Tony Blair was quite right yesterday to say that it was "absurd" to claim that anyone reading the prewar intelligence reports could think that Iraq's weapons were not a problem.
Last week, Lord Butler said in his important report there was no evidence of "deliberate distortion or culpable negligence" by the government. But he was critical of the way some intelligence was presented and that caveats had been omitted. In many cases, Butler was supportive. For example, he concluded that the assertion that Iraq had been trying to obtain uranium from an African country, Niger, was "well founded".
The truth is that we still do not know what Saddam's WMD capabilities were in 2002-03, nor exactly where he was heading. But as Blair said yesterday, that does not mean there was no threat.
Too little attention has been paid to the preliminary report of Charles Duelfer, the new head of Washington's Iraq Survey Group (ISG). He testified to Congress in March that "we must determine what Saddam ordered, what his ministers ordered, and how the plans fit together. Were weapons hidden that were not readily available? Was there a plan for a break-out production capacity?"
It may be that, despite the prewar intelligence, Saddam did not have stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons at the time of the war in March 2003. But to assert that there was therefore no WMD threat is to trivialise the issue. Intelligence has to look at form. Saddam's history over the past 14 years was one of attempting to obtain and conceal WMD. During the Gulf war he fired 39 missiles into Israel. They had conventional warheads, but they might not have done.
According to Duelfer, Saddam's deception of the UN inspectors "continued right up until war in 2003". Sensitive sites could be sanitised at 15 minutes notice.
The CIA had not one single human agent in Iraq and Britain's agents, according to Butler, were fallible. But even if there had been more agents, it is not certain they could have found the truth about WMD. Strict compartmentalisation is a feature of such regimes. According to Duelfer, "We know from high-level debriefings that Saddam conveyed his most sensitive messages to particular individuals orally. Moreover there were explicit instructions not to repeat such conversations."
Duelfer told Congrethat Iraq's illegal military procurement budget increased 100-fold from 1996 to 2003 to $500m annually, most of the money coming from illicit contracts under the UN's Oil for Food programme.
The Tuwaitha Research Centre had equipment suitable for producing biological agents and "was conducting research that would be important for a biological weapons programme". In the nuclear area, Duelfer believes that Iraq was "preserving and expanding its knowledge to design and develop nuclear weapons", and suspects that one laboratory "was intentionally focused on research applicable for nuclear weapons development".
The ISG has also discovered "a very robust programme for delivery systems that were not reported to the UN". Saddam had already developed missiles "that easily exceeded the UN limit of 150km". Iraq was discussing with North Korea the possibility of importing a 1,300km missile system. Foreign missile experts were working in Iraq in defiance of UN sanctions, and had helped Iraq redesign the al-Samoud missile.
Intelligence agencies have to make judgments on the basis of past behaviour, current evidence and future planning. Given all we knew of Saddam by 2003, the conclusion had to be that he still possessed a residual WMD capability and was determined to restore his original capacities - but it was not possible to determine how far he had got. The combination of international terror and WMD poses an existential threat to the world. In Iraq's case, even if the possibility of a non-conventional attack was low, the price to be paid if it did take place was so high that the threat had to be taken very seriously. Saddam may not have been an immediate threat, but he was an inevitable one.
Blair has accepted the criticisms and recommendations made by Butler. Many of the other attacks on the intelligence agencies, and on Blair's decision to meet the threat from Saddam, are trivial and dangerous.
"Let us rejoice that Iraq is liberated," Blair said yesterday. Yes, indeed. What really matters now is to build upon the first opportunity Iraqis have ever had to create a decent society. It is a cause to which all British politicians ought to be dedicating themselves. It is tragic that they are not.