A curious vindication.
Tony Blair won a crushing victory over the British Broadcasting Corp. last week. An investigation of an arms specialist's suicide concluded that the prime minister's government had not distorted intelligence reports to bolster its case for war in Iraq, as a BBC report suggested. The chairman of the BBC's board of governors resigned within hours.
It's a strange sort of victory, however, that leaves Blair triumphant but wrong.
For Blair, the vindication is gratifying. But larger questions remain, for people in Great Britain as well as in the United States. The intelligence may not have been "sexed up," as the BBC claimed, but whatever its testosterone level, Britain's spies clearly overestimated the Iraqi threat. Twisting intelligence for political purposes is cynical, and invites disaster. Accepting flawed intelligence lacks the sour stench of cynicism, but can lead to an equally disastrous result.
In the runup to the Iraq war, both Blair and President Bush strenuously argued that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction posed a threat to Iraq's neighbors and the world. Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations, where he showed satellite photos and other evidence of continuing weapons programs. Blair's government prepared a summary of British intelligence reports that included a claim that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes.
The BBC carried a report casting doubt on the summary, anonymously quoting a source who was said to have claimed the intelligence data had been "sexed up." The source was later revealed to be David Kelly, a British arms inspector.
Kelly was poorly treated all around. The BBC inflated both his standing as a source and his criticisms of the intelligence summary. The Blair government made Kelly's identity known through investigations of an apparent leak. Kelly committed suicide for reasons that may never be known, but neither the BBC nor his employers had made his life comfortable.
The BBC has now been chastised for its reporting, and for alleging deceit by Blair's government. Yet it is clear that Blair and Bush alike attempted to build the strongest possible argument for war against Iraq, and based this argument on intelligence that subsequently proved faulty. No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. David Kay, the head of the U.S. arms inspection team, now says no such weapons will be found.
Such a fundamental misreading of the situation in Iraq - a misreading shared, though not to the same degree, by the intelligence services of France, Germany and Russia - has far-reaching implications. It casts serious doubt on the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emptive war. The United States can't claim the right to attack nations judged to be potential aggressors unless it can accurately assess the severity of the threats they present. In the case of Iraq, those assessments proved wide of the mark.
The faulty intelligence about Iraq should also nourish a healthy skepticism about assessments of the capabilities and intentions of other countries whose closed systems make information-gathering difficult. Whether the subject is North Korea or Iran, the Iraq experience shows a need for stronger proof and greater caution.
It's expected that governments will read their intelligence reports honestly, as the investigation concluded that the Blair government had done. But an honest reading of bad intelligence is not good enough.