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Iraq: the Story of My Testimony

Illustration: No War for Oil, No Blood for Oil

Former British diplomat, Carne Ross, is a member of Occupy Wall Street's Alternative Banking Group.

With the ten year anniversary of the war, I wanted to tell the story of the evidence I gave to the first official inquiry into the war, an event that led to my resignation from the British foreign service.

The Butler Inquiry, as it was known, in 2004 invited testimonies from officials who had worked on Iraq before the 2003 invasion.  I had been the UK's Iraq expert at the UN Security Council from 1998 to 2002, where I had negotiated resolutions on issues like sanctions and weapons inspections.  I had been part of the small team of British officials working on Iraq for 4 1/2 years and had, for instance, taken part in all the official UK-US bilateral discussions on Iraq which covered the gamut of our joint Iraq policy.

I gave my testimony to the inquiry after obtaining agreement that I would do so in secret (I am listed as one of two anonymous witnesses).  At the time of my testimony, I was still in the British Foreign Office, and feared the professional consequences of testimony that was so critical of the government.

But after transmitting the testimony to the inquiry, I decided to resign.  I felt that I could no longer work with ministers and officials whom I knew to have lied.  This was the hardest decision of my life, but perhaps one of the best (the best was marrying K, whose support during this episode was the means of my very survival).  Much on mind was the death of my colleague and friend David Kelly, the weapons scientist with whom I had worked closely on the WMD question, and who was driven to suicide by the disgraceful campaign of vilification by Blair's officials after he was revealed as the source of a BBC story that the Number Ten "dossier" alleging the threat from Iraq had been considerably exaggerated. David and I had run private briefings of Security Council diplomats on the intelligence picture on Iraqi WMD.  He was the UK's foremost WMD expert with a unique ability to connect the dots of the complicated intelligence picture.  He and I had both worked on the Number Ten dossier, and had both, separately, submitted concerns about its basis in the intelligence evidence.   Indeed, his death was one of the reasons I resigned.

In some horrid way, his death and the public horror that followed inoculated me against the denigration that he faced.  I gambled that the government would not dare to humiliate someone else as they had him. (One laughable consequence of the government's concern that I too would not embarrass them by committing suicide was that after my resignation the Foreign Office called me in to offer me psychological counselling.  I declined.)

My evidence to the inquiry is below.  I stand by every word. I would draw the reader's attention in particular to the third section, about how the government (and the US government too) ignored the alternatives to war.  Thanks to the perpetually lazy public narrative of "did they lie or not?", the issue of alternatives to war has been pretty much totally ignored.  In my view, it is even more reprehensible.  War should be the last resort. In this case, it was not.

After my resignation, I was advised by lawyers in my union that if I made my testimony public, I would likely face prosecution by the British government under the Official Secrets Act.  And indeed the Foreign Office sent me a nasty letter threatening me with prosecution if I revealed anything about my work without their authority.  My evidence only became public in 2007 when I worked a little ruse with an MP friend on the UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which we engineered would request the evidence from me, thus enabling it to be made public under "parliamentary privilege" and thus making me immune from prosecution (as I was acting at Parliament's behest).  The Blairite lackey who chaired the committee made sure that the publication took place on the same day that the inquiry into Princess Diana's death also released its findings.  This was a clear attempt to distract attention from my evidence, but nonetheless the revelation of my evidence led to calls, from former Prime Minister John Major for instance, for a full public inquiry into the war.  The Independent newspaper ran the story on its front page ("The Real Conspiracy").  As they had with Kelly, government officials attempted to undermine my credibility through public attacks.  Then foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, who knew precisely nothing about Iraq's WMD or pre-war policy, attemped to claim on national radio (R4's "Today" programme, itself infamous from its involvement in the Kelly affair) that I was in no position to know what I had testified.

But the political and public pressure for some kind of investigation eventually forced the government to establish such an inquiry, the Chilcot Inquiry.  You can read my written testimony to Chilcot here, and indeed see me being questioned by the inquiry here.  You will see a tribute to David Kelly at the beginning of my written evidence.  Before I appeared before the inquiry, a very aggressive official warned me that if I mentioned David Kelly, the live press feed of my appearance would be cut off and I would be asked to leave.  I will save my thoughts on the Chilcot inquiry, which has yet to publish its findings, for later.


Carne Ross evidence to the Butler Review, June 2004

I am in the Senior Management Structure of the FCO, currently seconded to the UN in Kosovo. I was First Secretary in the UK Mission to the United Nations in New York from December 1997 until June 2002. I was responsible for Iraq policy in the mission, including policy on sanctions, weapons inspections and liaison with UNSCOM and later UNMOVIC.

During that time, I helped negotiate several UN Security Council resolutions on Iraq, including resolution 1284 which, inter alia, established UNMOVIC (an acronym I coined late one New York night during the year-long negotiation). I took part in policy debates within HMG and in particular with the US government. I attended many policy discussions on Iraq with the US State Department in Washington, New York and London.

My concerns about the policy on Iraq divide into three:

1. The Alleged Threat

I read the available UK and US intelligence on Iraq every working day for the four and a half years of my posting. This daily briefing would often comprise a thick folder of material, both humint and sigint. I also talked often and at length about Iraq’s WMD to the international experts who comprised the inspectors of UNSCOM/UNMOVIC, whose views I would report to London. In addition, I was on many occasions asked to offer views in contribution to Cabinet Office assessments, including the famous WMD dossier (whose preparation began some time before my departure in June 2002).

During my posting, at no time did HMG assess that Iraq’s WMD (or any other capability) posed a threat to the UK or its interests. On the contrary, it was the commonly-held view among the officials dealing with Iraq that any threat had been effectively contained. I remember on several occasions the UK team stating this view in terms during our discussions with the US (who agreed). (At the same time, we would frequently argue, when the US raised the subject, that “régime change” was inadvisable, primarily on the grounds that Iraq would collapse into chaos.)

Any assessment of threat has to include both capabilities and intent. Iraq’s capabilities in WMD were moot: many of the UN’s weapons inspectors (who, contrary to popular depiction, were impressive and professional) would tell me that they believed Iraq had no significant matèriel. With the exception of some unaccounted-for Scud missiles, there was no intelligence evidence of significant holdings of CW, BW or nuclear material. Aerial or satellite surveillance was unable to get under the roofs of Iraqi facilities. We therefore had to rely on inherently unreliable human sources (who, for obvious reasons, were prone to exaggerate).

Without substantial evidence of current holdings of WMD, the key concern we pursued was that Iraq had not provided any convincing or coherent account of its past holdings.

When I was briefed in London at the end of 1997 in preparation for my posting, I was told that we did not believe that Iraq had any significant WMD. The key argument therefore to maintain sanctions was that Iraq had failed to provide convincing evidence of destruction of its past stocks.

Iraq’s ability to launch a WMD or any form of attack was very limited. There were approx 12 or so unaccounted-for Scud missiles; Iraq’s airforce was depleted to the point of total ineffectiveness; its army was but a pale shadow of its earlier might; there was no evidence of any connection between Iraq and any terrorist organisation that might have planned an attack using Iraqi WMD (I do not recall any occasion when the question of a terrorist connection was even raised in UK/US discussions or UK internal debates).

There was moreover no intelligence or assessment during my time in the job that Iraq had any intention to launch an attack against its neighbours or the UK or US. I had many conversations with diplomats representing Iraq’s neighbours. With the exception of the Israelis, none expressed any concern that they might be attacked. Instead, their concern was that sanctions, which they and we viewed as an effective means to contain Iraq, were being delegitimised by evidence of their damaging humanitarian effect.

I quizzed my colleagues in the FCO and MOD working on Iraq on several occasions about the threat assessment in the run-up to the war. None told me that any new evidence had emerged to change our assessment; what had changed was the government’s determination to present available evidence in a different light. I discussed this at some length with David Kelly in late 2002, who agreed that the Number 10 WMD dossier was overstated.

2. Legality

The legality of the war is framed by the relevant Security Council resolutions, the negotiation and drafting of which was usually led by the UK.

During the negotiation of resolution 1284 (which we drafted), which established UNMOVIC, the question was discussed among the key Security Council members in great detail how long the inspectors would need in Iraq in order to form a judgement of Iraq’s capabilities.

The UK and US pushed for the longest period we could get, on the grounds that the inspectors would need an extensive period in order to visit, inspect and establish monitoring at the many hundreds of possible WMD-related sites. The French and Russians wanted the shortest duration. After long negotiation, we agreed the periods specified in 1284. These require some explanation. The resolution states that the head of UNMOVIC should report on Iraq’s performance 120 days once the full system of ongoing monitoring and verification had been established (OMV, in the jargon). OMV amounts to the “baseline” of knowledge of Iraq’s capabilities and sites; we expected OMV to take up to six months to establish. In other words, inspectors would have to be on the ground for approximately ten months before offering an assessment. (Resolution 1441, though it requested Blix to “update” the Council 60 days after beginning inspections, did not alter the inspection periods established in 1284.) As is well-known, the inspectors were allowed to operate in Iraq for a much shorter period before the US and UK declared that Iraq’s cooperation was insufficient.

Resolution 1441 did not alter the basic framework for inspections established by 1284. In particular, it did not amend the crucial premise of 1284 that any judgement of cooperation or non-cooperation by Iraq with the inspectors was to be made by the Council not UNMOVIC. Blix at no time stated unequivocally that Iraq was not cooperating with the inspectors. The Council reached no such judgement either.

Resolution 1441 did not authorise the use of force in case of non-cooperation with weapons inspectors. I was in New York, but not part of the mission, during the negotiation of that resolution (I was on Special Unpaid Leave from the FCO). My friends in other delegations told me that the UK sold 1441 in the Council explicitly on the grounds that it did not represent authorisation for war and that it “gave inspections a chance”.

Later, after claiming that Iraq was not cooperating, the UK presented a draft resolution which offered the odd formulation that Iraq had failed to seize the opportunity of 1441. In negotiation, the UK conceded that the resolution amounted to authority to use force (there are few public records of this, but I was told by many former colleagues involved in the negotiation that this was the case). The resolution failed to attract support.

The UN charter states that only the Security Council can authorise the use of force (except in cases of self-defence). Reviewing these points, it is clear that in terms of the resolutions presented by the UK itself, the subsequent invasion was not authorised by the Security Council and was thus illegal. The clearest evidence of this is the fact that the UK sought an authorising resolution and failed to get it.

There is another subsidiary point on the legality question. During my spell at the UN, the UK and US would frequently have to defend in the Security Council attacks made by our aircraft in the No-Fly Zones (NFZs) in northern and southern Iraq. The NFZs were never authorised by the Security Council, but we would justify them on the grounds (as I recall it, this may be incorrect) that we were monitoring compliance with resolution 688 which called for the Iraqi government to respect the human rights of its people. If our aircraft bombed Iraqi targets, we were acting in self-defence (which was in fact the case as the Iraqis would try to shoot down our aircraft).

Reading the press in the months leading up to the war, I noticed that the volume and frequency of the attacks in the NFZs considerably increased, including during the period when UNMOVIC was in country inspecting sites (ie before even the UK/US declared that Iraq was not complying). I suspected at the time that these attacks were not in self-defence but that they were part of a planned air campaign to prepare for a ground invasion. There were one or two questions in Parliament about this when the Defence Secretary claimed that the NFZ attacks were, as before, self-defence. His account was refuted at the time by quotations by US officials in the press and by later accounts, including Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack”, which confirmed that the attacks did indeed comprise a softening-up campaign, of which the UK was an active part.

3.  Alternatives to war

I was responsible at the UK Mission for sanctions policy as well as weapons inspections. I had extensive contacts with those in the UN responsible for the oil-for-food programme, with NGOs active in Iraq, with experts in the oil industry and with many others who visited Iraq (I tried to visit on several occasions but was denied a visa by the Iraqi government). I read and analysed a great deal of material on Iraq’s exports, both legal and illegal, sanctions and related subjects, such as the oil industry.

Much of my work and that of my close colleagues was devoted to attempting to stop countries breaching Iraqi sanctions. These breaches were many and took various forms.

The most serious was the illegal export of oil by Iraq through Turkey, Syria and Iranian waters in the Gulf. These exports were a substantial and crucial source of hard currency for the Iraqi regime; without them the regime could not have sustained itself or its key pillars, such as the Republican Guard. Estimates of the value of these exports ranged around $2bn a year.

In addition, there were different breaches, such as Iraq’s illegal and secret surcharge on its legal sales of oil through the UN. Iraq would levy illegal charges on oil-for-food contracts. The regime also had substantial financial assets held in secret overseas accounts. The details of these breaches and our work to combat them are complicated.

On repeated occasions, I and my colleagues at the mission (backed by some but not all of the responsible officials in London) attempted to get the UK and US to act more vigorously on the breaches. We believed that determined and coordinated action, led by us and the US, would have had a substantial effect in particular to pressure Iraq to accept the weapons inspections and would have helped undermine the Iraqi regime.

I proposed on several occasions the establishment of a multinational body (a UN body, if we could get the Security Council to agree it) to police sanctions busting. I proposed coordinated action with Iraq’s neighbours to pressure them to help, including by controlling imports into Iraq. I held talks with a US Treasury expert on financial sanctions, an official who had helped trace and seize Milosevic’s illegal financial assets. He assured me that, given the green light, he could quickly set up a team to target Saddam’s illegal accounts.

These proposals went nowhere. Inertia in the FCO and the inattention of key ministers combined to the effect that the UK never made any coordinated and sustained attempt to address sanctions busting. There were sporadic and half-hearted initiatives. Bilateral embassies in Iraq’s neighbours would always find a reason to let their hosts off the hook (the most egregious example was the Embassy in Ankara). Official visitors to the neighbours always placed other issues higher on the agenda. The Prime Minister, for example, visited Syria in early 2002. If I remember correctly, the mission sent a telegram beforehand urging him to press Assad on the illegal pipeline carrying Iraqi oil through Syria. I have seen no evidence that the subject was mentioned. Whenever I taxed Ministers on the issue, I would find them sympathetic but uninformed.

Coordinated, determined and sustained action to prevent illegal exports and target Saddam’s illegal monies would have consumed a tiny proportion of the effort and resources of the war (and fewer lives), but could have provided a real alternative. It was never attempted.

Carne Ross

Pristina, Kosovo

9 June 2004


Originally published in

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