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Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). One of the strengths of a party that experiences a long period in opposition—as his party is discovering—is that it accrues a large number of ex-leaders on its Back Benches. It appears that we shall hear from two of them today.

The only comment I would make on the speech that we heard from the Conservative party's current leader, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), is that it came a year and a half too late. This place works when the Opposition oppose,
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but that did not happen in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Indeed, one reason why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister might not have asked enough tough questions of the intelligence agencies is that he knew perfectly well that when he came to the Chamber, he would never be asked any tough questions from the Opposition Dispatch Box.

I am grateful to the Butler committee—two of its distinguished members are with us today—for asking a lot of tough questions about the intelligence. Out of those tough questions emerged an alarming picture of intelligence that was overwhelmingly based on hearsay and second-hand information, and in one case on third-hand information; indeed, the ultimate sources frequently turned out to be unreliable. The Butler committee says in its report that it was struck by the thinness of the intelligence base. What is puzzling is that it was examining exactly the same intelligence that was available to the Prime Minister and to the Government, which the Prime Minister told us left no doubt about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, he repeated that point here today.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): Was the intelligence materially stronger when, as Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman consented to action in 1998 in Operation Desert Fox?

Mr. Cook: I am not surprised by that question because I noticed that such points were in the hymn sheet that was circulated last week. First, we took that action precisely because there was no co-operation with UN weapons inspectors at that time. If they had received the co-operation that Hans Blix has received, no such action would have been taken. Secondly, such action was a limited air strike against military targets only; I was never daft enough to suggest that we should launch a major armed invasion.

When I left office, we were pursuing a strategy of containment. I am bound to say, given all that we have learned since we went into Iraq, that that strategy was strikingly successful in denying Saddam Hussein a single weapon of mass destruction, without the need to go to war.

Mike Gapes rose—

Mr. Cook: I shall give way on this occasion, but it must be the last time.

Mike Gapes: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. He talks about containment, but does he not accept that half a million Iraqi children died as a result of that policy, that Saddam was able to suppress his people and that there were 4 million Iraqi exiles? Does he not accept that further pursuing that policy would have led to the continuation of that situation? Was it not better to do something at last to get rid of Saddam?

Mr. Cook: I invite my hon. Friend to read the Butler report, because if he does he will find that it explicitly and correctly states that there is no basis in international law for regime change. Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly a brutal psychopath, and nobody has highlighted the scale of his evils and sins more than I
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have. But my hon. Friend has to face the fact that he is making a case for which there is no basis in international law—if one acts without international consensus, as we did on this occasion. If we are to have a doctrine of intervention on humanitarian grounds—of which I am all in favour—it has to be acted on with international authority, not according to a unilateral decision taken by Washington and London. That is what went wrong in this case.

I saw many intelligence assessments when I was at the Foreign Office. Doubt and intelligence assessments go hand in hand; doubt is in the nature of intelligence work. One is trying to guess the secrets that somebody is trying to keep, so it inevitably follows that one is trying to carry out a task even worse than that of the Israelites: to make bricks out of straws in the wind. To be fair to the agencies, they were always absolutely frank about the limitations of their knowledge. That is why I was frankly astonished by the September dossier, which bore no relation in tone to any of the intelligence assessments that I saw. It was one-sided, dogmatic and unqualified.

The root problem is that intelligence was used in order to sell policy, so it was required to be much more firm and definite than intelligence can ever be. Intelligence was not used as the basis on which to make policy. Here, I totally agree with the point made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. I find it breathtaking that for six months—from September to March—the Prime Minister believed that he and John Scarlett were talking about long-range systems, while John Scarlett believed that they were talking about battlefield weapons. Apparently, they talked about that subject several times during those six months. I do not blame John Scarlett. I actually asked him whether we were talking only about battlefield weapons and he was quite frank and open in telling me—as he was subsequently in telling Hutton—that that is exactly what we were talking about. I find it strange that No. 10 did not show more curiosity about what those weapons were. The explanation for that absence of curiosity is precisely, of course, that it was not on intelligence that the policy was being formulated.

On that, I have to say, the Butler report is quite conclusive. For me, the most crucial passage in the Butler report is where it sets out the fact that when we took the decision to take stronger action against Iraq

In other words, the intelligence did not change; the assessment of the picture inside Iraq did not change. The change that precipitated the movement away from containment to invasion was not a change in Iraq, but a regime change in Washington and the election of a Bush Administration with a commitment to invasion. The most embarrassing conclusion of all is that if those hanging chads in Florida had pointed in the opposite direction and Al Gore had been elected, we would not have ended up committing British troops to military action in Iraq, but would have loyally stood by the transatlantic policy of containment.

We now come to the crux of the problem faced by my right hon. Friends in trying to find closure on Iraq as a controversy. If they are not candid on the reason why we got into the war, they will have a problem convincing the electorate why it will not happen again. The noises
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currently coming out of Washington about Iran, which sound alarmingly similar to the noises about Iraq two years before the invasion, of course raise public anxieties.

I want to be helpful to my right hon. Friends, so let me make a suggestion about what they might do in order to reassure the public. First, they could formally and loudly ditch the doctrine of the pre-emptive strike, which Washington invented. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary could do so in his wind-up speech. I think that he would find it congenial, as I suspect that he never believed in it himself.

If we are to invade a country not because it is an imminent threat, but because—the basis of the doctrine of the pre-emptive strike—we want to pre-empt it from becoming a threat at some unknown and unspecified date in the future, we are placing an enormous weight on the capacity to have reliable and accurate intelligence. Yet what we have learned from the whole saga of Iraq—and what is spelled out in the Butler report—is that intelligence can never be that reliable. It would help if the Front Benchers could now say to the public that one of the key lessons of Iraq is that intelligence alone can never bear the weight of going to a war in which 20,000 people are killed in the carnage.

I will make a second suggestion. This may not be the right moment in history for John Scarlett to take up his post as head of the SIS. In saying that, I do not speak in any spirit of criticism of John Scarlett, whom I always found absolutely professional. He was quite frank and open with me when I asked him questions, and I am sure that he would have been equally frank and open with No. 10 if the Prime Minister had asked him the same questions.

If one looks at what happens in the private sector when a company is faced with corporate and systemic failure—effectively what is described in the Butler report—one finds that someone from outside is sought to come in and take a fresh approach. I do think that the SIS now needs someone from elsewhere in the public sector who can bring that fresh approach and put the difficult questions that the SIS now needs to face up to.

It may be a sign of the approaching general election that this debate has been the most partisan on Iraq that I can yet recall. I am not sure that this grave matter is an appropriate one for party political point scoring. Britain and British troops will have to live with the consequences of our decision for a long time to come. We were told that Iraq would be a victory over terrorism. We are now told that Iraq is the front line in the war against terrorism. The great irony is that it is precisely our intervention that has created the conditions—poor security, open borders and a population with a grievance—in which al-Qaeda is now thriving in Iraq.

My deep worry is that when Osama bin Laden struck the twin towers, he wanted to send the message that the only possible relationship between the west and Islam is one of violent confrontation. I fear that, by invading Iraq, we responded in precisely the way that Osama bin Laden wanted. As a consequence, we and the west will have to live with violent confrontations and the violent consequences of this strategic blunder for a decade to come.

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