Britain’s foreign spy agency concluded within months of the invasion of Iraq that two key intelligence reports it had received about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were fabricated, a British inquiry disclosed on Wednesday.
In September 2002, the Secret Intelligence Service, known as SIS or MI6, distributed to senior British officials the reports it had received from its sources, alleging that Iraq had “accelerated the production of chemical and biological agents”.
The reports said Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was determined to maintain a chemical and biological weapon capability, according to the inquiry led by Sir John Chilcot.
The reports were issued as top US officials, including President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, were publicly claiming that Saddam had acquired aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons – a claim later discredited by post-war U.S. investigations.
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In early April 2003, only days after the US military, supported by British and other allied forces, invaded Iraq to oust Saddam, details from the SIS reports from September were included in a larger spy report circulated widely around the British government.
This report did contain a caveat that since a key “sub source” had not been directly contacted by SIS, it would not be possible to “verify fully” all the details of his claims.
By June 2003, however, SIS finally met the source of the September reports, who “denied that he had provided any of the material attributed to him”, Chilcot’s report said. SIS concluded that its original source for the material therefore “was a fabricator who had lied from the outset.”
By the end of July 2003, SIS had decided to withdraw the alarming reports from the previous September. Even then, however, the Chilcot report quotes an internal spy document in which an SIS officer says: “Without denying these reports are no longer valid, we need to ensure their withdrawal does not provide wide-spread scepticism about our CW (chemical weapons) reporting, particularly in the absence of a CW find.”
No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq. By September 2004, SIS withdrew additional key intelligence reports used by British and American leaders to justify the invasion.
These included a source’s claim, touted by Blair’s government, that Saddam could deploy WMD within 45 minutes, and a claim from a source known as Curveball, leaked to US media and then publicly touted by Bush, that Saddam had mobile biological and chemical weapons labs.
In the wake of the Iraq war and subsequent post-mortems, UK agencies have implemented reforms designed to ensure that such dubious intelligence in the future is properly flagged, and that policy officials are made aware of possible flaws in spy reports, a source familiar with the reforms said.
One key reform involved separating personnel and offices whose task is to collect human and electronic intelligence from those responsible for analysing and evaluating it, the source said. UK agencies were placing “greater emphasis on the validation of intelligence”.
This meant that analysts were supposed to question the details of raw intelligence reporting and the bona fides of sources more vigorously before presenting such information to politicians and other policymakers.
Procedures had also been instituted to more clearly flag the degree of credibility that spy agencies attach to intelligence material, the source said.
In the United States, agencies routinely tell policymakers whether they have “low”, “medium” or “high” confidence about the reliability of new intelligence reporting. The source said that British agencies have adopted similar labeling procedures.
Other reforms included providing all three UK spy agencies – SIS, the domestic intelligence agency known as MI5, and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the electronic eavesdropping agency – with more opportunities to review and critique initial reporting produced by each other.