The Butler Report examined UK intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction, in particular relating to Iraq, in the wake of the 2003 War. It had some criticisms of the way in which intelligence was used to make a political case for war, but was largely supportive of the Government and intelligence services.


After the 2003 Coalition invasion of Iraq, public attention in the UK and USA focused on the failure of the Iraq Survey Group and others to locate Weapons of Mass Destruction. Despite repeated intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein had a covert WMD programme, significant stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, little to no evidence of such programmes was found by mid-2004.

In the United Kingdom, particular attention was paid to the Government's publication of a dossier entitled Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction on September 24, 2002. This dossier was the subject of a number of claims leaked to the BBC by an unspecified source - later revealed as weapons expert Dr. David Kelly. The most important of these claims was that undue Government interference led to the dossier making claims not justified by the intelligence available - in particular, the claim that Iraq could launch some WMD within 45 minutes of the order to do so.

Dr. Kelly's apparent suicide led to a media frenzy of speculation and accusation. The government was left with little choice but to order a public enquiry into Dr. Kelly's Death, on August 1, 2003, headed by Lord Hutton. The Hutton Inquiry reported back on January 28, 2004 and cleared the Government and intelligence services of any wrongdoing whatsoever, heaping criticism on the BBC. However, the row over intelligence continued.

Under fire from the Leader of the Opposition Michael Howard, Prime Minister Tony Blair was placed in a difficult position by the United States Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into intelligence failures during the run-up to war. He ordered a similar enquiry in the UK, to be headed by former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler.

The Liberal Democrats refused to work with the enquiry, insisting it should examine the legality of the War on Iraq. The Conservative Party supported the enquiry at first, though quickly distanced themselves from it.

Terms of Reference

The terms of reference for the enquiry were:

  • To investigate the intelligence coverage available in respect of WMD programmes in countries of concern and on the global trade in WMD, taking into account what is now known about these programmes;
  • As part of this work, to investigate the accuracy of intelligence on Iraqi WMD up to March 2003, and to examine any discrepancies between the intelligence gathered, evaluated and used by the Government before the conflict, and between that intelligence and what has been discovered by the Iraq survey group since the end of the conflict;

  • and to make recommendations to the Prime Minister for the future on the gathering, evaluation and use of intelligence on WMD, in the light of the difficulties of operating in countries of concern

These terms were actually quite wide-ranging and gave the committee a mandate to look at the Abdul Qadeer Khan network and terrorist attempts to acquire WMDs, as well as all the stuff on Iraq.

The committee was composed of:

All had to be sworn in as Privy Councillors (apart from Ann Taylor, who was one anyway).


Lord Butler presented his findings at a press conference on July 14, 2004. He was keen to stress that although there were failures in intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, no one person was responsible for them. He particularly defended the then-head of the Joint Intelligence Committee - and newly appointed head of MI6 - John Scarlett, urging him not to resign.

He stressed that there didn't appear to be any deliberate attempts to mislead the public over intelligence - though he admitted that the dossier was nevertheless misleading. He felt the "45 minutes claim" shouldn't have made it into the dossier.

Unlike the stiff-collared Hutton Report, the Butler Report is much more user-friendly and readable. It waxes lyrical sometimes, has quotes in light blue, key conclusions in bold, a logical and intuitive structure. The whole report is peppered with excepts of Joint Intelligence Committee assessments, and as such provides an insight into what UK intelligence agencies thought about a variety of issues for the last 15 years. A short summary follows:



This chapter starts - in a cool touch - with a quote from Clausewitz's On War: "Much of the intelligence that we receive in war is contradictory, even more of it is plain wrong, and most of it is fairly dubious.". Essentially, this chapter provides a little theoretical background in intelligence, and some idea of how the British security services function.


This chapter discusses mainly the black market in nuclear weapons data run by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. It appears the intelligence services were aware of the network since the mid-1990s, but couldn't risk dismantling it until it could figure out who the customers were. By 2002, they knew it had a base in Dubai, a factory in Malaysia to make centrifuge parts, and shipments of materials. They only broke up the operation after a ship they intercepted contained very advanced equipment.

This chapter also discusses the efforts of Libya, Iran, and North Korea to build nuclear weapons, and how the intelligence services reacted to stop these programmes.

Chapter 3 - TERRORISM

This chapter deals with efforts by terrorists to obtain WMD from the late 1980 onwards. Excepts from JIC reports show that the terrorist WMD threat was discounted in the early 1990s:

"We have no intelligence that any terrorist group makes CBW agents, possesses any such agents or is currently contemplating attacks using CBW agents or other toxic chemicals.
JIC, 1989

Osama bin Laden was identified as a likely user of WMD, and by 1999 JIC reports considered it likely that his group possessed some Chemical or Biological agents. The chapter concludes by saying that assessments of bin Laden's capability were proved more-or-less accurate after the invasion of Afghanistan.


A short, dull chapter on how to stop weapons proliferation

Chapter 5 - IRAQ

This is a record of the intelligence screw-ups - the assessments in the early 1990s that Iraq couldn't develop nuclear weapons for many years, but had a massive chemical weapons programme. This turned out to be wrong on both counts. Iraq's nuclear programme was quite advanced by 1991, while its chemical and biological stockpiles were estimated using worst case scenario figures. By 1998, the JIC reckoned that, though it was possible that there might be some Chemical and Biological weapons stockpiles, there probably weren't any - mainly because Iraq could easily make new ones rather than keep the old stuff lying around to be found.

In 2000, they changed their minds again, stating:

Our picture is limited. But it is likely that Iraq is continuing to develop its offensive chemical warfare (CW) and biological warfare (BW) capabilities.
JIC, May 2000
And in 2001,
There is evidence of increased activity at Iraq's only remaining nuclear facility and a growing number of reports on possible nuclear related procurement. We judge but cannot confirm that Iraq is conducting nuclear related research and development into the enrichment of uranium and could have longer term plans to produce enriched uranium for a weapon
JIC, May 2001
By 2002, stronger language was used to make essentially the same claims.

The most interesting part of the whole Butler Report is about "the dossier". It compares and contrasts elements of the original JIS assessments with their counterpart claims in the dossier. On the whole, it concludes that they line up quite well. However, occasionally the language in the dossier was much stronger. Compare:

Following a decision to do so, Iraq could produce significant quantities of mustard agent within weeks; significant quantities of the nerve agents sarin and VX within months (and in the case of VX Iraq may already have done so). Production of sarin and VX would be heavily dependent on hidden stocks of precursors.
- JIC (emphasis added)
Iraq has the capability to produce the chemical agents mustard gas, tabun, sarin, cyclosarin, and VX capable of producing mass casualties.
- The "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction" dossier
Although there is very little intelligence, we continue to judge that Iraq is pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.
- JIC, March 2002
Iraq continues to work on developing nuclear weapons, in breach of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and in breach of UNSCR 687.
- The "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction" dossier

The major failures appear to have come from Human intelligence - MI6 assets. Some of those agents who talked the most about Iraq's weapons capability were later discredited, leading to the unusual step of MI6 withdrawing some of its past information after the war (when they had direct access to the agents).


This chapter looks at a bunch of unconnected issues relating to Intelligence and Iraq. The first is Al Qaeda and its links with the Iraqi regime. It essentially concludes that there aren't any (beyond some brief contacts), and that the JIC never believed there were. Interestingly, the March 2003 JIC report notes:
Reporting since February suggests that senior Al Qaida associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has established sleeper cells in Baghdad, to be activated during a US occupation of the city. These cells apparently intend to attack US targets using car bombs and other weapons.
They were proved accurate in that assessment.

Another issue in this chapter is the 'Uranium from Niger' incident. The Butler Report finds that the claim that Iraq was seeking Uranium in Africa are credible, even though some documents relating to it were forged - mainly because it made the assessment before the forgeries were produced. This is at odds with the CIA's assessment.

On the 45-minute claim, the report was at its most critical, but even here the knives weren't really drawn. See for yourself:

We conclude that the JIC should not have included the '45 minute' report in its assessment and in the Government's dossier without stating what it was believed to refer to. The fact that the reference in the classified assessment was repeated in the dossier later led to suspicions that it had been included because of its eye-catching character.

We have been informed by SIS that the validity of the intelligence report on which the 45-minute claim was based has come into question


Contains a bunch of conclusions. On, erm, broader issues. This is structural stuff about reporting chains and writing intelligence assessments so that they're minister-proof. There is some criticism here of the functioning of the intelligence services, and a suggestion that future JIC heads should be more familiar with politics.


Essentially the whole Butler Report again, only in about a tenth of the pages so journalists and MPs can read it too.

Also of interest is Annex B, which contains a few full declassified Joint Intelligence Committee reports immediately prior to the war.


The Butler Report contained no real surprises. It was critical of processes and groups, but not at individuals. It is not the stinging blow to the Government and Tony Blair that some had hoped for; nor is it the whitewash that others had claimed it would be. It admits that the October dossier was flawed, and misleading - though it says nobody intended to mislead. Teflon Tony emerges - as usual - unscathed.

That's probably it for Iraq enquiries; two is enough, even if their scope wasn't as wide as many had hoped. The Butler Report has given an accessible insight into the functioning of UK intelligence, and some interesting background on what the British Government believes about WMD proliferation.

Get the report here: (pdf format)
All quotations taken from "Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction", Parliamentary copyright 2004, used according to the terms of its copyright licence.
CST approved

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