by Peter Taylor
18 Mar 2013
NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT
YOU ARE REQUIRED TO READ THE COPYRIGHT NOTICE AT THIS LINK BEFORE YOU READ THE FOLLOWING WORK, THAT IS AVAILABLE SOLELY FOR PRIVATE STUDY, SCHOLARSHIP OR RESEARCH PURSUANT TO 17 U.S.C. SECTION 107 AND 108. IN THE EVENT THAT THE LIBRARY DETERMINES THAT UNLAWFUL COPYING OF THIS WORK HAS OCCURRED, THE LIBRARY HAS THE RIGHT TO BLOCK THE I.P. ADDRESS AT WHICH THE UNLAWFUL COPYING APPEARED TO HAVE OCCURRED. THANK YOU FOR RESPECTING THE RIGHTS OF COPYRIGHT OWNERS.
Ten years on from the invasion, Iraq remains the most divisive war in recent history and the greatest intelligence failure in living memory.
Much of the key intelligence that was used to justify the war was based on fabrication, wishful thinking and lies - and as subsequent investigations showed, it was dramatically wrong. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
But crucially, there was intelligence that proved to be right. And, as a forensic, six-month investigation we conducted for BBC Panorama has revealed, it came from two highly-placed human sources at the very top of Saddam’s regime.
Both said that Iraq had no active WMD. Both were ignored or dismissed.
The intelligence from the first source came just a week before the government published its controversial dossier on WMD on 24 September 2002.
In the introduction to this dossier (known to some as the “dodgy” dossier) Tony Blair confidently declared, ‘the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons [and] that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons.’
Yet the two sources who produced the intelligence that Iraq had no WMD were the closest to Saddam Hussein that Western intelligence had ever got.
It was a remarkable achievement to have gained access at this level given the difficulty of recruiting any human source within Saddam’s secretive, paranoid and murderous regime.
The story of the first source comes straight out of the pages of a spy thriller.
In the spring of 2002, the CIA’s head of station in Paris, Bill Murray, was told by French intelligence, whose government had good links with the Iraqi regime, that a senior member of Saddam’s cabinet might want to defect with his family and had a great deal of intelligence that he might wish to share.
For the White House, such a defection offered the salivating prospect of a senior member of Saddam’s cabinet recanting on prime time television.
The source, Murray was informed, hated Saddam who had murdered his brother, and now seemed prepared to do business.
What made him even more attractive to Murray and the White House was that he had no blood on his hands and had never been accused of any involvement in murders or criminal activity. Compared with other members of Saddam’s blood-stained regime, the source was ‘Mr Clean’.
Murray was enthused: ‘He looked like a person of real interest, somebody who we should really be talking to.’ But a face-to-face meeting between a CIA agent and one of Saddam’s inner circle was out of the question as it was too risky.
The French suggested an intermediary, an Arab former journalist living in Paris, who had known the source for many years. They told Murray that he had worked with them for a number of years.
In the early summer of 2002, the financial bargaining began. The intermediary did not come cheap. His starting price was a staggering one million dollars. Murray, familiar with the ways of the Arab bazaar, haggled and finally got the price down to $200,000 which he handed over in cash in a paper bag. Murray explained it was to be used ‘to pay his expenses, to show that we were serious and also to provide some personal items for the source.’ He said it was never clear how much the intermediary wanted for himself and how much he was trying to stake out for the source.
However excessive the down payment might have seemed, it would have been worth every cent if the source came up with the goods on Saddam’s WMD. The source was none other than Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Naji Sabri.
With the down payment agreed, Murray submitted a detailed list of questions for the intermediary to put to him. WMD were top of the list. Naji Sabri was then to report back to Murray. That was the deal.
Through the summer months, there was radar silence. The intermediary had to pick his moment to meet the minister without arousing suspicion.
The opportunity came in mid-September 2002 when Naji Sabri was visiting New York to address the United Nations.
Again it was too risky for Murray to meet Naji Sabri face to face as most of the time the minister was being watched by a team of Saddam’s minders.
But the intermediary met him at the Iraqi Ambassador’s residence in New York. A secret sign was agreed to confirm to Murray that the meeting had taken place and that the minister was prepared to offer information.
The intermediary had arranged for a couple of hand-made suits to be made for the minister, presumably out of Murray’s $200,000 seed money ‘to pay his expenses’. Naji Sabri was to wear one of them when he addressed the UN General Assembly as a sign that he was on side. “It was part of the agreement to confirm the relationship between the intermediary and the source,” Murray explained,
The following day, Murray met the intermediary for a debriefing in a hotel room in New York. He was given the substance of the intelligence: ‘Saddam had intentions to have WMD, chemical, biological and nuclear, but the report was very clear about what he actually had at that point in time and he had virtually nothing.’
It was not what the White House wanted to hear. ‘I was told they were not happy.’
Murray made notes of the debriefing on a yellow pad and then, as he had to catch a plane back to Washington, sent them to the office in New York to be typed up as a formal report. It was when he got to the airport that he saw Naji Sabri on a television screen addressing the UN, wearing his expensive, brand new suit. Murray was satisfied: ‘It was my new suit. It told me they were telling me the truth.’ Someone close to the story told me that President Bush had allegedly also seen the minister on television and pointed out that was the suit that he had paid for.
Murray says that he subsequently discovered that his account had been modified with a new introductory paragraph with which he was not happy. A Senate inquiry has since said it could find no documentary evidence of Murray’s account. What happened to his original text remains a mystery.
On 5 February 2004, after the fall of Saddam, CIA Director, George Tenet, delivered a speech at Georgetown University in which he referred to ‘what was going on in the fall of 2002’ - when Murray passed on his intelligence.
Tenet spoke of a source ‘with direct access to Saddam and his inner circle’ who had talked of Iraq “stockpiling chemical weapons” and “aggressively and covertly” developing a nuclear weapon that could be ready in 18 to 24 months. Tenet added that he could not have ignored or dismissed such reports. He stands by what he said. Murray maintains this did not reflect what he had written and passed on to New York. His report had referred to Saddam giving “stocks” of chemical weapons, left over from the early nineties, to friendly tribes and of Saddam’s scientists saying nuclear weapons could be ready in 18 to 24 months after they obtained the necessary material.
Murray says his key message was that Saddam did not have any serious, active current WMD stockpile or programmes.
Murray believes his report had been used selectively. By whom and at what level he does not know, but he thinks he knows why. He says the intelligence was cherry picked. ‘Very bad intelligence got to the leadership very quickly but other intelligence just didn’t make it.’
In the end Naji Sabri did not defect and give President Bush his moment of triumph in the glare of the cameras but he did manage to get out of Iraq. He went to teach communication studies at a university in the Gulf.
We tracked him down and asked him to comment. He dismissed Bill Murray’s story as ‘a complete fabrication’ and whilst admitting he met ‘an Arab ex-journalist living in France’ in New York, he says the meeting only lasted “a few minutes”.
I asked Bill Murray if MI6 got the intelligence from Naji Sabri. He assumed that it did. ‘Britain is a strategic ally and we share this kind of information with them regularly and rapidly and so it would have been soon after we acquired it.’
I wondered if Lord Butler, who chaired the original government Inquiry into the use of intelligence on WMD in the lead up to the Iraq war, was aware of what Iraq’s Foreign Minister was reported to have said? ‘No,’ he told me... If SIS (MI6) was aware of it, we should have been informed.’
He added by way of explanation that perhaps MI6 was not permitted to share intelligence that came from the CIA as it was not MI6’s to give.
Four months after Bill Murray debriefed the intermediary, another piece of dramatic intelligence came in, this time to MI6. In January 2003, now only three months before the war, a senior MI6 officer met another high-ranking member of Saddam’s inner circle, the head of Iraqi intelligence, Tahir Habbush Al Tikriti. After the invasion he became the Jack of Diamonds on America’s “Most Wanted” notorious Deck of Cards, with a reward of one million US dollars thought to be on offer. It appears the meeting took place on Habbush’s initiative. It was in Amman, Jordan.
It seems that the likely reason was an attempt by the regime to reach some kind of face-saving compromise that might avert the imminent invasion, perhaps by negotiating safe passage for Saddam out of Iraq. In the course of the discussion, Habbush told the MI6 officer that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
I asked Lord Butler if his Inquiry had been aware of the meeting and of what Habbush had said. ‘This was something which our review did miss.’ he said. ‘[There was] a mass of information, I think fifty thousand intelligence reports alone on Iraq. We were told [by MI6] that it was something designed by Saddam to mislead.”
Habbush is now thought to be living somewhere outside of Iraq, his escape allegedly organised by a Western intelligence agency.
Bill Murray gained no satisfaction when it emerged that the intelligence from Iraq’s Foreign Minister and Saddam’s Head of Intelligence turned out to be right. He felt let down and disappointed.
‘I thought we’d produced probably the best intelligence that anybody produced in the pre-war period, all of which came out in the long run to be accurate and the information was discarded and not used.’
Murray’s feelings about the use of misleading intelligence to justify the war reflect the way many in the UK probably still feel, that they were misled by their Prime Minister. Lord Butler agrees. “They’ve every right to feel that,” he said.