“The belief that Saddam had WMDs was near universal” said former Prime Minister John Howard when he addressed the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney on 9 April 2013.
He neglected to mention that, to the extent that this belief was widespread, it was the result of an enormous effort on the part of the George W. Bush Administration and Tony Blair’s Government in the UK to persuade the world that this was so. Most of us are not in a position to make an independent assessment, and we assumed that we were hearing from reputable people.
He also neglected to mention that the belief was not shared by his own intelligence agencies, the intelligence professionals whose job it is to advise the government of the day, without fear or favour, on the best assessment they can make at the time on the basis of the information available to them.
In today’s edition of The Age and other Fairfax newspapers, Margaret Swieringa, who from 2002-07 was secretary to the Federal Parliamentary Intelligence Committee, nails this claim completely. Her account, in full, as published in The Age under the headline and sub-head Howard ignored advice and went to war in Iraq: the government's justification for war was not supported by any of its own agencies' intelligence:
Former prime minister John Howard's justification this week on why we went to war against Iraq in 2003 obfuscates some issues.
I was the secretary to the Intelligence Committee from 2002 until 2007. It was then called the ASIO, ASIS and Defence Signals Directorate Committee, which drafted the report on the Intelligence on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Howard refers to this committee in his speech justifying our involvement in the war.
The reason there was so much argument about the existence of weapons of mass destruction prior to the war in Iraq 10 years ago was that to go to war on any other pretext would have been a breach of international law. As Howard said at the time: ''I couldn't justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. I've never advocated that. Central to the threat is Iraq's possession of chemical and biological weapons and its pursuit of nuclear capability.''
So the question is what the government knew or was told about that capability and whether it ''lied'' about the danger that Iraq posed.
At the time, Howard and his ministers asserted the threat to the world from Iraq's WMD was both great and immediate.
On February 4, 2003, Howard said Saddam Hussein had an ''arsenal'' and a ''stockpile'', and the ''illegal importation of proscribed goods has increased dramatically in the past few years … Iraq had a massive program for developing offensive biological weapons - one of the largest and most advanced in the world''.
On March 18, 2003, Alexander Downer told the House of Representatives that ''the strategy of containment [UN sanctions] simply has not worked and now poses an unacceptable risk''.
In his speeches at the time, Howard said: ''Iraq has a usable chemical and biological weapons capability which has included recent production of chemical and biological agents; Iraq continues to work on developing nuclear weapons. All key aspects - research and development, production and weaponisation - of Iraq's offensive biological weapons program are active and most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War in 1991.''
None of the government's arguments were supported by the intelligence presented to it by its own agencies. None of these arguments were true.
Howard this week quoted the findings of the parliamentary inquiry, but, as with the original claims about WMD, his quotation is selective to the point of being misleading.
What was the nature of the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction provided to the government at the time? The parliamentary inquiry, Intelligence on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction, reported on the intelligence in detail. It gathered information from Australia's two analytical intelligence organisations - the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessment - from March 2001 until March 2003.
The inquiry found:
1. The scale of threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was less than it had been a decade earlier.
2. Under sanctions that prevailed at the time, Iraq's military capability remained limited and the country's infrastructure was still in decline.
3. The nuclear program was unlikely to be far advanced. Iraq was unlikely to have obtained fissile material.
4. Iraq had no ballistic missiles that could reach the US. Most if not all of the few SCUDS that were hidden away were likely to be in poor condition.
5. There was no known chemical weapons production.
6. There was no specific evidence of resumed biological weapons production.
7. There was no known biological weapons testing or evaluation since 1991.
8. There was no known Iraq offensive research since 1991.
9. Iraq did not have nuclear weapons.
10. There was no evidence that chemical weapon warheads for Al Samoud or other ballistic missiles had been developed.
11. No intelligence had accurately pointed to the location of weapans of mass destruction.
There were minor qualifications to this somewhat emphatic picture. It found there was a limited stockpile of chemical weapon agents, possibly stored in dual-use or industrial facilities.
Although there was no evidence that it had done so, Iraq had the capacity to restart its chemical weapons program in weeks and to manufacture in months.
The committee concluded the ''case made by the government was that Iraq possessed WMD in large quantities and posed a grave and unacceptable threat to the region and the world, particularly as there was a danger that Iraq's WMD might be passed to terrorist organisations.
''This is not the picture that emerges from an examination of all the assessments provided to the committee by Australia's two analytical agencies.''
Howard would claim, no doubt, that he took his views from overseas dossiers. However, all that intelligence was considered by Australian agencies when forming their views. They knew, too, of the disputes and arguments within British and American agencies. Moreover, Australian agencies, as well as the British and American intelligence agencies, also knew at that time that the so-called ''surge of new intelligence'' after September 2002 relied almost exclusively on one or two entirely unreliable and self-serving individuals. They knew, too, that Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel Hassan al-Majid, who had defected in 1995, had told Western agencies that the nuclear program in Iraq had failed, that chemical and biological programs had been dismantled and weapons destroyed, largely as a result of the UNSCOM weapons inspections.
There are none so blind as those who will not see.
Margaret Swieringa is a retired public servant living in Canberra.