TOPICS : Iraq: Pre-war warnings disregarded

In the run-up to war, senior British security and intelligence officials as well as diplomats made it clear that they were strongly opposed to the invasion of Iraq — though not clear enough. Why now, why Iraq, they asked; it would merely increase the terrorist threat, as the joint intelligence committee warned ministers less than a month before British troops and bombers joined the US attack on the country. Concern in Whitehall (UK civil service) was shared by some perspicacious Americans, including General Tony Zinni, the former head of US central command, which is responsible for operations throughout the Middle East. He called it the wrong war, fought in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Now comes fresh evidence that senior British officials tried to persuade the Bush administration to keep off Iraq and concentrate on Afghanistan, the real source of terrorist violence inspired by Al Qaeda. On the Brink, the newly published memoirs of Tyler Drumheller — the CIA’s chief of clandestine operations in Europe until 2005 — tells of a meeting on September 12, 2001. The day after Al Qaeda’s attacks on America, George Tenet, then CIA director, met three British guests — Sir David Manning, then Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser; Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6 (British intelligence); and Eliza Manningham-Buller, then head of MI5 (UK security service). “I hope we can all agree that we should concentrate on Afghanistan and not be tempted to launch any attacks on Iraq,” Drumheller quotes the leader of the British delegation as telling Tenet. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books on Tenet’s autobiography, At the Center of the Storm, Thomas Powers points out that Tenet names his British guests but omits what was said at the meeting — while Drumheller reports what was said but was prevented by the CIA (which did not want to upset the British) from identifying who said it.

Powers says the appeal not to attack Iraq came from Manning. Drumheller does not dispute that. Questioned last week about just how far MI6 and other British officials tried to apply pressure on the Americans, Drumheller told the Guardian: “I think the British did everything they could to keep the US focused on Afghanistan. They understood Iraq much better

than we did.” One of the things they understood was that there was no link between Al Qaeda and Saddam, an assertion made against all the evidence by Dick Cheney and his circle.

The worrying, even terrifying, thing about these and other accounts by former CIA officers is the ease with which America’s intelligence agency was swept aside by cliques in the White House and the Pentagon intent on war. The CIA’s weakness had a knock-on effect on MI6 as both agencies became victims of the blind determination of their respective political masters. The Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq, and Blair’s failure to do anything about it, left a vacuum in Afghanistan. The Taliban was allowed to fill it. — The Guardian