programmes. It is noteworthy, therefore, that the Butler report makes the following comment on this issue:

      “We note that much of what was reliably known about Iraq’s unconventional weapons programmes in the mid- and late-1990s was obtained through the reports of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These international agencies now appear to have been more effective than was realised at the time in dismantling and inhibiting Iraq’s prohibited weapons programmes. The value of such international organisations needs to be recognised and built on for the future, supported by the contribution of intelligence from national agencies.” [paragraph 584]

    Let us hope that this will go some way towards countering the adverse comments made with respect to these organisations both before and since the second Gulf war of 2003.

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