New Forest East



Dr Julian Lewis: I generally find, when trying to unravel what has happened historically, that it is sensible to look back at some of the original sources. In the very short time available, I have picked out a few original documents that have been included in the mass of published material. One of them is the Joint Intelligence Committee assessment dated 29 January 2003 and entitled, Iraq: the Emerging View from Baghdad. I shall refer to two quotations. At paragraph 10, the JIC says:

“We are unlikely to receive any advance warning of a pre-emptive attack on the Kurds. We judge that a pre-emptive limited artillery strike on Kuwait using CBW could be launched in as little as two hours.”

At another point in the report, a list of things that might be the result of an attack on Saddam Hussein is given. One of these possibilities is described in the following terms:

“to inflict high enough casualties on any coalition ground forces, perhaps in Kuwait, including through the use of CBW, to halt a coalition attack and to swing public opinion in the West against hostilities.”

Another note, entitled, Saddam: The Beginning of the End, which was prepared by the Assessment Staff following a discussion at the JIC on 19 March 2003, states:

“We judge Iraq has a useable CBW capability, deliverable using artillery, missiles and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles. We judge Iraq possesses up to 20 al-Hussein missiles with a range of up to 650km and 100s of shorter range missiles, mostly with a range of 150km or less. These missiles may be able to deliver CBW, although intelligence suggests that Iraq may lack warheads capable of effective dispersal of such agents.”

The reason I quote those two documents is that they were Top Secret documents that were never intended for publication until the archives eventually came to be released many years later. They show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the advice received by the Labour Government at that time was that Saddam Hussein did possess, in the assessment of our intelligence agencies, chemical and biological weapons. We now know that that was wrong, but we also know, as a result of the release of those documents, that the Labour Government of the day did not lie to Parliament over the question of their belief that chemical and biological weapons were kept.

More contentious is the question of whether or not Tony Blair exaggerated. That is a matter of harder judgment, but I sometimes wonder what the reaction of Parliament would have been if he had come to us and said:

“We really don’t know for certain whether Saddam Hussein still has chemical and biological weapons. We know he has had them in the past and used them. Because we can’t be certain that he hasn’t got them now, because of the events that happened only a matter of months earlier, which put al-Qaeda and its suicide brand of terrorism on the world stage, and because we cannot be sure that, for reasons of his own, he might not seek to supply such weapons to suicidal terrorist groups, we judge that we can’t take the chance.”

Mr Alistair Carmichael: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s useful approach in going back to the primary sources. Does not the information to which he refers, though, highlight just how dangerous it is to go to war on the basis of intelligence alone, which is essentially what marked the Iraq war out from every other one? Does he agree that the process of making intelligence available for assessment by this House has to be improved, or we could risk doing it again?

Dr Lewis: That is very tricky, because there are two scenarios where we can go to war. One is quite straightforward: somebody attacks us and we get on with it, because we are given no choice. The other is a situation such as that under discussion, where we have reason to believe that something horrible could happen and the question arises of whether we should intervene.

One of the most problematic aspects of the Chilcot report is its statement that military action was

“not a last resort”

and that the peace process could have been given longer. The reality is that, unless an attack is launched on us, we can always go on talking for longer. I cannot think of any point at which it would be possible to say:

“We have to launch an attack now because there is no prospect of continuing to try to find out without taking military action.”

The right hon. Gentleman talks about this House having to assess the intelligence, but I am not sure that that helps us too much. We can never be certain that what we are assessing is the whole picture, because sometimes, as those of us who have served on bodies such as the Intelligence and Security Committee will know, there are sources of intelligence that cannot be revealed. Therefore, to present raw intelligence to the House, without being able to say that there is other intelligence not being presented to the House, leaves the House in an anomalous position.

Mr Ben Bradshaw: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, in 2003, the House voted not just, or even mainly, on the intelligence? If you look at the debate, Mr Speaker, you will see that the House voted on Saddam Hussein’s repeated and unprecedented non-compliance with mandatory United Nations resolutions and on his record. Does the right hon. Gentleman think from his reading of the report that Saddam Hussein executed a massive bluff on the international community and his own people by pretending that he still had the weapons we know he had, or does he agree with the current Iraqi Government that Saddam sent them across the border to Syria?

Dr Lewis: I agree with a great deal of what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. Although it is not a matter of primary concern to us now, the fact is that Saddam Hussein was the author of his own misfortune. We must remember that, apart from being a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein had invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990. He chose to try to convince his own people that he had not given up these weapons, when either he had given them up or, as the right hon. Gentleman said and as rumours persist to this day, he had spirited them away, possibly to Syria. However, although I see a degree of agreement with me from those on the Labour Benches over this issue, they may find it a little harder to accept the next point that I wish to make.

Mr John Baron: I have great respect for my right hon. Friend, as he will know. However, I suggest that, on this issue, it was not just about intelligence sourcing from here. The United Nations inspectors at the time were pleading for more time because they could not find the WMDs upon which premise we were going to war. We should have listened to them as well. Ultimately, the reason they could not find the WMDs is that they did not exist.

Dr Lewis: Yes, but the problem that the inspectors and we would always have faced was summed up by something that was said at the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly. I was going to quote this later, but I shall do so now. On 21 August 2003, I attended the Hutton Inquiry. In the course of giving evidence, Nicholas Rufford, a journalist, made a statement about a telephone conversation that he had had with Dr David Kelly in June 2003. Dr Kelly was, of course, a weapons expert, and knew all about the difficulties of detecting weapons stockpiles if they were hidden. In the course of that telephone conversation, Dr Kelly said to Mr Rufford that

“it was very easy to hide weapons of mass destruction because you simply had to dig a hole in the desert, put them inside, cover them with a tarpaulin, cover them with sand and then they would be almost impossible to discover”.

So the question that we come back to once again is: if Tony Blair had come to this House and more honestly highlighted the question marks against the reliability of the intelligence, would he be as excoriated today as he has been? Let me be counterfactual for a moment. Let us suppose that some stocks of anthrax had been discovered and there had been a secret cache. Would we still be saying that the people who took the decision in 2003, on the basis of what clearly was an honest belief that Saddam Hussein might have deadly stocks of anthrax, were wrong? I have no hesitation in saying that although the Government may have exaggerated – and probably did exaggerate – the strength of the evidence they had, I believe that they genuinely expected to find stocks of these weapons.

George Kerevan: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Lewis: Yes, but I am taking a lot of interventions, and I am keen not to abuse the fact that I do not have a time limit.

George Kerevan: Given the right hon. Gentleman’s wisdom and expertise, he is a focal point in this discussion. Does he accept that there are some on these Benches who think – and who feel that this is justified by the Chilcot findings – that the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction was an artificial casus belli that was used to effect regime change? If weapons of mass destruction were an issue, why wait 13 years to invade? Why not go in at the time of the first Iraq war?

Dr Lewis: The answer to the second question is easy. What happened during those 13 years was the appearance on the international stage, in September 2001, of a group that had been around for a long time but had not previously succeeded in killing 3,000 people in the heart of New York and Washington DC. [Interruption.] Therefore, the issue at question, as we often hear quite rightly said in debates about international terrorism, was that the traditional policy – the technique of containment, which is usually the best technique to deal with rogue regimes that have weapons stocks – could no longer apply under the circumstances. It was feared that if an international terrorist organisation was, for any reason, supplied with a substance such as anthrax, rational deterrence would be ineffective in preventing the organisation from using it, no matter how suicidally.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Tobias Ellwood): Given the role that my right hon. Friend plays as Chairman of the Defence Committee, I wonder whether he could qualify the statement that he has just made, which caused a reaction in the House. He suggested that somehow the events of 9/11 created a different scenario in Iraq. Does he not agree with me that in 2003, al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq, and therefore the relationship between 9/11 and Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, cannot be made?

Dr Lewis: I do agree that al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq at the time, but that is not the point that I was making. The point that I was making was that the West was in a major stand-off with Saddam Hussein, and people use other groups and organisations for their own ends. The danger was – the then Prime Minister said this at the time, and it is what convinced me to support him – that Saddam Hussein might, for reasons of his own, decide to make some of these weapons available to certain groups, not because he was allied to such groups but because he and al-Qaeda shared a common enemy in the West.

I want to move on. Some Members will agree with what I have said, and others will not. Let me continue with the second branch of my remarks, and then it will be for other Members to put their own perspective on the matter. I hasten to add that although my Chairmanship of the Defence Committee has been referred to a number of times, I am, of course, speaking entirely on my own behalf as someone who was here at the time and took part in the debate and the vote.

When I look back at those circumstances, I say to myself that the primary reason why I supported and spoke in favour of military action was that I believed what I was told by the then Labour Government about the possession of anthrax and other weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein. But here is where I have to make a major admission. At the back of my mind, and at the back, I believe, of many other hon. Members’ minds, was a second belief. It was the belief that if Saddam Hussein were removed, we might see the emergence of some form of democracy in Iraq. I was profoundly mistaken in that belief. From looking at the scenario as it developed, it is quite clear that what emerged was not any form of democracy; instead, there re-emerged the mutual hatreds between different branches of fundamentalist Islam that has led to bitter conflict for more than 1,000 years.

That was the lesson I drew from the Iraq war. It is also why, when it subsequently became clear that the same scenario would be played out in other theatres for the same sort of reasons – in particular, in relation to Syria in August 2013 – I was determined not to make the same mistake again. Along with 29 other right hon. and hon. Members of the Conservative party and nine Liberal Democrats, I therefore voted not to take the same sort of action against President Assad as we had taken against Saddam Hussein. I remember hearing exactly the same sort of arguments in favour of removing Assad as everyone now accepts had been inadequate arguments for removing Saddam Hussein.

Members who feel strongly that it was the wrong thing to do in 2003 ought to check what the consequences have been of not taking the same sort of step in 2013. Since 2013 huge bloodletting has continued in Syria, but many of us still argue that if the choice is between an authoritarian dictatorship and totalitarian civil conflict engaged in by people who believe that suicide terrorism is the answer to the world’s problems and the fastest route to Paradise, we should appreciate that very often there are no simple or easy answers in such dilemmas.

Alex Salmond: I have great respect for the Chairman of the Defence Committee – in fact, I believe I voted for him. Is he saying that if he had his time again he would vote against the Iraq war in 2003 and for the Syrian conflict in 2013?

Dr Lewis: I am saying that I was absolutely right not to vote to remove Assad in 2013 and absolutely wrong to vote as I did in 2003, but that I did so because I believed what I was told about weapons of mass destruction and also believed – wrongly – that there was a chance for Iraqi society to advance along more democratic lines. That was my terrible error.

Philip Davies: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr Lewis: I shall make a little more progress first.

My last point leads me to a second question. I hope that I have, in effect, shown that when the Labour Government of the day said to the House that they believed there were weapons of mass destruction they were not lying, and that there was a reasonable case to be made on those grounds for taking the action that was taken. However, the papers also show that the Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair, was not unaware of the possible consequences of removing Saddam Hussein. In his public statement, Sir John Chilcot said:

“We do not agree that hindsight is required. The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and Al Qaida activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion.”

He added:

“Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate.”

In a briefing note in January 2003 from Mr Blair to President Bush, the then Prime Minister wrote:

“The biggest risk we face is internecine fighting between all the rival groups, religions, tribes, etc, in Iraq, when the military strike destabilises the regime. They are perfectly capable, on previous form, of killing each other in large numbers.”

Let us remind ourselves that the vast total of deaths that have taken place in Iraq are not people who have been killed by Westerners; they are Muslims who have been killed by other Muslims once the lid of authoritarian repression was removed.

Philip Davies: I am nervous about opening up a new front for my right hon. Friend, but some of the deaths in Iraq were clearly of our soldiers, and Chilcot said that there were some

“serious equipment shortfalls when conflict began”.

Two of my constituents died in action in Iraq – Sergeant Roberts died because he did not have the right body armour, and Flight Lieutenant Stead died because his Hercules did not have the proper suppressant foam fitted. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should never, ever, again send our Armed Forces into combat without properly equipping them for the task in hand?

Dr Lewis: Never, ever, again is a strong statement, and when a conflict arises, especially when it is the result of unforeseen events, it is seldom the case that the Armed Forces are fully equipped in every respect. The history of our engagement in many conflicts is of a disastrous start that is usually gradually rectified as the conflict goes on. The report clearly brings out that, for far too long while the conflict was going on, equipment deficiencies were not identified and remedied – I will leave it at that for the moment.

I have two points on which to conclude. First, we must now accept that societies are unready for Western-style democracy while their politics remain indissolubly linked to totalitarian, religious supremacism. I am not saying anything racialist in making those remarks, because only a few hundred years ago, religious wars devastated Europe, and here in England heretics were treated just as barbarously as they are in the Middle East today. If the democratic model is to work, it usually has to evolve. If it does not evolve, a country must be totally occupied for many years in order for such a model to be implanted and to take root.

Secondly, the then Foreign Secretary said yesterday that he believed that some of those decisions, which were mistaken at the time, would less likely be taken in future because of the creation and existence of the National Security Council, and that that council is a forum where such matters could be thrashed out more realistically. I am not sure that that forum is quite strong enough. In bygone years, the heads of each of the three Services had a direct input into the policy debate. The Chiefs of Staff Committee was a body that had to be reckoned with, even by Prime Ministers as forceful as Winston Churchill. Our current arrangements, in which the Chiefs of Staff are supposed to funnel their views to politicians through the medium of just one person – the Chief of the Defence Staff – are entirely inadequate.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary is continuing in his post and I am pleased he is here to hear me say something that I hope he will be hearing more about from the Defence Committee, which is that there is too much of a disconnect between our top military advisers and the politicians. It is easier for a Prime Minister with a bee in his bonnet about overthrowing one regime or another to brush aside the words of one man, no matter how authoritative any given Chief of the Defence Staff may be, than it is to brush aside the contribution of the heads of the Armed Forces as a body.

The Defence Committee suggested, in one of its final reports under my predecessor as Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), that the Chiefs of Staff Committee needed to be constituted as the military sub-committee of the National Security Council. The recommendation was ignored in the reply to that report, but I reiterate it today. We must have authoritative and expert people who are in a position to stand up to a Prime Minister on a mission, whether to remove Saddam Hussein or to remove Gaddafi while telling this House that we are just going to implement a no-fly zone to protect the citizens of Benghazi. It is very important that the strategic calculus should be properly presented to politicians, so we do not ever again have a situation, as we are told happened over Libya, where a Chief of the Defence Staff is told to do the fighting while the politicians do the planning.