Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2220 - 2239)



  Q2220  Chairman: We are delighted to welcome you, Secretary of State, and Mr Rapson, who until recently was on this side of the fence. I hope he did not regret his metamorphosis to the executive. This, Secretary of State, is the concluding evidence session of our inquiry. As you will recall, we began with evidence from you in May last year. Since then we have heard from a wide range of those involved in the operation, from the National Contingent Commander to individual service personnel. This is the nineteenth evidence session of this inquiry. We have undertaken more than 12 visits, including to many of the units which fought in Iraq. Through you, Secretary of State, can I express our thanks to all those who have assisted us. We have been twice to the United States and, of course, to Iraq itself and Kuwait, as well as Germany, and we have made many visits within the UK. Our inquiry has been the work of many months. Much of it has gone completely unreported, but in my view, it has been the most comprehensive study of the military operations in Iraq outside the MoD itself. We will produce our report in due course, probably in the middle of March, but I am sure we can all agree now that the men and women of our armed forces deserve the highest praise for their courage, resourcefulness and professionalism, which they have again displayed in these operations. In today's evidence session we will inevitably focus more on the things that went wrong or might have been done better than on what went right. But our report will be balanced, it will recognise clearly what went wrong and it will report on the many things that went perfectly well and in many cases exceeded expectations. I understand, Mr Hoon, that you wish to make an opening statement. Welcome once again.

  Mr Hoon: Thank you, chairman, and indeed my thanks to members of the Committee for inviting me here today. I should begin by congratulating the Committee on what I know has been a very thorough inquiry into Operation Telic. I will not pretend that this process of scrutiny is always entirely comfortable for those who sit on this side of the table. You referred to Syd Rapson's transition. I can only get you one at a time across here but . . . All those who care about defence will certainly welcome and applaud the inquiry. It is a serious and appropriate examination of what are extremely important issues. When I gave evidence to this Committee on 14 May last year we were in the very early stages of our own work on the lessons of Operation Telic, only two weeks after major combat operations had concluded. I said at the time that, notwithstanding the overall success of the operation, we owed it to our people to be rigorous in analysing our performance and to be ready to identify the things that did not go quite so well. Since then we have published two substantial reports, and the National Audit Office has also published the results of its own inquiry. These reports have both underlined our overall successes and revealed some weaknesses. Let me begin with some of the things that did not go as well as we would have wished. In my evidence last May I acknowledged that there were bound to be some problems in a logistics operation of this size, and that some of our personnel may have experienced shortages of equipment. Our subsequent work has shown that these shortages were more widespread and in some respects more serious than we believed to be the case at that time. In general, this was not the result of a failure to obtain and deploy the equipment required. There is certainly room for debate about the balance between routinely holding items in our inventory and relying on our ability to generate operation-specific equipment in short timescales, although the Committee will appreciate, I am sure, that the answer to this question may have major resource implications. A major problem, in our analysis, was that there were serious shortcomings in our ability to track consignments and assets through theatre. Despite the heroic efforts of our logistics personnel, the system struggled to cope with the sheer volume of matériel with which it had to deal. As a result, there were too many instances of the right equipment sitting in containers and not being distributed to units as quickly as it should have been. On the whole, as we said in our report Lessons for the Future, these shortages did not adversely affect operational capability. Our commanders judged that they had full operational capability by 20 March, or indeed earlier, in other words, before the land forces crossed the line of departure. The subsequent performance of our forces, I believe, speaks for itself and vindicates the operational judgements that the commanders made, but I do accept that a situation which seems satisfactory to those looking at the bigger picture can nonetheless be very different for the people who are affected personally by the things that go wrong. I also accept that our inability fully to distribute items such as desert clothing and boots, although not considered operationally essential by commanders on the ground, certainly had an impact on morale. It is understandable that people lose confidence in the supply chain if it is not providing them with what they expect to receive, and this is true regardless of whether the system is meeting their commanders' priorities. There were also, as we know from the tragic case of Sergeant Roberts, problems in providing important equipment enhancements to all personnel in a timely fashion, even when the requisite quantities had actually arrived in theatre. So Operation Telic has underlined the need for us to make more progress in improving our asset-tracking systems, and this will be a high priority. We have also identified the need for a senior focal point for logistics in the central staff of the Department, and have therefore established the post of Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Logistics Operations). We have also identified numerous other areas for further work. For instance, although, as I have mentioned, there are limits to how much kit we can routinely hold in our inventories, we have increased our stockholdings of desert and tropical clothing and boots and NBC individual protection equipment sets, up to a total now of 32,000 sets. We have also recognised that our procedures for mobilising reservists need to allow for greater notice than was possible in January last year, and I am pleased that we have managed to do a bit better in subsequent mobilisations, meeting our aspiration to provide 21 rather than 14 days' notice. Whilst recognising those areas which did not go as well as we would have wished, it is obviously important that we retain an overall sense of perspective. In this respect, I can do no better than to quote the conclusion of the National Audit Office, that "Operation Telic was a significant military success" and "The logistic effort for the operation was huge and key to success." Among the many elements of this success, I would highlight first the performance of our people, military and civilian, if I may say so, Chairman, at all levels, both in theatre and at home. This is, of course, a testament to their personal qualities, but I also believe—and I think that all our commanders would agree with this—that Operation Telic is a testament to the quality of the training that our people receive throughout their careers. Secondly, I think it is clear that the performance of our equipment was good, and its generally high levels of availability represented a significant improvement on Exercise Saif Sareea II. This in turn underlines the value of testing ourselves through challenging exercises and then learning the lessons from them, and it reinforces the point I have just made about the quality of training. Thirdly, although we have identified significant issues in the logistics area, we should not lose sight of the exceptional achievements in the deployment process. As we have said before, we deployed roughly the same size of force as in 1991 in roughly half the time, despite the challenges posed by switching our planning from the North to the South. Overall, therefore, we judge that Operation Telic has confirmed the emphasis we have placed since the Strategic Defence Review on an expeditionary strategy, and has demonstrated some of the progress we have made in that direction. It has also reinforced our belief in the importance of network-enabled capability for the rapid delivery of precise effects. A good illustration of this was the air operation on 11 April in which British and American aircraft were tasked in real time by a US officer who was remotely operating a Predator UAV from 8,000 miles away. Our lessons work has been focused mainly on the preparation, deployment and combat phases of the operation, but I would also like to mention the outstanding work that our forces have been doing in supporting the reconstruction of Iraq and repairing the damage done by a generation of Ba'athist rule, which in many respects proved to be worse than we had expected. We have identified important lessons about planning for post-conflict activity, which we are working on with other government departments. But despite the limitations of coalition planning in this area, British forces have displayed great versatility and initiative in what remains a difficult security situation. It has often been noted that they adapted seamlessly to a transition from combat to peace support operations, but it is worth underlining the sheer variety of activities in which they have been engaged. These have ranged from helping to repair the utility systems, to refurbishing schools, to assisting the development of local government to providing security for a very successful currency exchange programme, whilst continuing to deal with the threats posed by anti-coalition elements. Many of our people, both military and civilian, have filled positions in the Coalition Provisional Authority and are working tirelessly to set Iraq on the path to self-government. We are very proud of them all, and I am sure the Committee would wish to endorse that. Thank you, Chairman.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. We will arrange for copies of your opening statement to be distributed some time during the meeting, Secretary of State.

  Q2221  Mr Viggers: Secretary of State, I would like to ask a couple of questions about causation. The Hutton Report on page 138 refers to the creation of the dossier, and reports Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, sending an email to Mr Campbell and Mr Scarlett quoting, "Alastair, what will be the headline in the Standard on day of publication?" "What do we want it to be?" The actual headline in the Standard, following the change in the dossier, which is well recorded, was "45 minutes from attack" and there were other references. The Sun headline, for instance, "45 minutes from doom" and the dossier itself in its foreword has a reference from the Prime Minister, talking about Iraq, "Military planning allows for some of the weapons of mass destruction to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them" and there is a map which includes areas of Egypt and, of course, Cyprus as areas where weapons of mass destruction might come.

  Mr Hoon: I apologise for interrupting you. We are talking about figure 7, I take it?

  Q2222  Mr Viggers: We are talking about figure 7 on page 31 of the dossier.

  Mr Hoon: That is headed "Current and planned potential ballistic missiles".

  Q2223  Mr Viggers: Yes. The news headlines are quite dramatic. You have a press department, of course. Do they provide you with a press cuttings service?

  Mr Hoon: Certainly when I am in the United Kingdom, yes.

  Q2224  Mr Viggers: When I was a Minister, I had a press cuttings service and read it every day. Do you read your press cuttings service every day?

  Mr Hoon: Most days, yes. I could not say that I read it every day, no.

  Q2225  Mr Viggers: Having seen these headlines, knowing that the weapons of mass destruction were specifically battlefield weapons, you knew the nature of the weapons.

  Mr Hoon: There are a number of points in your question, but the one that I first of all have some difficulty with, and I am perfectly willing to explain to the Committee why, is the premise "having seen the headlines". I did not see those stories at the time. I realised that I had not seen those headlines when I watched the Panorama programme some weeks ago, in which those headlines, the front pages, I think, of the Sun and I think of the Evening Standard, were flashed up on the screen. I realised at that point that I had not seen those newspapers. As a result, I checked my diary for that period, and I was out of the country from 9 o'clock on 24 September until 5 o'clock on 26 September, visiting Warsaw and Ukraine. I simply did not see any of that coverage.

  Q2226  Mr Viggers: You knew that these were battlefield weapons only.

  Mr Hoon: Again, I apologise for not being as precise as I would like to be. Shortly after the publication of the dossier, I asked within the Ministry of Defence what kinds of weapons were in effect being referred to as part of the so-called 45 minutes claim, and the answer within the Ministry of Defence, an assessment, in effect, of the intelligence, was to the effect that they were of a battlefield kind, but of course, that does involve the potential to deliver chemical-filled shells quite long distances, as far as 40 km. Certainly that was the interpretation provided to me of the intelligence by members of the Ministry of Defence.

  Q2227  Mr Viggers: But you knew that the headlines in the newspapers were misleading.

  Mr Hoon: I am sorry to go over the ground that I have just dealt with. I did not know they were misleading because I had not seen them at the time. I was out of the country. Even allowing for a cuttings service, they were not faxed to me in either Warsaw or Ukraine. One of the reasons why I particularly remember my visit to Ukraine was that there were some hugely sensitive issues that I had to deal with in the course of a meeting with the President of Ukraine. I have to say that, going from what was a NATO ministerial meeting to these rather important discussions that I was having with the President of the country, my concentration was on that, and I certainly did not see the front page of either the Sun or the Evening Standard for the reasons I hope I have clearly set out.

  Q2228  Mr Viggers: Months passed, and the public was under a misapprehension.

  Mr Hoon: I am not sure that that is true. I do not recall at the time a great concentration or attention on the so-called 45 minutes claim. It seems to me that that became an issue for the public, and certainly for Parliament and opinion formers, the media and so on, only really after the unfounded claims made by the Today programme. I am perfectly willing to discuss any evidence that you might have to the contrary, but it was not my sense that this was something that concerned parliamentarians, members of this Committee, or, for that matter, the public.

  Q2229  Mr Viggers: But the Prime Minister did not appreciate that the weapons were merely battlefield weapons.

  Mr Hoon: As a matter of record, he said that in the House. What I would want to emphasize to the Committee is that we both had access to the same intelligence. That has been dealt with in the Government's response to the ISC. As I have explained, I asked within the Ministry of Defence for an assessment of that intelligence, if you like, in military terms, which is what I think the Committee would expect a Secretary of State for Defence to do, and I did that.

  Q2230  Mr Viggers: As Secretary of State for Defence, did you not feel any duty to ensure that your Prime Minister was properly informed before he took the country to war?

  Mr Hoon: I obviously briefed the Prime Minister on a regular basis, and had this been a significant issue in terms of the decision to take the country to war, I am sure that this issue would have arisen in conversation between us, but, as I emphasize, it was not a significant issue. The Prime Minister did not mention the so-called 45 minutes claim in his speech to Parliament immediately before that decision was taken by the House of Commons. All I am emphasizing to you is that I am sure had this been a big issue for this Committee, for Members of Parliament, and indeed, for the public, then this matter would have arisen. Since it was not a big issue at the time—I accept that it has become one since—this was not a matter that we discussed.

  Q2231  Mr Viggers: You are content that headlines like "45 minutes from doom" can remain on the record without any need for correction?

  Mr Hoon: I was asked that question approximately a year later, when I gave evidence to the Hutton inquiry. In the course of that year, and again, I cannot say precisely when, I was aware that such stories had been written, but I made the point that I spend more time than I care to in trying to correct misleading impressions given by newspapers and in the media. My general experience is that they are extremely resistant to even the most modest of changes, and this was an area where I did not judge that the Government would have had any greater success.

  Q2232  Mr Hancock: You mentioned the role you have of dealing with the press and putting these issues right. Were you aware that the Prime Minister actually himself, on 21 October 2002, linked a question he was asked about 45 minutes and long-range weapons together? Did the Ministry of Defence have any input into the response that he gave when he was asked specifically about weapons deployed within 45 minutes and long-range weapons? He did not choose to distance himself from the linkage together; he actually said that he was confident that we had proof that they could fire a missile 1,000 km. He did not say, "This doesn't cover weapons of mass destruction and the 45 minutes" at all. He went on to answer that question. Were you aware of that?

  Mr Hoon: I think it would be helpful if you gave me the specific reference.

  Q2233  Mr Hancock: Hansard, 21 October, column 78.

  Mr Hoon: Perhaps you could tell me what the Prime Minister said.

  Q2234  Mr Hancock: Llew Smith asked the following question: "To ask the Prime Minister (1) on what basis is the assertion on page 17 of his dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein is determined to retain those weapons, and (2) if he will set out the technical basis for the assertion made on page 19 of the dossier that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction could be deployed within 45 minutes." The important thing there, of course, is you said you were the one involved with the technical detail and the Prime Minister was not. So I assume that when he was asked a specific question about the technical detail, it must have gone to the MoD to check. The third question was "On what basis is the assertion on page 30 of the dossier on weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein remains committed to developing a long-range weapon?" The Prime Minister's response was that they had an abundance of intelligence information that they had developed weapons that could go 1,000 km.

  Mr Hoon: This is precisely the point that I was making when I apologised for interrupting Peter Viggers, because figure 7 does refer to current and planned potential ballistic missiles, and most recently the ISC have indicated the fact that there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was seeking to develop and had developed missiles that had a longer range than those allowed under relevant UN resolutions. I do not see any inconsistency in that.

  Q2235  Mr Hancock: Secretary of State, you said in your reply in the Commons yesterday that you had asked, because you were at the technical end of this, and you did not expect the Prime Minister to go down that line. I would believe—and you would have to be extremely naïve—that with a specific question which targeted both the 45 minutes and the long-range ability to fire a weapon of mass destruction to 1,000 km, someone, somewhere would have sought advice. Are you saying that, in answer to a fairly specific question, Downing Street did not seek the technical advice that the intelligence had about these two things? In the report you actually mention Cyprus and the sovereign bases three times as potential targets. You do not attempt to distance yourself from the suggestion that the weapons deployable in 45 minutes would be capable of going there. It does not say that. It actually says our basis in Cyprus and British tourists could be potential targets three times in that part of the report, and in the specific question that the Prime Minister was asked there was the link between 45 minutes and the long-range delivery capability.

  Mr Hoon: Perhaps I could invite you to read out his answer. So far you have only paraphrased it.

  Q2236  Mr Hancock: "These points reflect specific intelligence information in the area of long range weapons. Paragraph 28 of the dossier also explains the significance of the new engine test at Al-Rafah, which has a capability to test engines for missiles with a range of 1,000 km." So even in that response he did not choose, and nor did any of his advisors, to unlink the 45 minutes and the long-range capability.

  Mr Hoon: I think I follow your reasoning correctly. What I do not understand is where the link in that answer is. The answer refers to long range ballistic missiles, which is a point that I am making in relation to figure 7. We undoubtedly set out in the dossier—figure 7 is an illustration of it—the capability we judged Iraq had under Saddam Hussein to fire longer range missiles.

  Q2237  Mr Hancock: Secretary of State, he was asked if he would set out the technical basis for the assertion made on page 19 in the dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that chemical and biological weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes of an order to do so. His reply talks about a 1,000 km distance capability. Anybody reading that would assume that the two things undoubtedly were answering the same question, that they had a longer range capability that could be deployed with a weapon of mass destruction in 45 minutes.

  Mr Hoon: I do not see the link in the answer.

  Mr Hancock: I am amazed.

  Q2238  Chairman: Secretary of State, given the uncertain nature of intelligence, and with the benefit of hindsight in this particular case, would you agree that building a political case for military action at a particular time on evidence principally drawn from intelligence sources was and is unwise?

  Mr Hoon: No, I do not, and I think the world is changing in terms of the way in which governments can set out their justification for taking military action. I think we live in less deferential, more demanding, more enquiring times, and I think this Government has responded to that by the publication of intelligence material which, frankly, previous governments would have resisted. We have published two similar intelligence-based accounts, and I think that reflects the kind of society in which we now live. I suspect previous governments would not have needed to do that, largely because previous governments probably would have enjoyed a greater understanding of the need to keep such matters strictly confidential and yet, in making that balance, we judged it right—and I still think it was right—to publish that material.

  Q2239  Chairman: Following from that—and we will obviously go into this in more detail—in the global war against terrorism, where one of the major dangers is the coming together of WMD technology and terrorist organisations, it seems highly likely that we will have to rely on intelligence to identify where those threats emanate from. We may then need to act against them quickly. This proposition is central to your recent Defence White Paper, as it was in the New Chapter to the SDR, but if intelligence cannot be relied on, or its credibility may be damaged—in this case it might have been exaggerated or unfounded—how will that affect our ability in the future to persuade allies or public opinion of the need to take military action?

  Mr Hoon: I think, unfortunately, your question assumes the outcome of an inquiry that is only just beginning, and obviously, the reason for establishing the inquiry under Lord Butler is to examine precisely those matters. I think it is important that we allow that inquiry to investigate and reach conclusions.

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