Blair did not lie Britain’s way into Iraq

President George W. Bush welcomes British Prime Minister Tony Blair for talks at Camp David, Md., on Sept. 7, 2002. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sir John Chilcot has some bad news for the many Britons pining for the day Tony Blair will be tried for war crimes. The former prime minister didn’t lie the U.K. into the Iraq war.

This is the clear conclusion of a sweeping inquiry into the war released Wednesday by Chilcot’s committee, a report that took longer to produce than the British military involvement in Iraq. The closest Chilcot comes to criticizing Blair’s use of the intelligence produced by his government is that he at times didn’t express the full nuance and uncertainty contained in those reports. But Blair’s statements about Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs were consistent with what the professional analysts, spies and military officers were telling him.

“It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments,” Chilcot said in a statement. “They were not challenged and they should have been.”

In this one sentence Chilcot has obliterated a genre of Iraq war literature. Remember that for the “Bush Lied, People Died” crowd, Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush pressured analysts and manipulated intelligence to get the war they wanted. Instead, Chilcot said that Blair should have been more skeptical of intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs. And yet you still see this kind of thing all the time.

On the U.S. side, the notion of cynical Bush administration information manipulation should have been put to rest years ago. As two reports from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence made clear, the U.S. intelligence community — with a few dissenting agencies — agreed that Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was hiding chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons programs.

Let’s start with a Feb. 27, 2002, assessment from the Joint Intelligence Committee, the panel that oversees intelligence products for the U.K. government. It says: “Iraq also continues with its chemical and biological warfare (CBW) programmes and, if it has not already done so, could produce significant quantities of BW agent within days and CW agents within weeks of a decision to do so.”

On nuclear, that assessment said Iraq continued a program to develop a weapon, though it was at best five years away from producing a warhead.

These judgments, it should be said, were in keeping with British and U.S. intelligence assessments for years. Chilcot’s report concludes: “The ingrained belief that Saddam Hussein’s regime retained chemical and biological warfare capabilities, was determined to preserve and if possible enhance its capabilities, including at some point in the future a nuclear capability, and was pursuing an active policy of deception and concealment, had underpinned UK policy towards Iraq since the Gulf Conflict ended in 1991.”

Chilcot doesn’t let Blair off the hook. He says Blair was warned that an invasion of Iraq could strengthen al-Qaida. He concludes that Britain did woefully little preparation for the day after the defeat of Saddam’s forces. And he uncovers a note from Blair to Bush promising his support for the Iraq war, whatever happens.

But on prewar intelligence, Chilcot’s criticism is so mild, it barely registers. It revolves around a September 2002 British dossier on weapons of mass destruction. Chilcot says it was more nuanced than a foreword written by Blair.

Blair said the assessment had concluded “beyond doubt” that Iraq “continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that [Saddam] continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that he had been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme.” The actual dossier wasn’t quite as definitive. “The assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons,” Chilcot’s report says. Instead, the dossier said Iraq “had continued to produce chemical and biological agents.”

On nuclear weapons, the reed is even thinner. The British dossier didn’t say Iraq had continued a nuclear-weapons program, as Blair said. Instead, it said Iraq had made covert attempts to “acquire technology and materials which could be used in the production of nuclear weapons;” “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active nuclear programme that would require it”; and “recalled specialists to work on its nuclear programme.”

You have to squint hard to conclude that Blair was lying here. A more reasonable explanation is that politicians use language differently from intelligence analysts. Blair was making the case for a policy he believed. That policy was based on the view of the U.S. and British intelligence community (and plenty of other national-intelligence services) that Saddam was concealing weapons programs and intended to restart them as soon as economic sanctions collapsed.

One didn’t need access to secret intelligence to reach this conclusion. Saddam was already in violation of 16 U.N. Security Council resolutions pertaining to weapons of mass destruction by the time of the 2003 invasion. He kicked inspectors out of the country on multiple occasions. He never allowed the U.N. access to his scientists demanded by the Security Council’s final resolution. Iraq’s dictator acted as if he had something to hide, and Tony Blair believed he did.

It turned out that Blair was wrong. But this was an error, not a crime; a blunder, but not a lie.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.