Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)

MR ROBIN COOK MP

17 JUNE 2003

  Q20  Mr Maples: It is possible that in the production of a document which is going to be published like that maybe somebody on Number Ten staff, government information service people, would have had a hand in how that was presented?

  Mr Cook: Quite possibly. Can you remind me which Minister signed it?

  Mr Maples: Derek Fatchett. This was Desert Fox, I think. 10 November 1998.

  Chairman: Perhaps, Mr Cook, on that you could refresh your memory and give a supplementary note to the Committee[3]

  Andrew Mackinlay: As a matter of procedure, when I come in with my questions I want to take Mr Cook through that. I would ask that Mr Cook could have a copy in front of him. It is not to pre-empt you from going away and having a look at it, but there are some things which would be helpful if he could have a copy in front of him.

  Q21  Mr Maples: This was, as you say, when the inspectors were being denied access. I think they went back and they were thrown out. I forget the exact sequence of events, but there were two or three instalments of it. The document which was then published on Foreign Office writing paper did say, for instance, "Iraq's declarations to the UN on its WMD programmes have been deliberately false . . . He has under-reported his materials and weapons at every stage, and used an increasingly sophisticated concealment and deception system". "31 ,000 [tonnes of] CW munitions and 4,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals . . . still have to be properly accounted for". It goes on building a reasonably substantial case, known as conclusions, saying that "Some CW agents and munitions remain hidden. The Iraqi chemical industry could produce mustard gas almost immediately, and limited amounts of nerve gas within months . . . Saddam almost certainly retains BW production equipment, stocks of agents and weapons. In any case, Iraq has the expertise and equipment to regenerate an offensive BW capability within weeks. If Iraq's nuclear programme had not been halted by the Gulf conflict, Saddam might have had a nuclear weapon by 1993. If Iraq could procure the necessary machinery and materials abroad, it could build a crude air-delivered nuclear device in about five years. Iraq could design a viable nuclear weapon now". What we were told in the assessment that came out in September last year obviously was much more elaborate than that but basically the same case. That document was presumably produced with your full knowledge and endorsement. I just wonder if the intelligence you thought you were seeing in the run-up to Desert Fox—for which we did authorise military action and Iraq was bombed by American and UK planes as a result of this—presumably at that time the Government was confident that this intelligence was correct and this WMD capability or threat existed and you shared that confidence?

  Mr Cook: We were certainly quite clear that we had not come to the bottom of the chemical and the biological portfolios—the different portfolios that UNSCOM[4], as it then was, was pursuing. Indeed it was the case that Saddam was extremely obstructionist in trying to enable us to get to the bottom of it. You mention a number of phases. There was a crisis early in the year round about February when we drew back from military action following a visit by Kofi Annan which resulted in an agreement. That agreement was to provide for wider access for the UNSCOM inspectors and it was constantly frustrated by Saddam over the next six months. That is what brought us to Desert Fox. We had managed to avoid military action at the previous time. Frankly, I do not think either the British or American governments had any alternative but to proceed to military action in the autumn of that year, given that we had entered into an agreement that we would not act if Saddam honoured his side of the bargain, and he did not. Having said that, I would just point out that, with the extreme difference of quantity and quality of military that was taken then and the action that followed in March and April of this year, we did not attempt to invade Iraq or to take over Iraq. Indeed, the bombing campaign itself was aimed very strictly at what we thought might be part of any weapons programme. Can I repeat what I said earlier. Whilst at the time, and it is perfectly fairly set out here, we had anxieties about his chemical and biological weapons capability, we did not believe he had a nuclear weapons programme; nor did he have a satisfactory long-range missiles programme. I cheerfully say, frankly I am rather surprised we have not discovered some biological toxins or some chemical agents. Indeed, in my resignation speech I said they probably are there. The position actually has turned out to be even less threatening than I anticipated at the time I resigned.

  Q22  Mr Maples: You apparently thought at the end of 1998 with Desert Fox that the intelligence we held on WMD justified military action, admittedly more limited than has been taken more recently but, nevertheless, the bombing of another person's country. Yet here we are four years later and you feel either the situation has changed or the intelligence does not any longer justify the same action?

  Mr Cook: The case being made four years later was a very different case. I was not arguing in 1998, none of us were, that Saddam represented an urgent and compelling threat that required preemptive action, which is what was taken in 2003. We carried out a limited number of bombing runs in order to destroy what we believed was the remaining chemical and biological capacity; but we did not attempt to invade the country.

  Q23  Mr Chidgey: In your earlier statements and in some of the follow-ups you have made it very clear that intelligence assessment is an imperfect art. I recall you making a comment that it was rather like alphabet soup and the right letters had been chosen to form the desired word, if I can put it that way. What I want to suggest with you is whether it is not normally the case that in any intelligence assessment there can be two or three explanations of what has been going on and what the raw intelligence is showing. In that scenario it is often the case that there is a best case scenario, a worst case scenario and there are bits in the middle. What I want to ask is whether in this particular scenario, where the Government chose to present information to the House justifying their policy, there was a process where the most supportive case was chosen to back that, and the other options were not recognised or accounted for?

  Mr Cook: Intelligence is not a perfect science. I expressed the difficulties slightly differently from the way you did, in that often when you are told a piece of information you are left with very real doubts over why you are being told that information. Are you being told it to mislead you? Are you being told it by somebody who actually wants to be paid but may not actually turn out to be reliable; or is not somebody—as I think was the case with some of the Iraqi exiles pursuing their own political agenda—who wants you to hear what suits them? All these questions and motivation form very great difficulty over making your assessment of intelligence. I hope I have made it clear throughout all of this I do not criticise the intelligence services whom I think have tried very hard to do their best in extremely difficult circumstances. In fairness to the intelligence community one should recognise that Iraq was an appallingly difficult intelligence target to break. We had very little access to human intelligence on the ground and no hope whatsoever of putting in Western agents.

  Q24  Mr Chidgey: Did the intelligence services actually present to Government different options of what might be happening on the basis of intelligence they were getting?

  Mr Cook: The point of a JIC assessment is to lead up to a conclusion, and the conclusion will express on the balance of evidence what their view is; but the assessment will usually include the balance of evidence which may point in different directions to the conclusion. As I said earlier, the intelligence community do not see themselves there to lobby you to a particular point of view. Their papers much more reflect an academic approach to gathering the evidence and trying to make an intelligence appraisal of that evidence, rather than arguing for a specific course of action.

  Q25  Mr Chidgey: Can I then turn to the chemical and biological programme which you have already said was the area, as far as you were concerned, where there were questions. In a previous stage of our reporting on weapons of mass destruction, we were advised by one key witness that a thousand litres of anthrax or less would be almost impossible to discover in a place like Iraq. I would like you in a moment to ask me whether that was the intelligence services' view as well. Presumably that information would have been passed to Government. The real key to this for me is, if it is impossible to discover a thousand litres or less of anthrax, which clearly has a potential to do incredible damage to many people, would the advice have been that if it was impossible to remove the threat of a chemical or biological weapon the only sensible policy to pursue would be to remove the organisation that would use that threat? At what stage was an assessment made that the only safe way to go forward in terms of our interest would be pursue a policy regime change rather than suppression or destruction of chemical weapons that were so difficult to find?

  Mr Cook: I think you reflect more of the United States' debate than the British debate. For the period that I was Foreign Secretary we did not have anxiety that anthrax, to which you refer, was on the verge of being turned into a weaponised capability. As I said earlier, we were frustrated by the fact, as you rightly say, that these things are difficult to find, easy to conceal and, therefore, we were not able to make the progress that we had hoped up until 1998. On the other hand, after 1998 we did not have any compelling, urgent reason to believe that containment was not working in the sense of keeping Saddam in his cage. I would also make the point that biological agents such as anthrax are extremely toxic and a menace to anybody near them, but they were not weaponised then, and if not weaponised cannot be used for military purpose. We are fortunate in that it is not particularly easy to weaponise biological agents because weapons do tend either to explode or incinerate, which tends to have the effect of destroying the biological agent that they are carrying. This is fortunate for humanity because it is actually quite easy to get hold of biological agents; it is fortunate it is not particularly easy to turn them into weapons. I never actually saw any intelligence to suggest that Saddam had successfully weaponised that material. The one other point I would make is that, whilst it is certainly true that 10,000 litres is a small volume and not terribly easy to find if you are searching for it, we now actually have under interrogation all the senior figures from the Iraqi weapons programme. It makes it particularly odd, if these exist, that we have not been led to them. Their existence must be known to scores if not hundreds of people who were involved in the transport, storage and protection of such material. It is curious that none of them have come forward, since the reward would be immense. They could have their own ranch in Texas if they were to lead us to such a thing at the present time. That does also leave the very real anxiety, if they have not come forward to us and if these things exist, have they come forward to a terrorist organisation? If priceless works of art can be smuggled out of Iraq could 10,000 litres of anthrax?

  Q26  Mr Chidgey: Just to slightly change the focus, in your view just to make this absolutely clear for the record, was the case for military action against Iraq more compelling in December 1998 than it was in March 2003? Was the intelligence on Iraq more compelling in 1998 than it was in 2002-03?

  Mr Cook: It was adequate for the action that was carried out, but it was a very limited action. Nobody, either in Washington or in London, was imagining that we should pursue this to an invasion and regime change. The bombing campaign, despite the pyrotechnics on television, was actually relatively limited. To be truthful, the military action in 1998 suited the then agenda of the West, which was to move to a system of trying to contain Saddam, rather than go through the repeated frustration of having the inspectors on the ground being blocked. One thing that was much better in 2003 than in 1998 was that the terms on which UNMOVIC[5] went back in were much better than UNSCOM. Indeed, Hans Blix's reports make it plain that they did get better cooperation, process and access than we were receiving in 1998.

  Q27  Ms Stuart: So far I get a sense the main charge is that the Government was not very Cartesian in its approach to policy development, which is a very British approach I am told. Just because something remains true for a number of years does not make it untrue. If something was correct in, say, 2001 unless there is evidence to undermine that assessment there is still every reason to believe it is still true in 2003. I particularly ask this because I make reference to an article which I believe you wrote in The Telegraph on 20 February 2001 where it says, "UN measures remain in place because of Saddam's determination to retain and rebuild his weapons of mass destruction and threaten the region. His use of chemical weapons against his own people and his neighbours make him unique amongst modern dictators". I am wondering has anything happened within that period which would lead you to believe that either the assessment or the evidence itself was no longer viable?

  Mr Cook: I was alerted to this article by Mr Straw in debate the other week and I did take the precaution of refreshing my memory. I am delighted to see in that article I said, "Too many commentators overlook the fact that Britain's robust approach has contained the threat that Saddam poses. Since the UN imposed a policy of containment Iraq has not used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Northern Iraq, or against Iran, and it has not invaded its neighbours. UN efforts and our vigilance have ensured that Saddam does not have a long-range missile capacity. He has had to dismantle his programme, and we actually carried out some destruction of facilities. As a result there is no current high risk of his being able to attack us". That was the view I came to in 2001. It would seem to me, with everything we have learnt since we went in in 2003, that was right.

  Q28  Ms Stuart: What I am really trying to get at is do we have a structural weakness in the use of the way intelligence information is used? As I understand it, in the light of Kosovo and Bosnia, there was a review of how intelligence information is used. As you yourself said, it is always an alphabet soup but the letters are actually there; it is question of how you assess them. There was a clear sense, even two years ago, that there were chemical weapons there and he is retaining them. Has something structural happened which would give you reason to reassess that evidence?

  Mr Cook: No, the conclusion I came to in that article, and repeatedly throughout my period as Foreign Secretary, was that we could contain the threat of Saddam Hussein by the policy of containment. Indeed, we did do so. The onus is on those who argued that containment should be abandoned and replaced with a policy of invasion and regime change to justify that, not on me.

  Q29  Ms Stuart: I come back to that review on the use of intelligence. Is there a structural problem in the way we use and assess that intelligence, or is it just the conclusions we have drawn? I therefore come back to my opening point, that we could be accused of not having been Cartesian in the way we arrive at the conclusion.

  Mr Cook: I think the charge is graver than we have lacked a proper philosophic method. We went to war. 5,000-7,000 civilians were killed. Some British troops were killed. To go to war you need to have a real compelling justification for breaking that taboo which war should necessarily represent and to embark upon wholesale military action. It is not a matter of simply sitting around debating whether we had a Cartesian approach to intelligence reports. It is a question of whether you really did have compelling, convincing evidence posing, as the Prime Minister expressed it, a current and serious threat. It is plain from what we now know he did not pose a current and serious threat. It is therefore a grievous error of policy to have gone to war on the assumption he was.

  Q30  Mr Hamilton: Mr Cook, on 3 September last year the Prime Minister announced that the Government's assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities would be published. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office led the drafting of Parts 2 and 3 of the final dossier and began this work in spring 2002. I want to move on to the September dossier, and this is obviously after the time you ceased to be Foreign Secretary and became Leader of the House of Commons. Can I ask you whether you saw the Cabinet Office assessments staff paper on weapons of mass destruction in March 2002, which it was eventually decided not to publish?

  Mr Cook: No.

  Q31  Mr Hamilton: What papers did you see that related to the dossier finally published in September 2002?

  Mr Cook: I saw the dossier. As I said earlier, I did not have access, and would not have expected to have access, to secret material after I ceased to be Foreign Secretary. Frankly, I was rather taken aback by how thin the dossier was. If you strip out the boxes of facts which are not facts related to Iraq, and if you strip out the historic material you are actually not left with very much there. I notice that on three or four occasions, when referring to an existing capability, it says that Iraq has retained the scientists who worked on the programmes. I am not quite sure what Iraq could have done other than allow them to continue, other than possibly assassinate them. There is not much there that represents evidence that there is a new and compelling threat. Although I did not see the March document, I suspect that is possibly why the March document was not published.

  Q32  Mr Hamilton: Were there any other documents submitted to the Cabinet which you would have been able to see as a member of the Cabinet before the September dossier was finally presented to you?

  Mr Cook: Not that I can recall. I would have thought it would be unwise to circulate documents that were not intended for publication; because by the time they had been through everybody's office and department they might as well be published.

  Q33  Mr Hamilton: That is interesting. Can I ask you whether you recall how much of the intelligence that was used in the September dossier was there as a result of the intelligence sharing between the United Kingdom and other countries?

  Mr Cook: I cannot speak at first hand because I was not involved in the process, but I would be astonished if it was not immense. The United States and the United Kingdom have a unique intelligence relationship which has probably never existed in any period of history, in which on our side we have full transparency and we strive to secure full transparency on their side. Therefore, it is often difficult when you look at intelligence assessments to spot which raw data was originally gathered by the United Kingdom and which was originally gathered by the United States. As a rough rule of thumb, and it is very rough, we tend to be rather better at gathering human intelligence; and, although we have an excellent GCHQ station, the Americans are even more formidable in technological ways of gathering intelligence. That said, neither of us really had much human intelligence inside Iraq. The Americans were drawing heavily on exiles who were inside America.

  Q34  Mr Hamilton: You referred earlier in your opening statement to the fact that much of the evidence presented in the run-up to the war was evidence that supported a policy that had been decided, if I am not misinterpreting that. Can I ask you, in your view do you think the September dossier was an accurate reflection of intelligence available, or was it simply one more example of trying to confirm a policy which had already been decided?

  Mr Cook: First of all, as I have said, I would not make the allegation that anything in the document was invented. I think in some ways that is a blind alley. I think the debate has run far too impetuously down the argument—were matters invented; were they sexed up? The plain fact is a lot of the intelligence in the September dossier has turned out in practice to be wrong. I think it is important that we fasten on how wrong it was, why it was wrong, and were there other parts of intelligence around which might have suggested more caution? That I cannot answer because I did not have access to the material; but from all I know from previous experience, it would be surprising if in a large intelligence haul there were not bits of intelligence that cast doubt on the other parts of it. I noticed that the September dossier had a number of very large claims, which I detail in my statement, which were actually not subsequently repeated, which does prompt me to wonder if somebody somewhere spotted that they were not entirely reliable.

  Q35  Mr Hamilton: Do you think there was a deliberate attempt to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq to the United Kingdom?

  Mr Cook: "Exaggerate" is a loaded term. I think those who produced the dossier did not imagine they were exaggerating it, because they were convinced that Saddam and Iraq posed an urgent and compelling threat of a kind that would require military action. One should not forget the political context in which that is produced, which was one in which there was deep scepticism within Parliament and much more marked scepticism among the public.

  Q36  Mr Olner: Could I bring you back to Operation Desert Fox. I am still struggling to understand now in your mind that it was okay to do that operation, to bomb, and obviously thousands of civilians got killed in Operation Desert Fox. That was without a United Nations resolution and without international support, and it was right to do that but not the original Gulf War?

  Mr Cook: I am not sure I would say "okay". With great reluctance and a heavy heart we undertook the military action because we had arrived at a situation in which the agreement entered into in February had been broken. That was, of course, an agreement with the Secretary General of the United Nations. Throughout all this process we had a solid degree of support within the United Nations for what we were doing. To remind you again, Operation Desert Fox was strictly a bombing campaign of a rather limited character. I would be sceptical whether thousands actually were killed on the ground, but it is very difficult to tell given the capacity of Saddam to produce figures of his own. We did not have direct access on the ground at the time. It was quite deliberately undertaken by us in the knowledge this would mean that the inspections regime would come to an end and would have to be replaced by a policy of containment. It was that policy of containment I think which was very successful. I have seen nothing to suggest it was right to replace that policy of containment with a major arms invasion of the territory of another state.

  Q37  Mr Olner: Coming back to the dodgy dossier, you did say earlier to a question you did think that the February dossier was a mistake?

  Mr Cook: Yes. I do not think anybody does not now.

  Q38  Mr Olner: At the time did you think it was a mistake; did you say so; and did others say so?

  Mr Cook: As I recall it the dodgy dossier was not discussed in Cabinet, and I took part in every Cabinet discussion over four months on Iraq and it was almost weekly. I do not recall us discussing this. I do remember hearing it from the radio when I was in the north-west at the time and being pretty appalled by what I heard. It was not a command paper, of course. It was not issued as a White Paper and, therefore, probably did not have the departmental clearance of the kind that would have been appropriate. Hence the fact that you are now advised that the Foreign Secretary and Ministers of the Foreign Office did not hear it.

  Q39  Mr Olner: How many members of the Cabinet shared your horror wherever they heard it?

  Mr Cook: It would be a mere guess, but I should imagine pretty well everybody recognised that this was a significant own goal. In terms of the broad picture, no, members of the Cabinet did not express anxiety about the drift to military action. I would regularly comment on it. Clare [Short] would sometimes join in those discussions. I would quite often join the discussions. Other than that I do not recall anybody consistently questioning the drift to military action.


3   Ev 11-12 Back

4   United Nations Special Commission. Back

5   United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. Back


 
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