Tuesday 2 April 2002 was a warm spring day, the first after the Easter weekend. The country was coming to terms with the death of the Queen Mother, a young singer called Gareth Gates had shot to No 1 and Admiral Lord Boyce, chief of the defence staff, was heading to Buckinghamshire for a meeting with the prime minister at Chequers.
A submariner in his early career, colleagues thought Boyce rather prickly, a trait cabinet minister Clare Short attributed to the long periods he had spent underwater.
Certainly, his summons to see Tony Blair seemed to have left him a little nonplussed. British forces were already deployed in Afghanistan, which was his priority. And though he had heard talk in the press and around Whitehall about a shift in interest towards Iraq, he wasn’t one for gossip or small talk.
Blair, however, wanted to chat about Saddam Hussein. “I guess my presence at Chequers on that particular occasion was simply … if there were questions coming up about what could be done militarily; what was our capability should we be asked to do something,” Boyce explained to the Chilcot inquiry.
If there had been a significant hardening of thinking in Downing Street, Boyce appeared to have left Chequers none the wiser. As far as he was concerned, attacking Iraq just wasn’t on the cards.
“There was no discussion on the detail of military action or military options,” he said. “Of course, Iraq wasn’t off our plot entirely. It was something which the MoD was keeping a watching eye on, if you like.
“At the meeting … no particular preparations were made. It was a scoping opportunity … we were certainly not doing any thinking about any sort of military adventure.”
The meeting was rather casual – and very Blairish. Others in the room included Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, and Sir John Scarlett, head of the joint intelligence committee (JIC).
But the cabinet secretary, Lord Wilson, hadn’t known it had taken place; the foreign and defence secretaries weren’t there either – and no minutes were taken. The discussion, it seemed, had been organised to help Blair prepare his thoughts for an important trip to the US at the end of the week.
What exactly happened on 6 and 7 April in Crawford, Texas, between the US president, George W Bush, and the man who was determined to be his best friend, not even Chilcot’s 2.6m-word report has been able to entirely unravel.
But if there was one event that changed the conversation about Iraq, it was this. Because while Blair insisted no deal was done and no hands shaken on military action, Chilcot’s report describes how the mood changed thereafter and how the Whitehall machine, at different speeds in different departments, reacting to different voices, began to hum; the tempo changed.
We now know that Boyce was not fully in the loop. He had not been told that months earlier, in December 2001, there had been “quite substantive exchanges between No 10 and the White House” about the possibility of military action against Iraq.
“They weren’t ones which we were apprised of,” Boyce told Chilcot. Nor would he have known that in the days before Crawford, Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, had sent a secret memo to Bush saying that “Blair will be with us should military operations be necessary” in Iraq. “He is convinced the threat is real … and success against Saddam will yield more regional success.”
In the weeks after Crawford, there were more obvious indications that Iraq was about to become Britain’s problem. Richard Armitage, the US deputy secretary of state, told Sir David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser, that the US and the UK were already discussing the idea of Britain sending a 20,000-strong armoured division to Iraq. This was news to Manning – and he was miffed.
In a terse letter sent on 21 May, the Ministry of Defence was ordered to find out who was saying what to whom, seeing as “no options have yet been presented to ministers”.
Ten days later the MoD had got nowhere. In a return letter, a senior officer concluded the talk was just speculation and the Americans must have “misinterpreted” what they had been told.
It did not matter. Whether through accident or design, Chilcot noted that “by mid–May, the perception the UK might provide an armoured division for military operations had already gained currency in the US”. The idea “had got into the American bloodstream”.
Though Boyce doesn’t appear to have been privy to Blair’s thinking, the military had reason to be getting twitchy. We now know that shortly after Crawford, the MoD set up a small informal working group under Lt Gen Sir Anthony Pigott to “brainstorm” the possible options for and repercussions of British involvement in a military effort.
Pigott told Chilcot that he was trying to prevent the UK setting off on an “off the cuff … let’s go and do that” campaign. “We need to do some scoping work … What could we be dealing with here? What might be the big issues?”
But as work began, it became abundantly clear to senior military officials that the Americans had already decided to pursue regime change and that the push could come before the end of the year.
The Americans, it seemed, were determined to remove Saddam. And they had also assumed, for reasons that were not entirely clear to military chiefs, that Britain would be alongside them.
Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, was worried about what he was hearing from his officials, and in early June sought guidance from Blair ahead of a meeting with his opposite number, Donald Rumsfeld.
The UK appeared to be in a tricky situation. In his note to the prime minister, Hoon said: “If we discuss the detail and timescales of a potential UK military contribution to a US‑led coalition, it could send a misleading signal that we have decided to support a specific line of military action.
“Equally, if we are not clear with the US at this stage about our military constraints, we face the danger of our not being able to bring anything meaningful to the table at the right time and the consequent loss of influence that would bring.”
Hoon wanted the Americans to know that the British needed “plenty of warning in order to be able to contribute to military action”. But Blair wasn’t happy. “That will send a wobbly message,” he wrote.
As the military tried to reconcile the mixed signals from Whitehall and Washington, the US formally invited the British to join a military planning team based at Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
Boyce said this early military planning was taking place in a “political void” and he says he stressed to the Americans that joining the team should not imply “a political commitment to contribute to an actual operation”.
But while he said he kept reiterating this to his American counterparts – “I can’t remember how many times I must have said … that our policy was not regime change” – they seemed to know better. “The reaction of the Americans was always: ‘Yes, I hear what you say but come the day, we know you will be there’,” he told Chilcot.
Elsewhere in Whitehall, there were others attempting to read the runes from Downing Street over exactly what was going on, and what Britain was being drawn into. The attorney general, Peter Goldsmith, was one. He had been watching events unfold and didn’t like what he was seeing. It irritated him when he heard ministers talking loosely about whether there was a clear basis for military action against Iraq, and he wanted the Americans to know that whatever conclusions they had drawn about the use of force, he did not share them.
He had steeled himself to report this to William Taft IV, legal adviser to the Department of State, at a meeting on 22 May. But in the end the two men somehow avoided the subject and just chatted.
Lord Goldsmith evidently thought it was more important to inform the prime minister of his misgivings, even though his advice was unsolicited and not “terribly welcome” by Downing Street.
Knowing that Blair was due to meet Bush again at the end of July, Goldsmith set about drawing up legal advice, which he presented to the prime minister on 23 July. He told Blair that, to his mind, the Americans were plain wrong to think they could take military action against Iraq to remove Saddam without going back to the UN.
“I had looked at whether there was a self-defence argument and didn’t believe there was. That was because I didn’t see any evidence of an imminent threat, and you need an imminent threat,” he told Chilcot. “I didn’t want there to be any doubt.”
The legalities, however, were not going to upset the special, increasingly intimate relationship between Blair and Bush. As the Chilcot report has now shown, any concerns about the legality of a conflict had not prevented Blair from offering unwavering support to the president, as set out in that now notorious memo, dated 28 July. “I will be with you, whatever,” Blair wrote.
Goldsmith did not see the prime minister again for three months, but in the meantime, he decided he needed to know more about the threat posed by Saddam, in case this changed his thinking. He asked for a briefing from the man who would know – Scarlett.
Scarlett, though, was a busy man, who was having difficulties of his own. The JIC had already compiled one report on Iraq in May 2001 and had undertaken another assessment in March 2002, which had been drawn up ahead of Blair’s trip to Crawford. It had reached many of the same conclusions.
Iraq was assessed to retain some stocks of chemical weapons, but there were no details on locations or quantities; it was stated that there was clear evidence of continuing biological warfare activity – and intelligence about the likelihood of mobile production laboratories was being taken seriously.
But the Chilcot inquiry heard that intelligence gathered on Iraq was far from an exact science. It needed to be treated with great care, as Sir Mark Allen, former head of MI6’s counter-intelligence branch and one of its more maverick voices, was keen to stress. “Actually our knowledge of Iraq was very, very superficial,” he told Chilcot. “We were small animals in a dark wood with the wind getting up and changing direction the whole time. These were very, very difficult days.”
Scarlett knew this all too well and had been working on the basis that the March analysis could be filleted for publication. Instead, this dossier was put in cold storage until the autumn, when things suddenly gathered pace.
“I suppose the person who opened the freezer was the prime minister,” Scarlett told Chilcot. “He made a public announcement that the government assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities would be published in the coming weeks.”
The pressure was on. But MI6, known formally as the Secret Intelligence Service, appeared to have new and potentially important information that was passed to the prime minister on 12 September. A new source had provided intelligence that appeared to support claims that Iraq had “continued to produce chemical and biological agents” and had “military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons”.
This was used by Scarlett to help underpin key judgments in the government’s dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which was published to much fanfare, and a fair degree of ridicule, on 24 September.
Though too late to be included in the document, MI6 privately disseminated a second report from the same sourcing chain, which stated VX, Sarin and Soman toxic chemicals had been produced by Iraq and had been loaded into a variety of containers, including “linked hollow glass spheres”. The source said there had been “accelerated production of substances for several years”.
But within weeks, senior officers at MI6’s HQ in Vauxhall, central London, were beginning to sweat; doubts had begun to emerge about the reliability of this information.
To the layman, the details the source had provided sounded like something from a Hollywood movie. And that’s because they were. More precisely, they had come from a film called The Rock, starring Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery.
As Chilcot noted: “In early October, questions were raised with SIS about the mention of glass containers. It was pointed out that: glass containers were not typically used in chemical munitions; and that a popular movie (The Rock) had inaccurately depicted nerve agents being carried in glass beads or spheres.” SIS began to realise it had been duped and eventually concluded the source had been lying. But, remarkably, it decided not to tell anyone who might need to know – such as the prime minister.
Another intelligence source that had been heavily relied upon by the JIC was codenamed Curve Ball, but this information also had health warnings. For a start, it had not come to British intelligence directly – it had been channelled through the German spy agencies.
And as Chilcot reported, SIS didn’t get to meet Curve Ball until much later, and when it did, agents didn’t like the look of him. They were forced to conclude the information he provided – specifically that Iraq had developed mobile facilities for the production of biological agent – was wholly unreliable.
Asked by Chilcot to summarise the unpalatable and chastening lessons that MI6 had had to learn, a senior officer told him: “It’s not so much a lesson. It’s an observation that we based a lot on not enough.”
While MI6 kept quiet about the doubts over the authenticity of some of the intelligence, the military and Goldsmith were simultaneously grappling with different, if intertwined, problems of their own. Having had a personal briefing from Scarlett, the attorney general remained unconvinced about the threat posed by Saddam, and hadn’t changed his mind about needing to go back to the UN to seek authority for military action.
But a new resolution that was being proposed did not go far enough, as far as he was concerned. Goldsmith met Blair on 22 October to outline his concerns that resolution 1441 – which stated that Iraq was in material breach of its UN obligations – still did not provide a sound basis for military action.
He gave the same gloomy prognosis to the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, on 7 November, the day before the resolution was passed.
“My provisional view was that there wasn’t enough there,” Goldsmith told Chilcot. “As I have consistently said, from the legal point of view it would have been safer to have had a second resolution because it would have put the matter beyond doubt. Nobody could have then challenged the legality.”
Goldsmith was also angered by “Chinese whispers” across Whitehall that appeared to be putting a much more positive gloss on his advice. As far as he was concerned, even with resolution 1441, everything “would not be all right on the night”.
He told Chilcot that the gossip appeared to be coming from the “undergrowth, if I can say, beneath ministers. Sometimes people who are least involved in issues pick up things and they then come out. That is just the way government seems to work.
As Goldsmith told Downing Street what it didn’t want to hear, so the MoD was still seeking clarity from No 10 about the scale of Britain’s potential military commitment to any US-led invasion.
Declassified papers show Hoon presented the prime minister with a UK military options paper on 15 October – and said that an urgent decision had to be taken. “We need to decide this week,” the paper began. “US military planning for an operation in Iraq is gathering pace.”
Three basic packages were outlined, with the third being the most ambitious: it included more than 300 tanks and armoured vehicles and 28,000 personnel. It would be “a major element of the northern line of attack which the US now judge as essential”.
A memo dated 31 October sets out how Blair offered support for the more expensive and risky third option and concluded that we “should now tell the US … for planning purposes”.
Of all the scenarios, this seemed to be the one favoured by the MoD. If the UK were to attack Iraq, coming in from the north had clear advantages; the area was more stable than the south and contained many of the oil fields that needed to be protected and secured.
But there was a problem: Turkey. Britain needed to use it as a base.
In early discussions with his opposite number in Ankara, Boyce thought the Turks would allow the British to pitch camp. “Certainly when I spoke to the chief of the Turkish general staff, Gen [Hilmi] Ozkuk, in the very early days, there didn’t appear – well, he didn’t seem to think it would be a particular problem.”
Even after the Americans warned the MoD that “we were probably pushing against a closed door”, Boyce held out hope. “I was talking to Ozkuk and he was giving me, sort of, not exactly bright green lights but certainly not saying: ‘Don’t bother to darken my door again.’”
The red light came at the turn of the year, which stopped British planning for an invasion from the north.
So, at the start of 2003, the situation looked bleak; the British military was scrabbling to find a new role, the attorney general was warning there was no basis for the use of force, and some of the intelligence that had been used to support claims of Saddam’s military capabilities was falling apart. Yet within weeks, UK forces would invade.
Never an organisation to shirk a challenge, Boyce and the other chiefs of staff assured Blair in early January that the UK still had enough time to prepare for an invasion from the south, through Kuwait. But with time running out, he conceded there was inevitably going to be “some equipment shortfall … though none which were being advised as showstoppers or of critical importance to mission accomplishment.”
The MoD was also concerned about what was happening with postwar planning and was attempting to seek assurances from the Americans that they had a robust blueprint – because Britain didn’t have one. A memo dated 16 January 2003 said: “The prime minister agrees … that much greater clarity about the US intentions is required.”
Boyce also warned Blair he was still worried about the legalities. “I made it clear to the prime minister in January 2003 that I would require an assurance of the legal base of the conflict. This was reiterated more than once in the following weeks.”
The prime minister, however, was to get a break from an unlikely source. The attorney general had given Blair his draft advice on the legality of any conflict on 14 January – and it was much the same as months before. But over the coming weeks, Goldsmith had an unexpected and quite sudden change of heart.
The process began on 23 January when he had a private meeting with Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s ambassador to the UN, who had evidently been sent to soften him up. “Sir Jeremy had made some good points and he had made some headway with me, but, frankly, there was still work for me to do and he hadn’t got me there, if you like, yet,” Goldsmith told Chilcot.
On 10 February the attorney general flew to Washington and had a number of meetings with top legal advisers who had all concluded that the use of force did not require a further UN resolution. “The US were convincing,” Goldsmith admitted. They told him that even the French didn’t think a new resolution was required – so why did he?
If it wasn’t quite an epiphany, Goldsmith nonetheless changed tack. He told the inquiry that he had asked himself: “Which side of the argument would you prefer to be on? And I took the view I would prefer to be on the side of the argument that said a second resolution wasn’t necessary.”
When he flew home, he informed Downing Street, though he did not give his advice in writing. It was the green light Blair had doubtless been praying for.
In his evidence to the inquiry, Hans Blix, head of the UN’s weapons inspectors, said that by the end of February, with almost 250,000 coalition forces on the border of Iraq, the momentum for war “was almost unstoppable”. “As I have said, sometimes perhaps a little roughly, the UK remained a prisoner on that train.”
If Downing Street didn’t quite see it that way, Wilson, the cabinet secretary, admitted to Chilcot that “everything was done at a rush … it did make it a tight-run thing.”
Perhaps inevitably, perhaps deliberately, certain things – and certain people – got overlooked. One of them was Clare Short, secretary of state at the Department for International Development. She had expected to be involved in discussions about the aftermath of any conflict, but had been kept out of any conversations until the last moment.
“Suddenly, there is a flurry of correspondence,” she told Chilcot. “There is all of this: ‘Keep Clare and DfID out of it,’ and then, just at the last minute, they are suddenly writing letters saying: ‘We must make preparations.’ And I’m saying to our military: ‘You’re going to have to feed people’, and they suddenly, in the last week, they ordered food. I mean, it was mad. But they did it, and they wanted to get closer to us suddenly at the last minute, and we didn’t sulk. The situation was too serious.”
She added: “But the chaos had its consequences. I think the British military should have said to Blair: ‘We are not ready.’ I think that was their duty and they failed in that duty.”
Chilcot revealed that by the time the war started, nobody in government appeared to have overall responsibility for postwar planning; and nobody in the military was taking responsibility for the shortfalls in vital equipment.
In one of Chilcot’s coldest and most damning conclusions, he said: “When Mr Blair set out the UK’s vision for the future of Iraq in the House of Commons on 18 March 2003, no assessment had been made of whether that vision was achievable, no agreement had been reached with the US on a workable post-conflict plan, UN authorisation had not yet been secured, and there was no decision on the UN’s role in post-conflict Iraq.”
A conflict that began in haste and endures today did not have to start when it did, nor in the way it did, Chilcot said. “The evidence is there for all to see. It is an account of an intervention which went badly wrong with consequences to this day.”
By Nick Hopkins
Saturday 9 July 2016 08.00 BST