The unwillingness of the U.S. Congress, British Parliament and media to question their political executives was the greatest democratic failure that led to the Iraq war
In the week marking the 10th anniversary of the illegal United States and British-led invasion of Iraq, a BBC TV Panorama programme carried material to the effect that six months and three months before the March 2003 invasion, two high Iraqi officials separately told the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service MI6 that Iraq had no active weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) — but the information was never passed on to the politicians. The invasion and its aftermath were riddled with procedural and institutional failures and gross illegalities, but the greatest political failures were the inability and unwillingness of the relevant representative assemblies, the U.S. Congress and the British Parliament, to perform their constitutional duty of scrutinising their respective executives.
The procedural failures themselves arouse suspicion. The Panorama programme, made by Peter Taylor and aired on March 18, says the first Iraqi source was Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, who, the then CIA station head in Paris learnt, hated Saddam Hussein for murdering his brother. The second was the head of Iraqi intelligence, Tahir Habbush Al Tikriti, who initiated contact and met a British agent. Yet the notes the CIA officer, Bill Murray, made in New York and posted to be typed up in Washington had their introduction modified, and then seem to have disappeared; a Senate inquiry said it could find no trace of them. As for the Habbush material, MI6 never passed it on; it apparently thought Saddam Hussein had designed it to mislead.
Taylor recognises that Habbush’s approach may have been an attempt by Saddam Hussein to forestall an invasion — but Habbush was telling the truth, and was in fact saying what the United Nations weapons inspectors had been saying publicly for several years already. Neither the CIA nor MI6 seems to have tried to investigate the truth of either set of statements. On the other hand, bad intelligence, as Murray himself told Taylor, reached the top very quickly; that included the fantasies peddled by Ahmed Chalabi and by a contact called Curveball, an Iraqi-born and German-settled chemical engineer named Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi.
The latter, according to Martin Chulov and Helen Pidd of the Guardian, pulled off one of the “greatest confidence tricks” in the history of modern intelligence by keeping up the deceit for six months; the German government passed his fictions on to Washington before deciding he was lying. Al-Janabi was shocked to hear many of his own lies repeated by Secretary of State Colin Powell in the now infamous speech to the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003.
The failures by the security bodies were compounded by the way sections of the U.S. and British press created a climate favourable to the war. A 2003 Cardiff University study on British broadcast news for the first three weeks after the invasion found that the BBC displayed the greatest “pro-war” bias among the four main British broadcasters. In that period, 11 per cent of its sources were from the Iraqi coalition government or of military origin, and the corporation used government sources twice as much as the commercial broadcasters ITN and Channel 4 News. Secondly, Channel 4 used independent sources like the Red Cross three times as often as the BBC, and even Sky used such sources twice as often. The BBC also placed “least emphasis” on Iraqi casualties, mentioning them in 22 per cent of stories on the Iraqi people, and it was the least likely of the four stations to report on Iraqis who opposed the invasion.
In addition, some of the BBC’s own staff seem to have accepted government statements without question. David Cromwell notes in Why Are We the Good Guys? (Zero Books, 2012) that the corporation’s current affairs superstar Jeremy Paxman has said he himself was convinced by Mr. Powell’s U.N. speech; he thought Mr. Powell had had access to all the relevant information, and he assumed that such an eminent person would not lie over this matter. As Carl Bernstein has written elsewhere, that is precisely what the mainstream U.S. press had thought 30 years earlier about the officials who tried to cover up the Watergate scandal. Paxman also later admitted to having been “hoodwinked” by the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
Furthermore, as the investigative journalist Nick Davies shows in his book Flat Earth News (Vintage Books, 2009), the U.S. and British security services repeatedly planted fabricated stories in the mainstream media, which the latter, under commercial pressure to achieve sales and audience ratings, did not cross-check. Media gullibility and collusion with the political establishment over Iraq are well known; the New York Times later published an apology for not scrutinising the Bush administration’s claims better.
Yet several institutions of state are also implicated in what amounted to failures of democratic processes and institutions. For example, the then British attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, revised his earlier analysis and said the invasion would not breach international law, but he did so because the chief of military staff Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, now Lord Boyce, doubted the legality of the invasion enough to ask for a fresh legal opinion.
Lord Boyce even said that if he was going to end up in the dock of the International Criminal Court, he wanted to see ‘other people’, which he later admitted meant Tony Blair and Lord Goldsmith, indicted alongside him.
There were, of course, staff in the CIA and in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office who resigned over the fixing of intelligence to serve the politicians’ purposes and over the neglect of analyses questioning the legality of the invasion. Those resignations, however, do not obviate the implication that some of the seniormost staff in the CIA and MI6 had themselves decided, like Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair, that Iraq had to be invaded irrespective of the evidence.
For the United Kingdom, an even greater problem is that neither the main executive body, the Cabinet, nor the representative and sovereign assembly, Parliament, so much as saw the complete text of Lord Goldsmith’s 13-page document, dated March 7, 2003, which contained inter alia the attorney-general’s doubts that the invasion would be legal without a further U.N. resolution. Secondly, the former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler, has said he was not aware that MI6 had the information Naji Sabri had given the CIA, but that if the CIA had provided that intelligence then “perhaps” MI6 was not permitted to share it with other British bodies. Lord Butler, in effect, has accepted that the CIA can pool information with MI6, a British body, but that the United Kingdom as a body politic has no right to that information. Despite Mr. Blair’s documented subservience to the U.S. — something which may also have been driven by a fear that the opposition Conservatives would call him soft on terrorism — this constitutes a serious abdication of British sovereignty.
Worse still, Lord Butler told the Panorama programme that the British public has “every reason” to think it is the body which was the most seriously misled. This is crucial. Neither the media failures nor those of the professional public-service bodies would have mattered if the United States Congress and the British Parliament had scrutinised their respective governments properly. Steven Zunes notes in Truthout that Congress — members of which have large bodies of staff and are far better funded than many other legislators around the world — had many months to investigate the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq. Mr. Zunes adds that “large numbers” of scholars, Middle Eastern political leaders, and former U.S. officials advised members of Congress that an invasion would probably cause a bloody insurgency, and a rise in Islamist extremism and sectarian violence.
As for the ruling British Labour Party, it had 368 MPs and a majority of 167 in the House of Commons at the time; in the end 139 Labour MPs, 15 of the opposition Conservatives, and all 63 Liberal Democrats, voted for an amendment stating that the case for war had not yet been established. The amendment got 217 votes and was defeated by a majority of 179; yet the Commons had never been given the full legal arguments.
Much is already known about the lies, deceptions, and institutional failures which made the invasion of Iraq possible, and detail has emerged about the effect on the Iraqi population of the invaders’ chemical weapons and depleted-uranium ammunition. Yet the central assemblies of the two countries which led the invasion bear the heaviest responsibility. They failed to question their political executives, failed to use the powers they rightly hold, and failed to remember what they owe to the voters who legitimate their very presence in an elected assembly. They betrayed representative democracy itself.