Two weeks on from the long-awaited publication of the Chilcot Report, what has it really told us and will it provide us with important lessons regarding the role of deception and propaganda in democracy? After analysing the report, Piers Robinson gives his verdict on whether Chilcot pulls any punches.  

Central to the criticism of the way the Blair government led Britain into war has been the question of deception and bad faith on the part of officials. Over the years, much has been written about these matters with extensive debate revolving around whether or not there was deception over Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But what has Chilcot now concluded? On the issue of WMD, some commentators have inaccurately described Chilcot as having blamed the intelligence services whilst having exonerated the government of ‘sexing up’ the intelligence. In fact, Chilcot is far more nuanced than this.

On the one hand, in the Report (page 290) the intelligence services come in for criticism for allowing “briefing material to support Government statements in a way which conveyed certainty without acknowledging the limitations of intelligence”. The blame here is being placed, ultimately, on John Scarlett (Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee) for enabling intelligence assessments to be manipulated, many would say spun, in order to exaggerate official claims regarding Iraq WMD.

Life imitating art?

Embarrassingly, Richard Dearlove, Head of MI6, is heavily criticised for his handling of a piece of intelligence known as Report X and its source. This critical piece of intelligence underpinned the most important claims in the September Dossier, that Iraq was actively producing chemical and biological weapons material. The source for this intelligence triggered questions almost immediately because some of his claims, regarding glass containers for chemical/biological weapons, seemed to have been inspired by a Hollywood movie ‘The Rock’, starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. Despite the fact that information from this source underpinned the most important dossier judgement (that Iraq was actively producing WMD), apparently Dearlove never saw fit to warn Blair or other officials of these emerging doubts.

On the other hand, in the report (p.247) Chilcot makes clear that Blair himself holds responsibility for over-interpreting (a.k.a ‘spinning’) in his public announcements and delivering views that ‘did not reflect the view of the JIC’. Most damningly Chilcot confirms there was, effectively, a strategy of misrepresentation over WMD right from the start: “The tactics chosen by Mr Blair were to emphasise the threat which Iraq might pose, rather than a more balanced consideration of both Iraq’s capabilities and intent … That remained Mr Blair’s approach in the months that followed”.

However, having confirmed that intelligence was exaggerated by both Blair and intelligence officials, and that this was also a ‘tactic’, Chilcot fails to draw the obvious conclusion that officials were engaged in a deceptive communications strategy which involved exaggerating the intelligence on Iraqi WMD and obscuring the limitations of the intelligence.

Campaign to topple Saddam

Of far greater importance, however, is what Chilcot has to say about the origins of Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War. Chilcot makes clear that planning for action started in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when elements within the US administration sought to take advantage of that event in order to pursue a long standing objective of toppling Saddam Hussein. Page 324 of the report quotes a British embassy report dated 15 September 2001 which states that ‘The “regime-change hawks” in Washington were arguing that a coalition put together for one purpose (against international terrorism) could be used to clear up other problems in the region.’ Regarding the US ‘war on terror’, Blair stated that a ‘dedicated tightly knit propaganda unit” was required, and suggested that he and President Bush should “talk soon” (p. 338). Remarkably, Chilcot then confirms that Blair was in support of a policy of regime change, and one that would involve a ‘clever’ strategy:

Mr Blair’s discussion with President Bush on 3 December and the paper he sent to President Bush the following day represented a significant development of the UK’s approach. Mr Blair suggested a “clever strategy” for regime change in Iraq that built over time, until the point was reached where “military action could be taken if necessary”, without losing international support (p. 82).

Oil and the Iraq War

So, in what appears to be unambiguous language, Chilcot confirms that Blair was in support of regime change from December 2001, just months after 9/11: On the broader strategic picture involving neoconservative aspirations for power and influence and the question of resources and oil, Chilcot is painfully quiet and this is surely now an essential area for full exploration and public debate.

Of course, the problem in all this for Blair is that it was his declared position that disarmament, not regime change, was the British government’s objective. And that the claimed disarmament objective logically left open the possibility that Saddam could be left in power if he complied with disarmament demands. This appears to be the basis for claims made by individuals such as Jeremy Greenstock that Britain had attempted to achieve a peaceful resolution by pursuing the ‘UN route’ which sought to disarm Iraq via UN weapons inspections and leave the regime intact.

In fact, my research with Dr Eric Herring highlighted the fact that both Chilcot and events leading up to the invasion indicate clearly that the ‘UN route’ was largely about building international support for military action and making the war legal rather than any kind of genuine attempt to disarm Iraq peacefully. The official US policy of regime change remained in play throughout and there is little in the Chilcot Report to suggest otherwise.

Shortcoming of the Chilcot Report

What emerges from the empirical evidence is a story of a British Prime Minister opting to support a US administration, dominated by neoconservative hawks, that sought to take advantage of 9/11 in order to ‘clear up other problems in the region’. Talk of weapons of mass destruction and UN disarmament would appear to have become part and parcel of Blair’s ‘clever plan’ to help achieve the US objective of regime change in Iraq. The preferred communications strategy involved systematic exaggeration of the intelligence and obfuscation of the regime change goal thus allowing officials to plausibly argue that they were working for a peaceful resolution when, in fact, they were working for war.  On this issue of grand deception and propaganda, Chilcot lays out the facts but he pulls his punches.

The danger here, ultimately, is that important lessons regarding the role of deception and propaganda in democracy will not be properly absorbed and acted upon. This is a major shortcoming of the Chilcot Report.