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Sunday, July 10, 2005 

Robin Cook's Diary - Another Important Resource

Tony Blair and George Bush would like us to believe that we’re reading too much into the leaked documents from Britain; that we’re taking them out of context; that those in government who witnessed the entire process (of dragging our countries to war) know the documents are extremely limited in perspective or (?) inaccurate. We have at least one anonymous former Bush administration official who confirmed the accuracy of Dearlove’s comments in the DSM, according to the KRT report by Warren Strobel and John Walcott of May 6. We also have the comments by Carnes Ross, a British diplomat at the U.N., that the WMD intel was badly manipulated by the Blair government (see my recent post). But is there anybody who had an inside view of how things played out, who’s willing to go on record as saying that the case for war was a sham, that Bush and Blair ginned up the war?

Funny I should ask. Robin Cook is such a person, and he is in many ways the perfect witness to the accuracy of DSM. First, Cook said publicly before the start of the war that Blair and Bush were rushing to war and lacked clear evidence for their claims about Iraqi WMD. Second, he resigned from Blair’s cabinet on March 17, 2003 in protest against the impending war (he had been Leader of the House of Commons and one of Blair’s closest confidents). His justly famous resignation speech received a standing ovation in the Commons; if you don’t know it, you should read it. And third, in October 2003 (a year before any of the now notorious documents was leaked) Cook published the personal diaries that he kept in the months leading up to the Iraq war; the book is entitled Point of Departure.

The Sunday Times has published excerpts from that book. Selections focus on how the Blair government became entangled in Bush’s Iraq policies. In the Diary, Cook’s criticisms of the dishonesty and arrogance of the two men are more sharply stated than in his more tactful speech to the Commons.

To judge by his published diary, Cook saw clearly from early in 2002 that Bush was grossly exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and that for personal reasons Blair was allowing Britain to be entangled in Bush’s idiocy. Cook could see that an invasion of Iraq without U.N. authorization would be illegal and might prove to be a disaster for both Iraq and Britain. Seen through his eyes, we can watch the train wreck of George Bush’s Iraq policy unfold over the course of 2002. We also learn that several members of Blair’s Cabinet, including perhaps Jack Straw, hoped that events would block the two leaders from hatching their plan to invade Iraq.

Everyone interested in the pre-war diplomacy should read the Times extracts in full, if only because they give excellent insight into what the Blair government was planning and how it was reacting to what Bush was planning. Just as the DSM is an almost perfect document to assess what George Bush’s closest ally made of his war plans, so too we could hardly ask for a better resource than Robin Cook’s Diary to assess what one of Blair’s closest allies was making of all this. I think the Diary (whose existence I discovered only recently) reaffirms that we have been exactly right in how we’ve interpreted the DSM.

This source is so important that I’ll quote extended extracts. Note that with several entries Cook appended one or more paragraphs of commentary when he prepared the Diary for publication:

Thursday February 28: I walk over Green Park to the cabinet, troubled by my discussion in Brussels. Before I can raise it, David Blunkett asks if we can have a discussion at an early meeting on Iraq.

I back him up by explaining that military action against Iraq will not be supported in Europe. Nor throughout the Arab world: "In present circumstances Arab governments would not comprehend such obsession with Iraq. They see Sharon, not Saddam, as the problem for the Middle East." Somewhat to my surprise this line provokes a round of "hear hearing" from colleagues, which is the nearest I've heard to a mutiny in the cabinet.

Thursday March 7: A real discussion at cabinet. Tony permitted us to have the debate on Iraq which David and I had asked for. For the first time I can recall in five years, Tony was out on a limb.

David was first over the top. Being now home secretary he cunningly camped on the need for a proper legal authority for any action: "What has changed that suddenly gives us the legal right to take military action that we didn't have a few months ago? Has anybody asked the legal opinion of the attorney-general, and what is he saying?"

Pat Hewitt lamented that we were expected to listen to US worries about Iraq when we could not get them to listen to us before slapping higher tariffs on our steel exports. "We are in danger of being seen as close to President Bush, but without any influence over President Bush."

I am told that in the old days prime ministers would sum up the balance of view in the discussion. This would be simple in the present case as all contributions pointed in one direction. However, Tony does not regard the cabinet as a place for decisions. Normally he avoids having discussions in cabinet until decisions are taken and announced to it.

Tony appeared totally unfazed at the fact that on this occasion the balance of discussion pointed strongly in the reverse direction of his intentions. Rather than attempt to sum up the discussion of this supreme body of collective government, he responded as if he was replying to a question-and-answer session from a party branch.

He was patient with us, but he was firm where he saw Britain's national interests lie: "I tell you that we must steer close to America. If we don't we will lose our influence to shape what they do."

This was the last cabinet meeting at which a large number of ministers spoke up against the war. I have little sympathy with the criticism of Tony that he sidelined the cabinet over Iraq. On the contrary, over the next six months we were to discuss Iraq more than any other topic, but only Clare Short and I ever expressed frank doubts about the trajectory in which we were being driven.

Monday March 25: Among my old contacts in the Foreign Office I cannot find any who can convincingly demonstrate that something dramatic has changed in Iraq in recent months which would produce a justification for military action that was not there a year ago.

Thursday April 11: At cabinet Tony reported in full on his visit. Pat Hewitt spoke up bravely on the importance of UN cover for any military action on Iraq. "There will be a lot of tension among the Muslim communities in Britain if an attack on Iraq is seen as a unilateralist action. They would find it much easier to understand, and we would find it much easier to sell, if there was a specific agreement at the UN on the need for military action."

Tony characteristically refused to be boxed in. He regards the UN process as important but "we should not tie ourselves down to doing nothing unless the UN authorised it". Rather more alarmingly he said, "The time to debate the legal base for our action should be when we take that action."

Tuesday September 3: Tony gave the second of his new monthly press conferences to the press gallery. He promises "the fullest possible debate" in parliament and emphasises the importance of building broad international support for action at the UN. I am, though, haunted by the fear that Tony still sees this as an issue of manipulating press and public opinion, and has not grasped that on the substance of the issue the public and he are so far apart that he cannot win this one. Over the years, those employed to support him at No 10 have become accustomed to the Blair magic working, and I fear that there are none left among them prepared bluntly to tell him that this time it cannot work.


Wednesday September 4: It is a glorious day and I walk across the park for my meeting at No 10 with Tony. I open up with the recall of parliament. "Recall is inevitable, and the longer we put it off the more grudging we appear and the less credit we will get for it when it happens." To my surprise, Tony readily agrees.

He attaches great importance to the forthcoming dossier, although I fear that the main response will be one of disappointed expectations. He is enthusiastic at Saddam Hussein's being reported as saying that Iraq must get nuclear weapons to pose a threat to the West. Tony added, "Given the poor state of his conventional forces, it is not surprising that he wants to get his hands on nuclear weapons."

This is a curious aside. If Tony himself recognises that Saddam's conventional forces are much weaker than they were before, it is going to be difficult for him to be convincing that Saddam is now a greater threat to his region.

A rational interpretation of the events of the summer of 2002 would be that Tony Blair succeeded in convincing President Bush that they would secure more international and domestic support for an attack on Iraq if the president put the issue before the UN. The gain from this approach was that the US submitted to a UN process. The downside was the implicit guarantee that Britain was committed to join the US military action.

I do not know whether Tony ever made that deal explicit rather than simply implicit. But it would have been consistent with his previous conduct towards Iraq if he had given the US president a private assurance. I have seen a minute of January 1998 to Tony Blair from John Holmes, his then international private secretary, written during the confrontation with Iraq over weapons inspections, which reminded the prime minister that he had already assured President Clinton: "If a resolution were unachievable, there would certainly be support here for further action."

On that occasion Saddam's subsequent refusal to co-operate with the weapons inspectors provoked unanimous condemnation by the security council. Tony Blair may have bargained on history repeating itself five years later, and it certainly would have been in line with his own previous practice if he had given President Bush a private assurance of British support. The subsequent refusal of the UN to provide cover for military action came as a very unwelcome surprise.

Monday September 16: When I was getting ready for bed, I listened to the midnight news and was startled to hear that Kofi Annan had just received a letter from the Iraqis accepting the return of UN weapons inspectors without any conditions. This is quite a climbdown by Saddam. We cannot credibly proceed with a military strike now he has met our key demand.

Tuesday September 17: When I got into the office the first thing I did was to ring Jonathan Powell to express my strong view that we could not simply bat away the latest offer from Saddam. I found Jonathan very receptive to my argument, but there was a catch: "We have to be careful of how our statements will play in Washington, and we therefore should not get too far in front of the Americans."

Later in the day, passing through No 10 on my way to the Cabinet Office, I bumped into Alastair Campbell and again expressed the view that we should not be too grudging in our response. Alastair, as always, was no-nonsense in his reply: "I cannot agree with you. We are playing a long game." Presumably the long game is to contrive an assault on Iraq whatever Saddam does.

Tuesday September 24: The house was packed for the recall debate, even the front bench. I got a glimpse of the irritation of the war party with my public doubts when Hilary Armstrong, the chief whip, expressed her appreciation that I had lost a stone in weight as we otherwise would not have squeezed in. Adam Ingram, a defence minister, asked how I had done it. "Basically, by starvation," I replied. To which he cheerily responded, "I'm sure many of our colleagues would be only too happy to help you with that."

Jack Straw's speech was refreshing for its extended and powerful emphasis on working through the UN. Afterwards I told him: "You do realise now you are thoroughly impaled on the UN route?" To which he responded with a twinkle: "Yes, I'm glad you noticed that." I suspected that there is some tension behind the scenes between the Foreign Office and Downing Street about the extent to which the UN can be the only route.

This was the parliamentary debate in which the prime minister presented the now notorious dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. I had been familiar with previous secret reporting on Iraq, and when I came to read the dossier I was surprised that there was so little new material in it. There was no new evidence that I could find of a dramatic increase in threat requiring urgent invasion.

Intelligence is supposed to be the evidence on which ministers reach decisions on foreign and defence policy. It is not meant to be the propaganda by which ministers sell a policy to a sceptical public. Nor are intelligence reports suited for the purpose. At the Foreign Office I regularly saw the assessments of the joint intelligence committee (JIC). They would normally arrive in the red box for the weekend and were readily identifiable by their distinctive green covers.

I grew to respect the caution of the Secret Intelligence Service and I would regard it as monstrously unfair to the men and women who serve in the agency if they were now made the fall guys because of the way their work was abused to produce the September dossier.

The dossier did violence to their craft in two ways. First, it painted only a one-sided picture, whereas every JIC assessment I saw would honestly present any contrary evidence that might be inconsistent with the final conclusion. Second, it definitely proclaimed a certitude for its claims that was at odds with the nuanced tone of every JIC assessment I read.

Personally I never doubted that No 10 believed in the threads of intelligence which were woven into the dossier. But that does not alter the awkward fact that the intelligence was wrong and ministers who had applied a sceptical mind could have seen that it was too thin to be a reliable basis for war.

No 10 believed in the intelligence because they desperately wanted it to be true. Their sin was not one of bad faith but of evangelical certainty. They selected for inclusion only the scraps of intelligence that fitted the government's case and gave them an edge that was justifiable. The net result was a gross distortion.

Thursday February 6: At cabinet, Jack is beaming with satisfaction about the relative success of Colin Powell's presentation yesterday to the security council,
which he attended. However, in a comment which revealed the thin ice on which we are skating, he began with the admission that "Powell's presentation went better than I or Powell expected".

One issue on which we may have already fallen through the ice is on the rather laboured attempts to prove that Saddam and Al-Qaeda are in the same camp despite the mountain of evidence that they heartily loathe each other. Tony, who has made much of trying to merge Saddam and world terrorism in the public mind, half-acknowledged the poverty of evidence when he described it as "a changing picture" with the two thrown together on the principle that "my enemy's enemy is my friend".

There never was a shred of evidence found linking Saddam to Al-Qaeda, despite a desperate hunt for it by the intelligence services of three continents. Foreign Office contacts with Iraqis discovered that they were indignant to be compared with Al-Qaeda whom they regarded as an enemy rather than an ally. These feelings were heartily reciprocated by Al-Qaeda.

However, leaders in both the US and the UK did not let the facts on the ground get in the way of their allegations on the airwaves. Tony Blair, addressing the nation on the eve of the war, warned, "Dictators like Saddam, terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, threaten the very existence of such a world. That is why I have asked our troops to go into action tonight."

Tony was far too clever to allege that there was a real link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda. But he deliberately crafted a suggestive phrasing which in the minds of many viewers must have created an impression, and was designed to create the impression, that British troops were going to Iraq to fight a threat from Al-Qaeda.

In a powerful speech to the Commons before it voted on war, Tony majored on the risk that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogue states and fundamentalist terrorist organisations might come together to pose a unique threat to western security.

What none of us knew at the time was that, only a month before, the prime minister had received an assessment that "there was no intelligence that Iraq had transferred CB materials to Al-Qaida". Even more startlingly the JIC had warned that, "in the event of imminent regime collapse there would be a risk of transfer of such material". We had to wait until the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee six months later before we learnt of these warnings.

Friday February 14: The news from New York is electrifying. The latest report by Hans Blix registers a lot of progress in co-operation from Iraq, fails to identify any evidence of weapons of mass destruction and expresses confidence that, with time, more progress can be made. Far from being welcome news to Tony, this will be his nightmare come true. The truth is that he does not want the UN inspections to work. He needs them in order to prove that Saddam will not co-operate and that he is therefore justified in going to war as Sancho Panza to George Bush's Don Quixote.

Thursday February 20: I spent the afternoon in private meetings at our flat. An old friend from the Foreign Office called first. He observed that since the Blix report, Jack has been talking even faster than usual, always a sign with him that he knows he is under pressure. I shepherded my friend down the lift, while I myself used the stairs in order that John Scarlett, chairman of the JIC, who had come to brief me, would not see my visitor.

The presentation was impressive in its integrity and shorn of the political slant with which No 10 encumbers any intelligence assessment. My conclusion at the end of an hour is that Saddam probably does not have weapons of mass destruction in the sense of weapons that could be used against large-scale civilian targets.

Wednesday March 5: Prime minister's questions was notable for the confidence Tony expressed about getting a second UN resolution. I don't know whether this is calculated bravado to keep Saddam wary, or whether he is in a state of denial.

I saw Tony privately shortly after we left the chamber. I started by observing that he'd gone out on a limb and the first piece of advice that I would offer is that he had to stop climbing further out on it, especially on Friday when Hans Blix presents his next report to the UN. "Britain has got to be seen on-side with Blix." If he needed months, we should be prepared to give him until autumn.

Tony was quite frank that he could not deliver that: "I don't know if I could do that. Left to himself, Bush would have gone to war in January. No, not January, but back in September."

I expressed my concern about the hard-line rightwingers around Bush and warned him that many of them would regard it as a bonus in the present crisis if we were driven from office and replaced by a Conservative government. He laughed and said, “Regime change is for Baghdad. It is not for here.”

The most revealing exchange came when we talked about Saddam’s arsenal. I told him, “It’s clear from the private briefing I have had that Saddam has no weapons of mass destruction in a sense of weapons that could strike at strategic cities. But he probably does have several thousand battlefield chemical munitions. Do you never worry that he might use them against British troops?”

“Yes, but all the effort he has had to put into concealment makes it difficult for him to assemble them quickly for use.”

There were two distinct elements to this exchange that sent me away deeply troubled. The first was that the timetable to war was plainly not driven by the progress of the UN weapons inspections. Tony made no attempt to pretend that what Hans Blix might report would make any difference to the countdown to invasion.

The second troubling element to our conversation was that Tony did not try to argue me out of the view that Saddam did not have real weapons of mass destruction that were designed for strategic use against city populations and capable of being delivered with reliability over long distances. I had now expressed that view to both the chairman of the JIC and to the prime minister and both had assented in it.

At the time I did believe it likely that Saddam had retained a quantity of chemical munitions for tactical use on the battlefield. These did not pose “a real and present danger to Britain” as they were not designed for use against city populations and by definition could only threaten British personnel if we were to deploy them on the battlefield within range of Iraqi artillery.

I had now twice been told that even these chemical shells had been put beyond operational use in response to the pressure from intrusive inspections.

I have no reason to doubt that Tony Blair believed in September 2002 that Saddam really had weapons of mass destruction ready for firing within 45 minutes. What was clear from this conversation was that he did not believe it himself in March this year.

This in turn begs another chain of questions. If No 10 accepted that Saddam had no real weapons of mass destruction which he could credibly deliver against city targets and if they themselves believed he could not reassemble his chemical weapons in a credible timescale for use on the battlefield, just how much of a threat did they really think Saddam represented?

I have long been puzzled that the contentious claims in the September dossier were quietly dropped by ministers as war drew nearer. In the crucial debate on March l8, no minister claimed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction ready to be fired in 45 minutes, or that he had rebuilt chemical weapons plants, or that he had sought uranium from Niger.

Yet in that debate the government had its back to the wall and outside the chamber the whips were deploying every technique of persuasion available in their armoury. Why did ministers not repeat inside the chamber their strongest lines on the threat from Saddam unless they themselves had come to recognise they were disputed?

They had been given plenty of cause to come to doubt their own claims. The scepticism about the September dossier which has surfaced from within UK intelligence is a pale reflection of the raging controversy in the US. Colin Powell invested four whole days, before his presentation to the security council in March, grilling the CIA on the reliability of the intelligence he was going to deploy. By the end of it he had decided not to use the claim about the Niger connection on uranium and he made no mention of weapons of mass destruction ready for firing in 45 minutes.

Given the intimate relationship between State Department and Foreign Office it is implausible that his cautious scepticism did not become known in London.

The public controversy over the September dossier has focused on whether No 10 really believed in its claims at the time of its publication, and whether all of its claims were sourced in reliable intelligence. There is, though, another and even more disturbing question. Did No 10 still believe in its own claims six months later and how many of those claims had been undermined by subsequent intelligence and analysis?

This leads to the gravest of political questions. The rules of the Commons require ministers to correct the record as soon as they are aware that they may have misled parliament. If the government did come to know that the State Department did not trust the claims in the September dossier and that some of even their own top experts did not believe them, should they not have told parliament before asking the Commons to vote for war on a false prospectus?

Monday March 10: Clare Short announced that she will resign if there is no second resolution. For good measure, she also describes Tony Blair as “reckless”, and repeats it five times. It is a sign of Tony’s weak political position not that Clare said these things last night, but that this morning he has not dared to remove her from the government. When Hilary came in I could not resist asking if Tony was going to dismiss Clare and got a brisk response: “No, he’s far too busy today.” She then added, with a hint of a smile, “Reshuffles take so much time.”

I took Gaynor and my son Peter to dinner in Portcullis House. Martin Salter leaned across to tell us that the whips had been asking tonight if Labour MPs would be for or against France. To demonstrate where their prejudices lay on the war, they had set up a game of boules in Portcullis corridors and had been talking loudly to each other in French.

 posted by smintheus  # 11:51 PM  
Comments:
Thanx for this post!
Your link to the Times extracts is a bit messed up, though. There are vertical lines at the start and end of it.

Here's a working link:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printFriendly/0,,1-525-841557,00.html
 
Thanks for the heads-up about the link... some "smart" quotes snuck in to that link... it is fixed.
 
Thanks Steve for the correction. I've posted a similar entry, but with more commentary and analysis, at this site:

http://www.boomantribune.com/story/2005/7/11/17239/8989
 
One little nit-pic, could you put the year next to the diary date entries, just for clarification? Having said that . . .

WOW! Thanks so much for this post. It really solidifies all the "speculation" as to the meaning in all the UK documents we have to date, doesn't it?

Maybe with all the Rove/Plame hoopla we can get just that much closer to getting a REAL hearing on Bush's rush to war and his real intentions. Wouldn't it be nice if we could get Cook, along with other UK Officials to that hearing?

Thanks again for the enlightening information.
 
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