A former head of the British security service MI5 said that she warned government ministers and officials that an invasion of Iraq would increase the terrorist threat to Britain.
Eliza Manningham-Buller, in an interview with the Guardian published yesterday, said that as US and British forces were preparing to invade Iraq, she asked: “Why now?”
“I said it as explicitly as I could. I said something like: ‘The threat to us would increase because of Iraq,’” she said.
MI5 knew that invading Iraq would make its task much more difficult by breeding resentment and hostility among Britain’s large Muslim community.
Even the UK government’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), largely responsible for drawing up the discredited Iraqi weapons dossier, warned in February 2003 — a month before the invasion — that international terrorism posed by far the biggest threat to Britain’s national security — much more than late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
In the interview, Manningham-Buller describes flying over the smoking ruins of New York’s World Trade Center two days after the Sept. 11 al-Qaeda attacks. She says she wondered how the US would react.
“It never occurred to me they would go into Iraq,” she said.
Neoconservative elements in the administration of then-US president George W. Bush, notably vice president Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, claimed wrongly that there was a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda.
Britain’s security and intelligence agencies were angry with the CIA for not challenging the claims.
Stephen Lander, Manningham-Buller’s predecessor, in parallel interview, offered an explanation for why Britain’s intelligence chiefs persuaded themselves that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
“Saddam wanted everyone to believe he had them. He thought they would not attack him. It was a catastrophic misjudgment,” he said.
Stella Rimington, Lander’s predecessor, warned of the dangers of playing politics with the country’s security.
“The politicization of security is today’s issue,” she said in the third of three interviews with past UK security chiefs.
“No doubt,” she said, MI5 was trying to “avoid security becoming a kind of political football.”
“Politicians and ministers have a fear that some dreadful thing will happen on their watch ... but there is no such thing as 100 percent security and things will go wrong,” she said.
All three former heads of MI5 said the management shake-up after the attempt by an MI5 officer to pass highly sensitive information to the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s was a key moment in its recent history.