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Have we failed to learn lessons of Iraq WMDs?

Mark Urban | 18:48 UK time, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Ministry of Defence signThe Government is cutting its Defence Intelligence Staff, despite warnings that doing so could make a repetition of the Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction saga more likely. The Ministry of Defence is moving to eliminate 122 posts in the DIS, more than one fifth of its strength.

In 2004, an inquiry into the intelligence that led Britain into the Iraq war chaired by Lord Butler, former head of the civil service, argued that DIS should be strengthened. His report called the DIS "crucial", said it needed to be integrated "more closely" with the intelligence community in order to serve "wider national priorities". If that required more money from central funds, argued Lord Butler's team, "we would support that". The government said at the time that it accepted the Butler recommendations.

Lord ButlerDuring the run up to the Iraq war, the DIS proved to be the only part of the government machine that seriously questioned the way that the case was being argued. Brian Jones, a senior defence intelligence analyst and key witness at the Hutton inquiry, has told Newsnight that the cuts show that lessons have not been learned from the Iraq saga. They have also been criticised by John Morrison, formerly Deputy Chief of Defence Intelligence and advisor to Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee. He has told Newsnight that the cuts are "extraordinary" and make a repetition of the mistakes in Iraq intelligence more likely. You can see more of their thoughts in the report at the end of this post.

Defence Intelligence currently has 590 people working in central London. They come from a variety of civilian and military backgrounds and are the government's largest organisation for analysing information - much of it secret - about the wider world.

Many in Whitehall fear cuts to the DIS, not just because Britain's forces are engaged in active military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also because the organisation plays a key role in licensing defence exports, preventing other countries from acquiring WMD technology in Britain.

Iraq WMD dossierUnder the new 'Streamline' programme, the MoD will cut 122 intelligence jobs and move 73 out of London. The aim is to reduce the number working in the centre of the capital to below 400. Prospect, the trade union representing many of the civilian intelligence analysts says the head count is important because the cuts have resulted in part from the ministry's desire to squeeze all its Head Office staff into a single building, closing down the current DIS headquarters in the Old War Office Building on Whitehall.

In documents seen by Newsnight, the MoD says its aim is to create "a flatter, more customer facing Head Office structure with more focussed prioritisation of resources". Other branches of its headquarters staff are being cut by a similar amount. It was however one of the Butler review's recommendations that funding could be available from the central intelligence budget precisely to prevent the DIS falling victim to 'equal misery' defence spending cuts.

In a statement to Newsnight today, the current Chief of Defence Intelligence said "The Defence Intelligence Staff remains of critical importance to defence and security and is recognised across Whitehall as a key asset. The area is funded for what it is being asked to do from the central defence budget and will continue to support the Armed Forces and contribute strongly to the intelligence community's work across government."

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  • Comment number 1.


    If we screened Prime Ministers for megalomania, illusions of grandeur, etc (help me here JJ) intelligence might be of some value. But nutter PMs (Blair knew) and strange retired Judges, will always give us 'just wars' - on any pretext.

  • Comment number 2.

    I am looking forward to the playback of how Mr Urban and his investigative newshounds as one voiced such scepticism and quickly debunked all of the Blair governments "facts being fixed around the policy" during those dark days, by a simple fact find and a few hours research on the internet.After all its"what we do best".

  • Comment number 3.

    Why have ypu been so slow to cover this? This is just another example how the MOD consistently displays poor judgement - on equipment, manpower and now seemingly the deployment of it's real estate.

    Are the people in charge really up to the job? - why should we have to put up with an inept MOD - something is structurarly wrong with this Dept.

    To all new labourites - quit now and quietly go

  • Comment number 4.

    The former head of the Civil Service advocating the strengthened involvement of the Civil Service? I cannot see any conflict there.

    If the DIS had any teeth, then surely they would have made a difference nearly 6 years ago, instead of whining to the BBC about it now.

  • Comment number 5.

    You assume that the cuts led to mistakes in Iraq. I beg to differ, the so called mistakes made over Iraq's WMD were deliberate & intentional to mislead the HoP and the public into supporting the Blair's drive into the war.

  • Comment number 6.

    ....could make a repetition of the Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction saga more likely. ....

    for that you would also need a captain ahab figure like blair? whose only defence is that he believed with every fibre of his being? Which is not a rational basis for any decision. There was enough doubt in the facts to make the probability the uk was in danger unlikely?

    intelligence wasn't the problem. the politics was and the grip of the neocons over uk foreign policy.

    if Kelly didn't stop them nothing would? If Blix didn't nothing could? For the neocons in uk govt evidence and facts only got in the way?

  • Comment number 7.

    I was serving in the RAF at Headquarters Strike Command (involved in communications network planning) and I remember the publication of the government’s “dodgy dossier” claiming that some WMD could be used within 45 minutes and some could threaten Cyprus. This raised quite a laugh amongst myself and colleagues as anyone with a little military knowledge knew that both claims were stretching the truth: Saddam lost plenty of his own troops to chemical munitions in the Iraq/Iran War and his ballistic missile programme was a joke (based on the SCUD missile). Moreover, I was in daily contact with colleagues in theatre (both Cyprus and Kuwait/Iraq) and they were shocked at NBC (chemical warfare) kit shortages, which indicated even the military viewed this supposed causus belli with a great deal of realism. Afterwards, of course, we found out that too much weight was placed on the claims of a single source regurgitating Soviet doctrine.

    Presumably the government wants to simply dispense with intelligence and replace it with propaganda, as they did the last time. After all, they can trawl the internet and get Mr Campbell to come up with whatever headlines he wishes!

  • Comment number 8.


    The postings above add up to a strong urge to the BBC to run a 'Special', showing (succinctly please - no semi-obscured visuals and musical enhancement) the bare faced deception foisted on Britons under a bogus banner of democracy. For a start, I would like to see IDS grilled over his part in sending Tory MPs into the War lobby, when anyone with two brain cells (am I on to something?) could see what Blair was up to.

  • Comment number 9.


    Arguably the DIS is a business managed by the MOD on behalf of we the tax payer. As a tax payer and thus shareholder in this business, questions come to mind about the actions of the managers (MOD) in relation to the on-going health of this business.

    Severe cost cutting of this magnitude will inevitably impact on business (DIS) output. And we need to be reassured that managers are acting in the national best interest rather than simply blindly seeking short term departmental specific savings. Which if any of the current DIS services are to be cut or curtailed, or diminished in value by the loss of so many analysts ? How quickly could that expertise be re-established , if needs be ? What does this mean for the resilience of supply of said analysis in a time of crisis or peak demand when strains on manning become extreme ? Have customers been made aware of the specific implications for them and have their needs been properly addressed as part of the business decision to cut staff in the DIS. Have managers been diligent in seeking additional sources of funding to sustain output considered valuable by customers. ?

    Whilst I doubt MOD would willingly enter into a discussion with journalists about this, it is to be hoped that the Cabinet Office are already asking such questions and ensuring that national intelligence priorities rather than departmental estate priorities lead decision making with regard to the DIS. Any comment from the Cabinet Office to date ?

  • Comment number 10.


    You have answered your own question -

    "During the run up to the Iraq war, the DIS proved to be the only part of the government machine that seriously questioned the way that the case was being argued."

    The government were wrong, DIS were right and now they are paying the price.

  • Comment number 11.


    Plus ca change. Spot-on threnodio.

  • Comment number 12.

    a fair question. I did a piece on the eve of the war showing how the Iraqis forces were not in a position to resist the Coalition and was pretty frank in the run up to the conflict about the limited intelligence and (what we believed) limited stockpiles of WMD. But, yes, it is fair to say that journalists to a certain extent well victim to a group think assumption that Saddam had something to hide, even if it was just the remnants of his pre-1991 chemical arsenal.

    I dont think we've been slow. My colleague Gordon Correra did a story back in February when the cuts were first proposed. The Sunday Times website had a story recently. Ours carried it forward in reporting that the cuts had already started and in getting the views of Brian Jones et al.

    Huntingdonian (and Jessthedogblog might apreciate this too) - we know that some of the staff cuts are in Scientific and Technical intelligence and that the number of people working Counter Proliferation will fall too. Oddly, the documents we've seen argue that Counter Proliferation work will be more effective because they are creating a new directorate of counter proliferation under a one star officer ! More managers, fewer analysts...

  • Comment number 13.

    GREY AREA (Observation for Jaded Jean)

    It has just dawned on me that, since the 'improvements' to the blog, WE (the punters) are all fighting to be 'heard' against a background greyness that might be regarded as redolent of the 'small print' of devious documents.

    Then up pops the BBC, in the form of Mark Urban's comments above, on a holier that thou, white background, WITH A 'DOMINANCE' (separatist) BOX ROUND IT!

    It's all subversion these days, isn't it! (:o)

  • Comment number 14.

    Oh, Mark, It is lovely to know that you still have the touching naivety that humans are essentially good and kind, and that middle age hasn't infected you with cynicism and scepticism.

    Your belief that the 'intelligence' services are what will decide whether we go to war, or whether we licence arms exports, is laudable, but I'm of the view that such decisions will always be made for political and mercenary economic reasons...

    And if the intelligence services 'piper' can be strongly reminded who is paying, then they may be slightly more reluctant to play their own choice of tune.

  • Comment number 15.


    Thanks for the info on which functions are to be affected by the DIS cuts. Of course I have not seen the documents to which you refer, but it seems counter intuitive to believe that cutting analytical capacity will in some way improve our capability. If the current management structure is inefficient then it is reasonable to restructure accordingly, but what is the point of making management more efficient if you simultaneously cut the number of analysts and thus dilute the quality and quantity of analytical product that is to be provided.

    The intent to cut Scientific and Technical Intelligence appears to make even less sense. Technology is such an important aspect of modern warfare that cutting the number of analysts involved in providing technical intelligence to our Defence Forces seems nonsensical.

    Bland assurances from Baroness Taylor to the Lords to the effect that, "we are satisfied that the changes we are making will not have an adverse impact" are simply not enough.

    Politicians act on our behalf and it is we who have to be reassured that serious negative consequences will not flow from the cuts being imposed. Any significant reduction in key areas of intelligence / Defence capability are bound to have consequences. It is the Government's responsibility to explain to the taxpayers their rationale for doing what appears intuitively quite stupid.

    To-date all we know is that MOD has a desk space problem in Whitehall and as a consequence key Defence Intelligence capability is being diminished as a consequence. That makes sense to no one and calls into question the managerial competence of those involved.


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