Lies, half-truths and omissions on the road to war against Iraq

Blair repeatedly misled parliament and the public over the evidence behind Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and his ability and intent to use them.

David Morrison
28 October 2015


Flickr/Devin Ford

, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“We believe that the sanctions regime has effectively contained Saddam Hussein in the last 10 years. During this time he has not attacked his neighbours, nor used chemical weapons against his own people.” (Prime Minister Blair, written answer, House of Commons, 1 November 2000)

“And frankly they [economic sanctions] have worked. He [Saddam Hussein] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbours. So in effect, our policies have strengthened the security of the neighbours of Iraq, and these are policies that we are going to keep in place …” (Secretary of State Powell, press conference in Cairo, 24 February 2001)

So in early 2001, when President Bush succeeded President Clinton in the White House, the common view in Washington and London was that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was little threat to its neighbours, and none at all to the US/UK. “And frankly they [economic sanctions] have worked. He [Saddam Hussein] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction." (Colin Powell, 2001)

Disarming Iraq

After the Gulf War, on 3 April 1991, the Security Council had passed resolution 687, which banned Iraq from possessing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons (so-called “weapons of mass destruction” – WMD) and missiles with a range greater than 150km. In accordance with that resolution, IAEA inspectors destroyed Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme and UNSCOM [UN Special Commission] inspectors destroyed its chemical and biological weapons programmes, including its facilities for producing chemical and biological agents. UNSCOM also destroyed most of the chemical and biological weapons and weapons-related material and proscribed missiles arising from those programmes, which had not been used up in the Iran-Iraq war or been destroyed by Iraq itself.

(See Iraq: Lies, Half-truths & Omissions, Annex B for extracts from the Amorim Report published in March 1999, which describes the degree to which the IAEA and UNSCOM had managed to fulfil their disarmament mission from 1991 to 1998. The full Amorim Report is available here.)

Proscribed weapons and material “unaccounted for”

In December 1998, the UN inspectors had to be withdrawn from Iraq for their own safety, because President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair were about to launch Operation Desert Fox, a 3-day bombing campaign against Iraq. At that time, the Iraqi regime had been saying for some time that all of its proscribed material had been destroyed. It was not the contention of UNSCOM in December 1998 that Iraq was lying when it said this, merely that Iraq had not provided documentary or other proof that the material had been destroyed. Until Iraq did so, UNSCOM inspectors deemed that material “unaccounted for”.

That did not mean that the material existed. UNSCOM and their successors in UNMOVIC repeatedly drew the distinction between what was “unaccounted for” and what was known to exist. For example, the head of UNMOVIC Hans Blix told the UN Security Council on 14 February 2003:

"… many proscribed weapons and items are not accounted for. To take an example, a document, which Iraq provided, suggested to us that some 1,000 tonnes of chemical agent were 'unaccounted for'. One must not jump to the conclusion that they exist."

In other words, neither UNSCOM in December 1998 nor UNMOVIC inspectors in March 2003 ruled out the possibility that Iraq had no proscribed weapons at all – which turned out to be the case.

Tony Blair misleads the House of Commons about “unaccounted for” material

However, time and time again in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair and his ministers jumped to this conclusion, and gave the impression that, according to UNSCOM, Iraq had an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and weapons-related material, when all UNSCOM inspectors had said was that material was “unaccounted for”.

For example, Tony Blair told MPs on 18 March 2003, when they voted to endorse military action:

“When the inspectors left in 1998, they left unaccounted for 10,000 litres of anthrax; a far-reaching VX nerve agent programme; up to 6,500 chemical munitions; at least 80 tonnes of mustard gas, and possibly more than 10 times that amount; unquantifiable amounts of sarin, botulinum toxin and a host of other biological poisons; and an entire Scud missile programme. We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years — contrary to all history, contrary to all intelligence — Saddam decided unilaterally to destroy those weapons. I say that such a claim is palpably absurd.”

There, Tony Blair stated as a fact that proscribed material deemed “unaccounted for” by UN inspectors actually existed. In doing so, he seriously misled the House of Commons.

No mention of degradation of chemical and biological agents

This egregious misrepresentation was compounded by the fact that the prime minister didn’t tell MPs then or at any other time that much of Iraq’s pre-Gulf War stocks of chemical and biological agents he listed, if they existed at all, would have degraded to such an extent that they would no longer be effective as warfare agents. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) published a report on Iraq’s proscribed weapons on 9 September 2002. The government’s own dossier published a few weeks later referred to it approvingly as “an independent and well-researched overview”.

The IISS report comments on the possible deterioration of nerve agents manufactured prior to the Gulf War. Here, we are talking about so-called G-agents (tabun, sarin and cyclosarin) and V-agents (VX). The IISS assessment is as follows:

“As a practical matter, any nerve agent from this period [pre-1991] would have deteriorated by now” (p51)

“Any VX produced by Iraq before 1991 is likely to have decomposed over the past decade”  (p52)

“Any G-agent or V-agent stocks that Iraq concealed from UNSCOM inspections are likely to have deteriorated by now.” (p53).

And as regards botulinum toxin, the IISS dossier concluded:

“Any botulinum toxin produced in 1989-90 would no longer be useful" (p40).

The prime minister didn’t tell MPs any of this on 18 March 2003.

Hussein Kamal said all proscribed weapons had been destroyed

Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, was the director of Iraq's Military Industrialisation Corporation, which was responsible for Iraq’s proscribed weapons programmes. In August 1995, he defected to Jordan and was interviewed by an IAEA/UNSCOM team in Amman on 22 August 1995. He later returned to Iraq and was executed. As a result of his defection, the UNSCOM’s knowledge of Iraq’s biological weapons programme was greatly enhanced.

In the months before the US/UK invasion of Iraq, the government continually cited Kamal as a valuable source of information about Iraq’s weapons programmes, and as proof that interrogation of Iraqis who participated in these programmes, rather than detective work by UN inspectors, was the way to acquire a comprehensive picture of the weapons.

For instance, Tony Blair told MPs on 18 March 2003:

“In August [1995], it [Iraq] provided yet another full and final declaration. Then, a week later, Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, defected to Jordan. He disclosed a far more extensive biological weapons programme and, for the first time, said that Iraq had weaponised the programme — something that Saddam had always strenuously denied.”

The Prime Minister chose not to divulge to MPs that Kamal also told UN inspectors that, on his orders, all Iraq’s proscribed weapons had been destroyed.

A transcript of the IAEA/UNSCOM interview with Kamal came into the public domain in early 2003. In that interview, he said:

“I ordered destruction [sic] of all chemical weapons. All weapons — biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed” (p13).

Earlier (p7), he described anthrax as the “main focus” of Iraq’s biological programme and when asked “were weapons and agents destroyed?” he replied: “Nothing remained”. 

Of missiles, he said: “not a single missile left but they had blueprints and molds [sic] for production. All missiles were destroyed.” (p8)

(A transcript of a CNN interview with Hussein Kamal on 21 September 1995 can be read here. In it, he said ”Iraq does not possess any weapons of mass destruction”.)

Intelligence based statements about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction

Numerous statements by Tony Blair and other ministers about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” from March 2002 onwards were not justified by the intelligence at the time the statements were made. An invaluable source of information about this is Chapter 1 of A Case to Answer by Glen Rangwala.

To give one example, the Joint Intelligence Committee's (JIC) assessment of 15 March 2002 said:

“Intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy ... From the evidence available to us, we believe Iraq retains some production equipment, and some small stocks of CW agent precursors, and may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons ... There is no intelligence on any BW agent production facilities but one source indicates that Iraq may have developed mobile production facilities.” (Butler report, Annex B)

Yet, a few weeks later on 3 April 2002, Tony Blair told NBC news:

“We know that he [Saddam Hussein] has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons, we know that he is trying to acquire nuclear capability, we know that he is trying to develop ballistic missile capability of a greater range.”

There, he has transformed the “small quantities” that might exist, according to the JIC assessment, into "stockpiles" of "major amounts" that definitely do exist. This was not an isolated instance of prime ministerial exaggeration, which had accidentally slipped out. He made several statements around that time expressing certainty about Iraq’s possession and continued development of proscribed weapons, statements that do not appear to be warranted by the intelligence at that time.

For example, on 3 March 2002, he told Australia's Channel Nine:

"We know they are trying to accumulate weapons of mass destruction."

On 11 March 2002, at a press conference with US Vice-President Dick Cheney, he said that “there is a threat from Saddam Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction that he has acquired is not in doubt at all."

On 10 April 2002, Mr Blair told the House of Commons:

"Saddam Hussein's regime is despicable, he is developing weapons of mass destruction, and we cannot leave him doing so unchecked. He is a threat to his own people and to the region and, if allowed to develop these weapons, a threat to us also."



, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Government dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction

neither UNSCOM in December 1998 nor UNMOVIC inspectors in March 2003 ruled out the possibility that Iraq had no proscribed weapons at all On 24 September 2002, the government published the dossier Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government. It made extravagant claims, not only that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and weapons-related material, and various delivery systems, all left over from before the Gulf War, but also that it had re-established facilities to produce these weapons, and was trying to re-establish its nuclear weapons programme. So, it was not just a matter of getting rid of the remnants manufactured before the Gulf War: Iraq was producing more weapons today, and therefore the threat from Iraq was increasing all the time. 

The dossier’s claim to objectivity was severely dented in September 2003, when the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published a report, Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction – Intelligence and Assessments, which was critical of the way the dossier presented information about:

(a)    Current chemical and biological weapons production

(b)    The strategic threat from Iraq

(c)    The 45-minute claim

In each case the government’s dossier exaggerated the threat from Iraq. The dossier also exaggerated the threat by failing to point out that pre-Gulf War stocks of many of the chemical and biological agents, if they existed at all, would have degraded to such an extent that they would no longer be useable (see above).

Current chemical and biological weapons production

Tony Blair wrote in his foreword to the dossier:

“What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons”

The Intelligence and Security Committee report (paragraph 110) criticised this bald claim, saying this “could give the impression that Saddam was actively producing both chemical and biological weapons and significant amounts of agents”.

The reality was very different. According to the ISC, the Joint Intelligence Committee did not know what agents had been produced and in what quantities, and what quantities, if any, had been put into weapons (in paragraph 58, the report says that “there was no evidence of munitions being filled with chemical agents since the first Gulf Conflict”). The JIC had merely assessed, based on intelligence, that production of some kind had taken place.

The ISC concluded:

“We believe that this uncertainty should have been highlighted to give a balanced view of Saddam’s chemical and biological capacity.”

The strategic threat from Iraq

The dossier nowhere made clear that the strategic threat from Iraq was negligible, that if Iraq used chemical or biological weapons it would most likely be on the battlefield.

The ISC report (paragraph 111) criticised the dossier for this:

“Saddam was not considered a current or imminent threat to mainland UK, nor did the dossier say so. As we said … the most likely chemical and biological munitions to be used against western forces were battlefield weapons (artillery and rockets), rather than strategic weapons. This should have been highlighted in the dossier.”

There was a vague possibility that Iraq could hit Cyprus. However, Iraq had at most 20 al Hussein missiles capable of doing that. This was the number “unaccounted for” by UN inspectors. But, if they existed at all, they had been hidden away since 1991, and therefore there was a large question mark over their operability.

There was no possibility at all that Iraq could hit London with a missile. The report noted (paragraph 83) that the first draft of the foreword had made it clear that London could not be hit (at least not with a nuclear weapon). It contained the sentence:

“The case I make is not that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on London or another part of the UK (he could not).”

That sentence did not appear in the published dossier. The ISC concludes:

“It was unfortunate that this point was removed from the published version of the foreword and not highlighted elsewhere.”

The 45-minute claim

The dossier claimed that Iraq was “able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so”. This claim referred to battlefield weapons, and not to strategic weapons capable of hitting Cyprus.

The ISC report reveals (paragraph 49) that this claim was derived from an MI6 report dated 30 August 2002, allegedly based on information from an Iraqi military officer who was in a position to know, received by MI6 through a third party.

The information was that on average it took 20 minutes to move chemical and biological munitions into place for attack (the maximum response time was 45 minutes). But the information didn’t identify the munitions to which the 45-minute claim was supposed to apply, nor from where to where the munitions were supposed to be moved within 45 minutes (ibid, paragraph 52).

On this slim foundation the 45-minute claim was included in the dossier not once, but four times, and ended up in countless newspaper headlines on 24/25 September 2002. Of the claim, the ISC said:

“The fact that it was assessed to refer to battlefield chemical and biological munitions and their movement on the battlefield, not to any other form of chemical or biological attack, should have been highlighted in the dossier. The omission of the context and assessment allowed speculation as to its exact meaning. This was unhelpful to an understanding of this issue.” (ibid, paragraph 112)

Objectively, the 45-minute claim amounted to very little. As the ISC said:

“That the Iraqis could use chemical or biological battlefield weapons rapidly had already been established in previous conflicts and the reference to the 20-45 minutes in the JIC assessment added nothing fundamentally new to the UK’s assessment of the Iraqi battlefield capability." (ibid, paragraph 56)

the public was given false information, which the government knew to be false but chose not to correctThe fact that a claim which “added nothing fundamentally new” appeared four times in the dossier is proof positive that objectivity was not uppermost in the mind of the compilers of the dossier. They appear to have been much more concerned with producing newspaper headlines implying an imminent threat from Iraq.

And they succeeded: the 45-minute claim was widely reported in the press on 24/25 September 2002, the Evening Standard headline being "45 Minutes From Attack". Not only that, it was wrongly reported as referring to strategic weapons capable of hitting Cyprus, rather than to battlefield weapons. This had not been made clear in the dossier. As a result, the public was given false information, which the government knew to be false but chose not to correct.

Jonathan Powell’s “bit of a problem”

Even if Iraq had proscribed weapons, and the means of producing more, it didn’t follow that it was a threat to its neighbours, let alone the UK or the US. Up until the 19 September draft, the dossier came very close to saying that Saddam Hussein would use chemical and biological weapons only if his regime was under threat. Under the heading “Saddam’s willingness to use chemical and biological weapons”, it said:

“Intelligence indicates that Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat. We also know from intelligence that as part of Iraq’s military planning, Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons against an internal uprising by the Shia population.” (Hutton reference BBC/29/0019)

That gives the strong impression that he would in all probability use them only as a defensive measure, which meant that they were of little or no threat to Iraq’s neighbours and even less to Britain or the US. As such, it corresponds broadly with the CIA assessment at the time (see Iraq: Lies, Half-truths & Omissions, Annex H, for a letter from the CIA to the US Senate Intelligence Committee on the matter).

But just before the dossier was cleared for publication, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, e-mailed John Scarlett, the compiler of the dossier, on 19 September in the following terms:

“I think the statement on page 19 that ‘Saddam is prepared to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat’ is a bit of a problem. It backs up the … argument that there is no CBW [chemical and biological weapons] threat and we will only create one if we attack him. I think you should redraft the para.”  (Hutton reference CAB/11/0103)

Note that Jonathan Powell does not suggest that the assessment was not soundly based on intelligence, merely that it backs up an argument that he didn’t want to be backed up.

John Scarlett did as he was told and redrafted the paragraph to remove the “bit of a problem”.  The amended assessment, which appears in the published dossier, is:

“Intelligence indicates that as part of Iraq’s military planning Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons, including against his own Shia population.”

This is a major enhancement to the assessed threat from Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons. It was made at the instigation of Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff.

Unresolved disarmament issues

On 6 March 2003, UNMOVIC published a 173-page document entitled Unresolved Disarmament Issues: Iraq’s Proscribed Weapons Programmes. This originated as an internal working document prepared by UNMOVIC identifying the “key remaining disarmament tasks” that Iraq had to complete. The preparation of such a document was a requirement of Security Council resolution 1284, under which UNMOVIC was established in December 1999.

The document contains a comprehensive survey of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programmes and the subsequent use and/or destruction of weapons and weapons-related material, based on information assembled by UN inspectors from 1991 onwards. It ends with an assessment of unresolved issues for each agent and weapon, and a statement of what Iraq needs to do to resolve them.

In the days prior to the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair and his foreign secretary, Jack Straw, used this document shamelessly, giving the impression that it contained new and damning evidence that Iraq possessed proscribed weapons. In reality, it contained little or nothing new: it did not claim that Iraq possessed proscribed weapons or weapons-related material, merely that certain material was “unaccounted for”. Nor did it suggest that Iraq currently had operational agent or weapon production facilities. And it confirmed that many of the agents manufactured before the Gulf War would have degraded by then and would no longer be useful as warfare agents.

In his speech in the House of Commons on 18 March 2003, Tony Blair described the UNMOVIC report as a “remarkable document”, and quoted from it, for example, on mustard gas:

“Mustard constituted an important part . . . of Iraq's CW arsenal . . . 550 mustard filled shells and up to 450 mustard filled aerial bombs unaccounted for”

It would be more accurate to say he misquoted from it. You will indeed find those words on page 76 of the document, but they do not give the sense of the text from which they were extracted. That text is as follows (with his extract underlined):

“… Judging by the quantities produced, weaponized and used, Mustard constituted an important part (about 70%) of Iraq’s CW arsenal.

“There is much evidence, including documents provided by Iraq and information collected by UNSCOM, to suggest that most quantities of Mustard remaining in 1991, as declared by Iraq, were destroyed under UNSCOM supervision. The remaining gaps are related to the accounting for Mustard filled aerial bombs and artillery projectiles. There are 550 Mustard filled shells and up to 450 mustard filled aerial bombs unaccounted for since 1998. The mustard filled shells account for a couple of tonnes of agent while the aerial bombs account for approximately 70 tonnes. According to an investigation made by the Iraqi “Depot Inspection Commission”, the results of which were reported to UNMOVIC in March 2003, the discrepancy in the accounting for the mustard filled shells could be explained by the fact that Iraq had based its accounting on approximations.”

That gives a very different impression to that conveyed by the prime minister’s extract, and his other extracts are also misleading.

To recap, he told the House of Commons that day:

“When the inspectors left in 1998, they left unaccounted for 10,000 litres of anthrax; a far-reaching VX nerve agent programme; up to 6,500 chemical munitions; at least 80 tonnes of mustard gas, and possibly more than 10 times that amount; unquantifiable amounts of sarin, botulinum toxin and a host of other biological poisons; and an entire Scud missile programme. We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years—contrary to all history, contrary to all intelligence—Saddam decided unilaterally to destroy those weapons. I say that such a claim is palpably absurd.”

But he did not mention that the remarkable UNMOVIC document made it clear that any “unaccounted for” sarin, VX and botulinum toxin would have degraded and no longer be effective as warfare agents:

“There is no evidence that any bulk Sarin-type agents remain in Iraq – gaps in accounting of these agents are related to Sarin-type agents weaponized in rocket warheads and aerial bombs. Based on the documentation found by UNSCOM during inspections in Iraq, Sarin-type agents produced by Iraq were largely of low quality and as such, degraded shortly after production. Therefore, with respect to the unaccounted for weaponised Sarin-type agents, it is unlikely that they would still be viable today.” (p73)

“VX produced through route B [the method used by Iraq in 1990] must be used relatively quickly after production (about 1 to 8 weeks), which would probably be satisfactory for wartime requirements.” (p82)

“Any botulinum toxin that was produced and stored according to the methods described by Iraq and in the time period declared is unlikely to retain much, if any, of its potency. Therefore, any such stockpiles of botulinum toxin, whether in bulk storage or in weapons that remained in 1991, would not be active today.” (p101)

Without that information, the prime minister’s list of “unaccounted for” warfare agents was highly misleading.

Tony Blair lies about what Chirac said

The government motion passed by the House of Commons on 18 March 2003 endorsing military action contained a reference to the behaviour of France:

“That this House … regrets that despite sustained diplomatic effort by Her Majesty's Government it has not proved possible to secure a second resolution in the UN because one permanent member of the Security Council made plain in public its intention to use its veto whatever the circumstances;”

In proposing the motion, Tony Blair identified the permanent member as France, which, he said, had undermined support for a second resolution:

“Last Monday [10 March], we were getting very close with it [the second resolution]. We very nearly had the majority agreement. If I might, I should particularly like to thank the president of Chile for the constructive way in which he approached this issue.

“Yes, there were debates about the length of the ultimatum, but the basic construct was gathering support. Then, on Monday night, France said that it would veto a second resolution, whatever the circumstances.”

In fact, France said no such thing. On the contrary, in the interview that Monday night, President Chirac made it very clear that there were circumstances in which France would not veto a resolution for war. Early in the interview, he identified two different scenarios, one when the UN inspectors report progress and the other when the inspectors say their task is impossible – in which case, in his words, “regrettably, the war would become inevitable”. That portion reads:

“The inspectors have to tell us: ‘we can continue and, at the end of a period which we think should be of a few months’ – I'm saying a few months because that's what they have said – ‘we shall have completed our work and Iraq will be disarmed’. Or they will come and tell the Security Council: ‘we are sorry but Iraq isn't cooperating, the progress isn't sufficient, we aren't in a position to achieve our goal, we won't be able to guarantee Iraq's disarmament’. In that case it will be for the Security Council and it alone to decide the right thing to do. But in that case, of course, regrettably, the war would become inevitable. It isn't today.”

From that, it is plain as a pikestaff that there were circumstances in which France would not have vetoed military action, namely, if the UN inspectors reported that they couldn’t do their job. Tony Blair lied to the House of Commons on 18 March 2003 about the attitude of France to taking military action against Iraq.

On 11 March 2003, the day after Chirac’s interview, Blair took the decision to blame France for the US/UK failure to persuade more than two other members of the Security Council (Spain and Bulgaria) to vote for the second resolution. We know this from evidence given to the Chilcot inquiry on 19 January 2011 by Stephen Wall, who was Tony Blair’s EU adviser from 2000 to 2004. He confirmed that on that day he had witnessed Tony Blair in a Downing Street corridor give Alastair Campbell “his marching orders to play the anti-French card with the Sun and others” (p68).

This article is part of a four part series:

Part 1: Did Blair promise Bush support for regime change in March 2002?

Part 3: Was Britain's military action in Iraq legal?

Part 4: Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the wider fallout from the Iraq invasion

Peter Oborne's overview is here: We don't need to wait for Chilcot, Blair lied to us about Iraq. Here's the evidence.

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