International Papers

The Butler Did It

A damning new intelligence report rocks Tony Blair’s boat.

A victim of his own PR?

On Thursday British papers were awash with headlines covering Wednesday’s Butler Report, a new intelligence investigation commissioned by Prime Minister Tony Blair to satisfy critics of the war in Iraq. The report, which arrived somewhat in parallel to last week’s U.S. Senate report on American prewar intelligence, was assembled by Lord Frederick Edward Robin Butler, 66, a venerable former civil servant and member of the House of Lords. While the report did not blame individuals, it was extremely critical of the analysis and decision-making processes the Blair government used to bring the United Kingdom into the war and suggested that “clearer and more effective dividing lines between assessment and advocacy” be set in place. According to the BBC, Blair was so nervous in the weeks leading up to the report, as news from Iraq and within Britain continued to worsen, that he may have come close to resigning his post.

Most British papers agreed that the report was extremely bad but not career-ending for Blair. The Daily Mirror echoed general sentiment in its lead story, saying the “devastating” report “ripped to shreds” Blair’s case for war. The Scotsman noted that “At headline level, the Butler Report could be used to make a case for acquitting Tony Blair.” However, the piece suggested that the prime minister’s credibility has been permanently shot. The Scotsman speculated that Blair may have pledged support to George Bush for the Iraq war as early as April 2001, during a visit to the U.S. president’s ranch in Texas, thus casting his later “deliberations”as calculated efforts to build support at home.

The heart of the issue for British observers is identical to the American question: Who is to blame for these failures in intelligence? Blair’s government has been criticized in particular for its prewar assertion that Iraq possessed airborne WMD it could launch within 45 minutes, at targets as far away as British bases on Cyprus. A Guardian leader cut right to the chase: “In short, Lord Butler found the intelligence was generally weak, in some instances seriously flawed and, in the case of the infamous 45 minute warning, plain wrong.” But it named no names, leading Blair to take on personal responsibility—but give no apology—in a fiery House of Commons debate. The Guardian went on to suggest that Blair, “the great persuader, dizzied by years of deploying weapons-grade spin on the Westminster battlefield,” became caught up in his own prewar PR. Worst of all, Blair’s “sofa culture” left crucial decisions to informal verbal meetings, without the benefit of minutes or extensive discussion.

Many papers agreed that the strong criticisms within the report make it a “slow fuse” risk for Blair, even if it does not condemn him openly. A separate Guardian article suggested Butler was right to throw responsibility “back on the shoulders of the politicians, which is where it should lie.” The piece took relish in Butler’s performance: “Like a police chief in south-east Asia triumphantly laying out the fake Gucci handbags, the dodgy Rolex watches and pirate DVDs,” Butler offered a blow-by-blow comparison between the “pirate dossier” Blair used to make the 45-minute WMD claims to Parliament and the actual intelligence reports used to create it.

Not everyone was impressed with Lord Butler, however. One Independent analysis described his press conference as a “bravura performance”: “Lord Butler of Brockwell lived up to his reputation yesterday as a brilliant exponent of Whitehall doublespeak.” Another Independent piece echoed several other papers when it called into question Butler’s thinking in supporting John Scarlett, chairman of the intelligence committee that authored the 45-minute dossier, while condemning his work. “The report itself is a devastating indictment of a seemingly incestuous relationship between the Government and the intelligence services.” However, while Butler’s report endorsed Scarlett for his new position as head of foreign intelligence at MI6, it suggested his former post be held by someone “demonstrably beyond influence, and thus probably in his last post.” As the Independent noted, Lord Butler would be the perfect fit.