The Chilcot Report: Too Little, Too Late

07/07/2016 05:53 pm ET
Jason Reed / Reuters

The long-awaited "Report of the Iraq Inquiry" was finally released this past Wednesday, July 6, 2016. The Inquiry, better known as the "Chilcot Report" (so named after the man, Sir John Chilcot, who sat at the head of the Committee of Privy Counselors empowered by the House of Commons of the United Kingdom to conduct the investigation) was empowered in 2009 to delve into the decision by United Kingdom to use force in the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, and the consequences of that decision.

The contents of the report and its conclusions are damning to the government of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and, by extension (using the premise of guilt by association) the administration of then-American President George W. Bush. The report simply confirms what was already known or suspected regarding the fiasco of the war in Iraq, inclusive of the failure to discover the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction used to sustain case for war, and the intelligence upon which that case was made. If anything, the Chilcot Report is a manifestation of collective frustration and impotence, given that it does not go far enough in criminalizing the actions of the Blair government with regard to its conduct in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and it comes far too late to have any relevance in shaping public opinion in a manner which could have produced meaningful political results. In this, the report is merely an exercise in historical investigation, and an inadequate one at that.

I have been a steadfast critic of the war in Iraq, and by extension the policies used to justify that war. This criticism comes not from a moral foundation of inherent opposition to conflict (hardly likely, given my status as a former Marine who fought in the Gulf War), but rather as one who played a key role in the conduct of disarmament inspections in Iraq, as a member of the United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM, from 1991 until 1998. In this role, I was intimately familiar with the issues regarding the potential threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and the intelligence information behind such analysis. I have, since 1998, spoken and written on this topic numerous times, and my words have been proven prescient. One of these occasions was captured in a cable written by the American Charge d'Affaires in Abu Dhabi, a gentleman named Thomas Williams, who attended a presentation I made in February 2003 at the Zayef Center for Coordination at the invitation of the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sultan Bin Zayef.

Mr. Williams dutifully cabled the following report back to his superiors at Foggy Bottom:

Ritter predictably derided [Secretary of State Colin Powell's] "smoke and mirrors" presentation, noting that the U.S., bent on regime change, is determined to undermine the inspection' process...Ritter posited that as long as the U.S. focus is on regime change, the international community must remain suspicious of U.S. policy. He described U.S. Iraq policy as being part of a grander design aimed at regional transformation and took issue with what he characterized as our unilateralist approach. Ritter predicted a popular Iraqi uprising against a U.S. occupation of Iraq, coupled with broader instability in the region which could result in the downfall of some Arab government.

I stand by my comments today, and believe they have withstood the test of time. But they were made in February 2003, prior to the invasion and subsequent fiasco that was the collective US-UK experience in Iraq. They were made in near isolation and were drowned out by a larger media-driven effort to applaud and support the joint American-UK drive to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Other than the timing of our respective efforts (mine in 2003, Chilcot's some 13 years later), my presentation at the Zayef Center has this much in common with the Chilcot Report -- a futile effort at injecting truth into a larger debate on the role of fact-based assessments behind the illogical and largely fictional case for war.

Nothing in the Chilcot Report took me by surprise. If anything, my admittedly incomplete review of the massive amount of information contained in the report to date (comprised as it is of some 2.6 million words) indicates that the Chilcot Report did not go far enough in underscoring the malfeasance and clear intent at deception that lay behind the so-called "intelligence failure" used to underpin Tony Blair's (and by extension, George W. Bush's) drive toward war in Iraq. There are numerous examples to support my argument, but one in particular comes to mind: the failure on the part of the Chilcot Report to explore the issues surrounding "Operation Mass Appeal," a disinformation effort run by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI-6) in the years 1997-1998 where UNSCOM provided the SIS with intelligence of low value (i.e., of such poor quality as to be demonstrably false and/or incapable of being acted on by inspectors) for the purpose of being recycled in the foreign media, using SIS-controlled editors and writers, so as to produce news stories capable of influencing public opinion on Iraq (the fact that these stories, although initially planted in eastern European or South Asian media, could eventually be recycled into UK and U.S. outlets, and as such influence British or American subjects, was of little to no concern for the SIS at the time) (at the time UNSCOM participated with the SIS in "Operation Mass Appeal," Russia and France, together with Iraq, were engaged in a concerted propaganda effort designed to undermine the credibility of the inspectors and their work) (UNSCOM's embrace of "Operation Mass Appeal," however misguided it might have been, was designed to serve as counter-propaganda for the purposes of bolstering the viability of the inspection process, and not fabricate a case for war.)

If there were real justice in the world today, Tony Blair and his ilk would be held accountable before a tribunal.

I had revealed the existence of "Operation Mass Appeal" in a series of interviews given to the UK press back in November 2003, in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The SIS, in characteristic fashion, initially denied the existence of such an operation. Later, when called to task by the Butler Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction (on which Sir John Chilcot sat, and before whom I gave testimony), the SIS recanted its denial and admitted to the operation, albeit couched as a "one-of" involving a single report in May 1998. The Butler report simply brushed over my testimony that I had met with the SIS New York Station Chief in October 1997 to discuss what was at the time identified to me, by name, as "Operation Mass Appeal," that I sought and gained the approval of Richard Butler, the Chairman of UNSCOM, shortly thereafter to coordinate the transfer of intelligence in the possession of UNSCOM specifically approved by Richard Butler for this purpose to the SIS for use in "Operation Mass Appeal," and that the first transfer of intelligence took place in February of 1998. Robin Butler, the Baron Butler of Brockwell, like Sir John Chilcot, seemed disinclined to dig deeper into the culture of lies and distortion that colored the issue of intelligence and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and as such limited the conclusions reached to matters of negligence and incompetence, as opposed to criminal intent. The role played by the SIS in feeding disinformation to an unsuspecting public in order to solidify support for disingenuous policy was perhaps too much for distinguished gentlemen such as these to bear, and as such the matter was left unexplored.

The fact remains that the United Kingdom is a small country with an outsized heart and unrealistic ambitions as to its significance in the world. The Chilcot Report underscores this reality, without saying as much, by detailing the efforts of the government of Tony Blair to legitimize American regime change policies in Iraq by focusing on defining Saddam in terms more palatable for its domestic audience, as well as a skeptical Europe -- unrepentant, defiant and representing a real danger in the form of retained weapons of mass destruction. Truth, however, was quickly subordinated to process, and evidence manufactured to comport with political objective. While the Blair government could not outright support a policy of regime change, its actions were that of a compliant co-conspirator as the United States suborned the credibility and stature of the United Kingdom by turning it into little more than an echo chamber of the larger American-driven push toward war with Iraq based largely on the false premise of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which, we now know, simply did not exist.

There is a trend today amongst the liberal media in the United Kingdom to seek to hold Tony Blair singularly accountable for his role in the Iraq war. This is wrong. Tony Blair was but the political manifestation of a larger reality that the United Kingdom -- in its entirety, and not simply the ruling class -- was trapped in a "special relationship" with the United States that had reduced its role more akin to that of a compliant mistress, and never a co-equal. Millions may have marched against the war in Iraq in London in September 2002 (including yours truly.) But at the end of the day, millions more remained either silent or were in active support of the policies of the Blair government. And the people of the United Kingdom haven't learned a damn thing, as witnessed by their passivity in the face of UK involvement in the Libyan fiasco, and similar saber rattling elsewhere. Even the decision not to support an expansive role for the UK military in Syria was driven more by the reality of limitations than any moral posturing.

This is the true tragedy of the Chilcot Report. The document details historic errors far too late for any meaningful politically relevant repercussions, thereby cementing the notion of immunity among those in power, and impotence among the populations they represent. There are no lessons to be learned because the events detailed in the report happened a long time ago, and political memories are short, especially when there are near-zero ramifications for those who failed. The decision to invade Iraq on falsified and misleading intelligence simply isn't relevant to the reality of the present, beyond establishing a historical framework for analysis that few will pay attention to. The 2011 decision to withdraw from Iraq, and the consequences of that action in terms of the near-collapse of the Iraqi government and the rise of ISIS, drive the current discourse far more than events that transpired in 2002-2003, and whose roots go back even further, to 1991 and the decision to disarm Iraq of WMD in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

If there were real justice in the world today, Tony Blair and his ilk would be held accountable before a tribunal. So, too, would George W. Bush and his fellow American decision-makers. But we live in world where the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party for the Presidency of the United States, who voted in favor of invading Iraq back in 2002, gets a virtual pass on that decision, while her Republican opponent is derided for inarticulately pointing out the fact that the Middle East was a much safer and saner place during the reign of Saddam Hussein than it is today. The media, ostensibly the watchdog of truth, is neither intellectually equipped nor morally inclined to engage in a meaningful discussion of the significance of the Chilcot Report. The report is, in many ways, representative of an inconvenient truth, and brings to mind the fictional exchange between Lieutenant (JG) Kaffee and Colonel Jessup in the movie "A Few Good Men":

"I want the truth!" Kaffee demands.

"You can't handle the truth!" Jessup retorts.

Unlike Hollywood, where justice ultimately prevails based upon the truth patiently revealed, the reality is that the Chilcot Report will be relegated to the trash bin of history by people who simply cannot handle the truth, condemning the present generation, and the future, to make the same mistakes, over and over and over again.