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Politics

Futility of Inquiries

28 August 2003

The Futility of Inquiries

By Gwynne Dyer

“The government lied every time it skewed, misrepresented, used selectively and fabricated the Iraq story,” said Andrew Wilkie, a senior intelligence officer in Australia’s Office of National Assessment until he resigned last March in protest at the way the Australian government was distorting intelligence to justify its attack on Iraq. “Key intelligence assessment qualifications like ‘probably’, ‘could’ and ‘uncorroborated evidence suggests’ were frequently dropped,” he told a parliamentary inquiry in Canberra last week. “Much more useful words like ‘massive’ and ‘mammoth’ were included.”

The same process is underway in Britain, where two weeks ago the Hutton inquiry began taking public evidence about whether the British government deliberately ‘sexed up’ intelligence reports about the threat posed by Iraq in order to bamboozle the British public into backing an attack on Iraq. It’s a much bigger deal in London, because the trigger for the British inquiry was the suicide of a senior government expert on Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, Dr. David Kelly, who had been linked to leaks to the BBC.

Prime Minister Tony Blair denied any government meddling in the intelligence process in his testimony to the Hutton inquiry on Thursday, saying that it would have “merited my resignation” if he had lied to the British public about the threat posed by Saddam’s alleged WMD, but insisting that the available intelligence backed it up. A torrent of testimony and an avalanche of official e-mails submitted to the inquiry show that it did not back it up, really, but Blair still walked away from the witness box seemingly unscathed.

Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard won’t even have to appear in person before his country’s parliamentary inquiry, and it won’t be able to pin anything specific on him either. In response to Andrew Wilkie’s accusations, he simply said: “If he has got evidence of that, let him produce it. Otherwise, stop slandering decent people.” As if there might be a document somewhere in which Howard instructed his minions to ‘sex up’ the intelligence in order to trick the Australian public into going along with his war. Things don’t really work like that.

Of the three countries that sent actual combat troops to invade Iraq last March (not counting the marching band from Ruritania and the typing pool from Lower Slobbovia), both Australia and Britain are conducting public inquiries into the government’s alleged subversion of the intelligence process to justify that deed, whereas the United States is not. Many Americans lament this fact, imagining that a proper Congressional inquiry would make the Bush administration come clean about the imaginary WMD and the supposed links between Iraq and al-Qaeda that were used to sell the war to the American public. They are dreaming.

Lots of interesting details are coming out at the Hutton inquiry, of course. We learn that Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, commenting on the ‘Iraq dossier’ being prepared by the government last September, wrote that “the document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam….We will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he is an imminent threat.”

That was just what Mr Blair did claim in his famous September dossier, referring to Iraqi WMD that could “be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.” This was a key factor in persuading many Labour MPs to back Blair in going to war, but it came out in the inquiry that these alleged WMD were just short-range shells and rockets that couldn’t even reach Iraq’s neighbours. No risk of the great British public realising that, however: Blair’s comment in the draft version of the foreword saying “The case I make is not that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on London or another part of the UK (he could not)” was removed from the published version.

Even the short-range shells and rockets were a fiction, and many in the British intelligence world suspected it at the time — like Dr. Kelly, who thought that there was only a 30 percent chance that Iraq had resumed production of WMD after 1991, and Air Marshal Sir John Walker, a former chief of Defence Intelligence, who said in a confidential note to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee last month that the claims about Iraqi WMD were “not the reason to go to war, but the excuse to go to war.”

All fascinating stuff, but will it make any difference to outcomes? Not likely: around half of the British public now believes it was lied to in the run-up to the war, but around the same proportion believed it at the time and the war happened anyway.

About a third of Australians think their government lied to them, which is also largely unchanged over the past ten months. And in America, despite all the recent revelations in the media about how the administration massaged the evidence, around half the population still goes on believing Mr Bush’s brazen assertion — or rather innuendo, for he never quite says it straight — that Saddam Hussein was an ally of al-Qaeda.

Inquiries and revelations about the past will not change these beliefs much. A large part of the public simply doesn’t care if their country launched an illegal war of aggression on faked evidence, so long as the price for doing so stays low. So what might decisively turn public opinion in the ‘coalition countries’ against the occupation of Iraq? Oh, the usual: the cost and the casualties.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Australia’s…that”;and “Even…war”)