Britain's Iraq Panel: At Last, a Public Accounting

The trial of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and the gang that got us into the Iraq War has now begun, after a fashion. It's not taking place in the United States. And it doesn't call itself a trial at all. There won't be any convictions, nor even any conclusions likely until 2011. We won't see ex-president Bush, or Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or George Tenet in the dock. But Great Britain's long-awaited Iraq Inquiry is about as close as we'll get to an exhaustive investigation of the people and decisions that took the Americans, the British, and their motley Coalition of the Willing into dubious battle against Baghdad in 2003.

At its worst, the inquiry headed up by the mild-mannered former civil servant Sir John Chilcot will be a whitewash. At its best, it will be an exercise in truth and reconciliation. But any way you cut it, this exhaustively Webcast chronicle of misconceptions, misjudgments, malfeasance, and possible conspiracy will be a trial before the jury of public opinion. And if you have the patience to watch the hours of testimony, or read the voluminous pages of transcripts on the official site, the first two days of hearings already tell you a lot.

First up before the tribunal were three mandarins of the British civil service who have served in defense, diplomacy, and intelligence. When the highly ideological Bush administration came to power in 2001, they said, they knew that the Republicans had run on a platform supporting regime change in Iraq. The Bush "campaign manifesto" on national security, written by Condoleezza Rice, made that clear, according to Sir Peter Ricketts, who was chairman of Britain's Joint Intelligence Council at the time. (Indeed, under pressure from Congress, the Clinton administration had made regime change official policy, too.)

But it seems the Brits, or at least these Brits, just didn't believe it. They thought all the talk in the new administration about overthrowing Saddam Hussein—the insistent, growing drumbeat for war—was "background noise," said Sir William Patey, who was head of the Middle East Department at the Foreign Office. And at that point in mid-2001 they made a conscious decision to keep their distance. "Even within the American system there was no plan" to eliminate Saddam, said Patey. "Indeed, you had disputes over how you would—if, on a theoretical basis, you could produce this—how you do it." More importantly, "there was no legal basis for it," said Patey. So the British government chose to believe that then-secretary of state Colin Powell was in charge of policy, and that he and they would work to contain Saddam Hussein legally, not to oust him illegally.

But during the spring and summer of 2001, the longstanding U.N. Security Council sanctions meant to keep Saddam boxed in after the Gulf war of 1991 were, in fact, breaking down. The Russians, worried about their commercial interests in Iraq, made it harder to organize tough new sanctions. And the martial drumbeat in Washington got louder. Or was it still background noise? According to Ricketts, the Iraq issue ranked somewhere around Sierra Leone's civil war in the hierarchy of British intelligence priorities.

Then Al Qaeda attacked Washington and New York on September 11, 2001. And Washington's contagious fantasy about Saddam being linked to those atrocities—and having the weapons of mass destruction to wreak even greater horrors—started to take hold in London, too.

As the British tell the story, they still hoped to find a diplomatic answer—a return of U.N. inspectors who could determine what weapons really existed in Iraq, or not. But they discovered that the dominant voices in the Bush administration didn't really want inspectors. Washington feared that Saddam might actually cooperate with them, and then sanctions would be lifted and his regime would not be changed.

"There was a concern in American circles," said Ricketts, "that if we had the weapons inspectors back in Iraq, somehow Saddam Hussein would be able to pull the wool over their eyes and we would have the inspectors reporting that all was fine, whereas all was not fine." That is, the inspectors might have discovered there were no weapons of mass destruction—as, indeed, there were not. But the U.S. administration would refuse to believe that. So the logic of war became unassailable.

In the second day of testimony, the witnesses admitted they didn't really have good intelligence on Saddam's weapons at all, especially after the previous U.N. inspection regime ended in 1998. Iran, Libya, and North Korea were all considered bigger threats. They didn't think Saddam was tied to Al Qaeda—indeed, after some sporadic contacts, he had backed as far away from it as he could in the aftermath of 9/11. But the Bush administration kept insisting, and the Brits started to feed it some rhetorical bombshells.

One of their most explosive was the claim, in a British government report leading up to the 2003 invasion, that Saddam could deploy "weapons of mass destruction" in 45 minutes. At the time, that was used by both London and Washington to conjure Cold War-ish images of nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at faraway countries. But Tim Dowse, who was then head of the Foreign Office's nonproliferation office, told the inquiry he was surprised by the "iconic status" the 45-minute line took on in the debate. He said he was thinking of a short-range multibarrel rocket launcher with chemical weapons, the sort of thing Iraq used often against Iran in the 1980s.

"I don't think we ever said that it was for use in a ballistic missile in that way," said Dowse.

A member of the inquiry panel replied, with desiccated British understatement, "But you didn't say it wasn't."

The hearings are set to go on for another year. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are both supposed to testify at some point, and the Webcasts will tell us a great deal about what the Bush administration was saying to its closest allies. (On Thursday, former U.K. ambassador to Washington Christopher Meyer testifies.) With enough tough questions and a little luck, the truth will out, even if justice is never done.