The Double Deception and the Road to War in Iraq


Dr Eric Herring, Reader in International Politics

The US-instigated invasion of Iraq in 2003 continues to have profound and disastrous consequences for the region, including the partial disintegration of Iraq itself and the fuelling of a wider war in the Middle East aimed at dividing Sunni and Shia into crudely polarised identity groups. Central to the ongoing conflict are regional power politics between key players such as Saudia Arabia and Iran, and the involvement and influence of external actors including the US, Russia and China.

In terms of how Britain and the US came to initiate such an ill-thoughtout war, the British public remain, to a significant degree and probably more than they realise, in the dark.

Dr Piers Robinson, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Sciences The University of Manchester

The Chilcot Inquiry panel has thus far failed to deliver its report and there remains uncertainty as to the extent to which it will get to the truth.

From the perspective of the British public and political system, however, there has been a persistent and widely held view that some level of deliberate deception occurred in order to mobilise support for the invasion of Iraq. For many, perhaps most, the British and US Governments set about a policy aimed at removing Saddam Hussein through force for undeclared reasons and misled their publics by disguising the war as a defensive act aimed at protecting the world from Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

For those politicians and officials involved in UK policy, however, their position has remained resolute: Britain sought to disarm Iraq by peaceful means and did so primarily because of the threat posed by Iraq. From this latter perspective, the Iraq War was primarily a consequence of intelligence failure in which analysts provided politicians with faulty assessments as to the WMD capability of Iraq. Of course, the implications of there having been a deliberate deception are serious and include substantive concerns about the workings of the British political system, its democratic credentials, the legality of the war and the probity of the politicians and officials involved.

A Double Deception

Whatever the ongoing claims and counter claims, there now exists a significant body of evidence in the public domain which has allowed us to develop a good understanding of the extent to which deception was deployed by UK (and US) officials. Two deceptions, performed via a carefuly orchestrated propaganda campaign, can be identified. The first concerns the allegation that Iraq was producing WMD and the second the claim by the British Government that its principal objective was the disarmament of Iraq via the UN and that regime change was not Britain’s objective. Drawing upon our recently published studies, Report X Marks the Spot in Political Science Quarterly and Deception and Britain’s Road to War in Iraq in the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, we summarise the evidence for each of these deceptions.

The September Dossier and Deception Over WMD

The question of lying and deception over WMD has been the most widespread and well known alleged example of deception and continues to fuel allegations that officials, in particular Tony Blair and George Bush, lied with respect to the presence of WMD in Iraq. In fact, as we show in Report X Marks the Spot, the deception in this case was not one of a straightforward lie whereby the British government claimed that Iraq possessed WMD when they knew that there were no WMD. Instead, this was a case where officials intentionally exaggerated the certainty and threat assessment of their intelligence regarding possible WMD in Iraq through acts of omission and distortion. The most prominent example of this, in the UK context, was the 2002 September Dossier.

The dossier was conceived of as part of a campaign of organised persuasive communication aimed at mobilizing support for the invasion of Iraq. Between March 2002 and September 2002, under the direction of the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir John Scarlett, intelligence on Iraq, which was known to be limited and uncertain, was strengthened so as to create the impression that Iraq was known for sure to be a current WMD threat. One prominent example of the strategy of deception occurred when John Scarlett advised that other more serious WMD threats (Iran, North Korea and Libya) be removed from the dossier so as to ‘obscure’ the fact that Iraq was not an exceptional WMD problem. However, the most serious, and to date poorly understood, act of deception involved the use of what has come to be known as ‘Report X’. Report X involved little more than a promise, from a source on trial, that evidence would be provided of active chemical and biological weapons production. Despite the suggestion during the Chilcot hearings from MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) chief Sir Richard Dearlove that he insisted the information could not be used in the dossier, it was in fact used to harden claims that Iraq was actively producing chemical and biological agents, underpin the claim that these could be fired within 45 minutes of an order to do so, and allowed Blair to state in the foreward to the dossier that the intelligence was ‘beyond doubt’. To date, there is still no clear understanding of precisely who was responsible for electing to use such a flimsy piece of information, merely the promise of intelligence to come, to strengthen these key claims in the dossier, other than that senior officials, including Blair, were party to the process.

The ‘UN Route’

In some ways the persistence of controversy regarding deception over WMD has obscured a second significant deception with regard to the path to war in Iraq. To date, leading officials have maintained that the objective of British policy was to seek the disarmament of Iraq through peaceful means if possible. As both Tony Blair and Jack Straw have repeatedly claimed, if Saddam had fully complied with UN resolutions, then he could have stayed in power and war would have been averted. At the most extreme, key officials such as Sir Jeremy Greenstock (UK Ambassador to the UN) have presented British pressure to go the ‘UN route’ as a heroic attempt to force compliance from Saddam and to avert war.

The problem with this claim is that contemporaneous documentation now available shows that the purpose of pursuing the ‘UN route’ was primarily designed to create legal cover for British involvement in a US-led invasion of Iraq, whilst also helping to build domestic and international support for military action against Iraq. As we set out in Deception and Britain’s Road to War in Iraq, as early as March 2002 UK policy was firming up around supporting a US-led invasion of Iraq in order to remove Saddam from power. A key problem, recognised as early as November/December 2001, was that a policy aimed at regime change would be illegal under international law. By March 2002, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was advising Blair that military action had to be rationalised as part of an attempt to disarm Iraq if adequate legal cover was to be secured. At best, the ‘UN route’ was likely mainly about gaining legal cover for the invasion of Iraq with only an outside belief that it may avert war. In this scenario, and at best, UK officials would appear to have deceived through omission and distortion: omitting the fact that the major rationale for the UN route was primarily one of obtaining support for war and legal cover for British involvement, and exaggerating the idea that going the UN route was ever likely to avert war. At worst, officials are guilty of a more direct deception: claiming that their goal was to avert war via the UN route, UN inspections and Iraq compliance when, all along, their greatest concern was that Iraq might comply sufficiently and in a way that would prevent them from getting the war they wanted.

Broader implications

From many quarters, the 2003 Iraq invasion is now seen as a seminal case of deception in politics. The implications of this for British (and US) democracy are far reaching, suggesting that politicians have a considerable degree for freedom of manoeuvre when it comes to misleading their publics, and highlighting the ways in which organised persuasive communication slips easily into propagandistic manipulation and deception. Of course, the implications for Iraq and the region are, undoubtedly, of a different order. Whether the Chilcot Inquiry, when it finally reports, grapples with these deeper issues remains to be seen. It would be easy, and convenient, to sweep the issues of deception and propaganda underneath the carpet whilst assuming the upstanding and honest intentions of all those involved. However, if any substantive lessons are to be learned from this case, and ones which might contribute to improving the accountability of the government and encouraging a more ethical (i.e. non deceptive) mode of persuasion and communication, then the deceptive manner in which the invasion of Iraq was sold needs to be fully investigated, understood and brought to light. The opportunity to start such a debate now lies with Chilcot.

The blog was first posted on the Iraq Inquiry Digest