The Downing Street Memos changed the minds of many Americans about the war against Iraq and the intelligence used to persuade people that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The Americans understandably focused on the claim made by Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, that the intelligence was being ‘fixed around the policy’ in America.
Dearlove, who had just returned from Washington DC, told a meeting of Tony Blair’s war cabinet in Downing St on 23 July 2002 that ‘the intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy.’
But there was one fact that was even more devastating among the many fascinating insights in the minutes of that war cabinet meeting. On its own, it didn’t seem to implicate the British in any wrongdoing.
A Cabinet Office briefing paper for those attending the meeting had warned about the difficulties of ensuring that any military action was regarded as legal under the British interpretation of international law, which differed widely from the US interpretation.
‘We need now to … encourage the US Government to place its military planning within a political framework, partly to forestall the risk that military action is precipitated in an unplanned way by, for example, an incident in the No Fly Zones,’ it said. ‘This is particularly important for the UK because it is necessary to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action.’
What the authors of that briefing paper, and even some of those who attended the war cabinet meeting, did not know was that British aircraft were already actively attempting to provoke such an incident.
Shortly after Blair returned from his meeting with President Bush as the latter’s ranch in Crawford, Texas in early April 2002, the Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defence announced a change to the rules of engagement used by pilots overflying the southern no-fly zone in Iraq, ostensibly to protect the Shia minority from attacks by Saddam’s aircraft.
Whereas previously they had to wait until an Iraqi missile locked on to their aircraft to carry out an attack. Now the moment an Iraqi air defence radar locked onto a US or UK aircraft, the pilot could attack.
From early May 2002, the amount of US and UK munitions dropped on southern Iraq rocketed. Parliamentary questions asked by LibDem MPs, led by Sir Menzies Campbell, show that before 10 May 2002 the RAF was rarely dropping any bombs on Iraq. But after 10 May, the amount dropped by British aircraft every day was astonishing.
Lt-Gen Michael Moseley, who commanded allied air forces in Iraq, told a briefing at Nellis airbase in Nevada in July 2003 that from May 2002 until the start of the war allied aircraft flew 21,736 sorties, dropping more than 600 bombs on 391 ‘carefully selected targets’.
The nine months of allied raids ‘laid the foundations’ for the allied victory, Moseley said. They ensured that allied forces did not have to start the war with a protracted bombardment of Iraqi positions.
So when the war cabinet met in Downing St on 23 July 2002, the Secret Air War had already been going on for more than two months and despite the Cabinet Office concerns over the legality of such a move the RAF was already fully involved in it.
But more than that, there was another aim to the bombing, as the then Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told the war cabinet meeting. The minutes of that meeting record that he told those present that ‘the US had already begun “spikes of activity” to put pressure on the regime.’
Hold on. Wasn’t this precisely what the Cabinet Office had warned about when it spoke of the need ‘to forestall the risk that military action is precipitated in an unplanned way by, for example, an incident in the No Fly Zones. This is particularly important for the UK because it is necessary to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action.’
Geoff Hoon was Defence Secretary. He must therefore have known that it wasn’t just the US which was carrying out these attacks. The RAF was taking a full and active part in the Secret Air War. Why didn’t he say that? Surely he could have shared this information with his colleagues in the war cabinet. Or might one of them have pointed out the awkward truth about Britain’s role in the Secret Air War?