Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)|
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
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 Foxfor which we did authorise military action
and Iraq was bombed by American and UK planes as a result of thispresumably
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 portfoliosthe different portfolios that UNSCOM,
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 somebodyas
I think was the case with some of the Iraqi exiles pursuing their
own political agendawho 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 argumentwere
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
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.
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