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2: The heart of the matter ... did iraq have WMD?

There's plenty of evidence that Saddam had ditched WMD, but little to show how the Blair government came to a contrary conclusion.

By Investigations Editor Neil Mackay

TONY Blair and Alastair Campbell are clinging desperately to their story that Iraq had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but they are members of an ever dwindling club.

In America, WMD claims are unravelling fast. David Kay, the head of the Iraq Survey Group picked by the CIA to find banned weapons in post-war Iraq, has come out and said “we were all wrong”.

Then Condoleezza Rice, President George W Bush's national security adviser, said last week: “I think that what we have is evidence that there are differences between what we knew going in and what we found on the ground.”

Secretary of state Colin Powell has also said that Iraq may not have had WMD. His former chief weapons expert, Greg Thielman, has accused Bush and Blair of failing to give an accurate picture of intelligence on Saddam's WMD. The “political leadership” in both countries distorted the Iraqi threat and the claim that Saddam could deploy WMD in 45 minutes was exaggerated, he added. Thielman also said Iraq was not a threat. And Rolf Ekeus, former head of Unscom, the UN special commission in Iraq, blamed the heads of UK and US intelligence agencies for “trying to play up to their political masters”.

Then there's US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He said in a report to the Senate armed services committee: “The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of WMD. We acted because we saw the evidence in a dramatic new light - through the prism of our experience on 9/11.”

Two former chief UN weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Scott Ritter, have also questioned claims that Iraq had WMD. Ritter further claims Britain “sexed-up” intelligence to make it look as if Saddam was armed and dangerous. Before taking up his new position, Charles Duelfer, the former UN weapons inspector appointed by the CIA to replace Kay, said he did not believe banned weapons would be found.

A recent report by the British American Security Information Council pours cold water on the WMD claims and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the threat from Iraq's WMD was “systematically misrepresented”.

The Iraqi scientists who built Saddam's WMD in the 1980s have also weighed in to the fray, saying Blair lied to the British people over Iraq's capabilities. Dr Emad Shamsaldi said Blair should resign, adding: “We had no WMD when Britain and America invaded. I should know because I spent much of the 1980s involved in Iraq's nuclear programme.” Shamsaldi also said UN inspectors accepted there was no WMD and that David Kelly contacted his department last year saying he was unhappy with what Bush and Blair were saying.

On Friday, Bush himself said he wants to know “the facts” about why WMD hadn't been found. Bush, the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, has unsparingly told the world for the last year that Saddam was armed to the teeth with WMD, but now he seems vague on what the threat actually was.

All of which makes Blair's insistence that WMD exist look a little desperate.

Last week, intelligence chiefs told the Sunday Herald, ahead of the Hutton report, that they would not be blamed for intelligence failures. They said they had been politicised and pressurised into cherry-picking intelligence to justify the war. There has also been CIA dissent. David Albright, an ex-colleague of Kay, said claims about Iraqi weapons were questioned by many intelligence experts.

The UK intelligence community is getting its side of the story in early because if it comes to pass that there was no threat - no justification for the war - the politicians will have to blame the quality of the intelligence they received. Blair has already said that his belief that Iraq had WMD which posed a threat was based on intelligence reports. What the spies are saying is that they were sceptical about WMD claims; were under government pressure to provide intelligence that Iraq had WMD; that damning intelligence was selectively chosen; intelligence that might have worked against the build-up to war was sidelined, and that intelligence had become politicised under Labour.

Among the evidence that Hutton either ignored or decided was not relevant was an e-mail sent from Danny Pruce, a Downing Street press officer, to his boss Alastair Campbell, which said: “Much of the evidence is largely circumstantial so we need to convince our readers that the cumulation of these facts demonstrate an intent on Saddam's part.” Phil Basset, a senior special adviser to the PM, said the document was “intelligence-lite” adding: “We've got to find a way to get over this by having better intelligence material.” Downing Street, it seemed, was also pressurising John Scarlett, the former MI6 officer who chaired the joint intelligence committee (JIC), which was supposed to have sole ownership of the dossier detailing the case for war. Spies were told: “Number 10 ... wants the document to be as strong as possible within the limits of the available intelligence.”

Campbell, who chaired intelligence meetings, asked Scarlett's team to stren-gthen nine passages in the dossier. Scarlett, who Campbell called a “mate”, wrote back saying: “We have been able to amend the text in most cases as you proposed.”

Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, asked the JIC to toughen up a passage which read: “Saddam is prepared to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat.” It became: “Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons.”

Sir Rodric Braithwaite, who preceded Scarlett as head of the JIC, has warned that intelligence officers “have to avoid getting into the magic circle” which surrounds the PM. He thinks the JIC, under Scarlett, became an unwitting political tool to rally a sceptical public. “It's not (the JIC's) job to fiddle with documents in order to make them more presentable,” he said. “If they start doing that, then instead of analysis, which is their job, they get involved in presentation, and presentation means not falsifying the facts but presenting them in an order which is designed to produce a particular impression on the audience. It is ceasing to be objective, it's becoming an advocate.”

One example of the corrosion of objectivity is Operation Rockingham, a covert “dirty tricks” unit exposed by the Sunday Herald last summer. It was designed to produce misleading intelligence that Saddam had WMD. This would give the UK a justifiable excuse for war.

It was established by the MoD's Defence Intelligence Service in 1991 to “cherry-pick” intelligence proving an active WMD programme and to ignore or quash intelligence which showed that Saddam, compliant with UN demands, had destroyed or wound down stockpiles. David Kelly was also a key figure in Operation Rockingham, whose staff wrote reports for the UN Security Council and were, therefore, able to influence decisions on Iraqi sanctions. Ritter hinted that Kelly may have helped overstate the threat from Iraq, saying: “Kelly became Rockingham's go-to person for translating the data that came out of Unscom into concise reporting. Kelly had a vested interest in protecting his image, which centred around his exposure of an Iraqi bio-weapons programme that had to continue to exist for him to hold centre stage.” Another example of skewed objectivity was MI6's Operation Mass Appeal which saw spies plant stories about Iraqi WMD. Most have since been described as “garbage”.

Air Marshall Sir John Walker, the former chief of defence intelligence, said it was clear that claims about Saddam's WMD capabilities were “wrong”, and he also scorned the idea that intelligence chiefs were not influenced by Number 10.

There is now mounting pressure in Britain and America for wide-ranging inquiries into the alleged exaggerations that took the allies to war. Labour, LibDem and Tory politicians want an independent inquiry. Shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram called on Blair to explain why he still believed the WMD intelligence and pressed for a full inquiry into the lead up to the Iraq war. He said: “It seems Tony Blair is the only person still certain that weapons of mass destruction will definitely be found. He must explain why he is the odd man out and produce evidence as to why.”

Robin Cook took another swipe at Blair saying the PM should admit the intelligence he presented to parliament on Iraq was “wildly wrong”. Cook, who resigned as former foreign secretary over the war, added: “Now that even the White House has admitted they may have got it wrong, it's embarrassing to watch our government still trying to deny reality. The game is up.”

Ex-foreign office and defence minister Doug Henderson has also urged the government to “clarify its position”, asking: “Does Britain now accept, as the US government now seems to believe, that WMD will not be found?” LibDem leader Charles Kennedy and Tory leader Michael Howard also backed an inquiry. Blair's spokesman brushed aside the calls saying: “The PM has said that he did believe the intelligence was right and he did believe there would be an explanation ... The (ISG) is still pursuing its work and we should wait for that.”

In the US, government loyalists have poured scorn on the reasons for war. One senior Republican said: “They've made a pretty huge mess of it. They wove this giant story, based on intelligence assessments that, in hindsight, were wrong.” The White House, however, fears any inquiry would spin out of control in an election year. It could also spin wildly out of control in the UK as well. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court at The Hague are to consider a request by an international body of lawyers to investigate Blair for alleged war crimes. Former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle has asked the Commons library for a briefing on whether impeachment was still part of the UK constitution, and was assured that it was. Senior Tories have also let it be known that they would favour the impeachment of the Prime Minister.

The unravelling could begin sooner than we think. Blair is to be put on the spot by the Commons liaison committee on Tuesday. Labour committee member Donald Anderson said Blair would be asked whether he is the “last person to believe the intelligence assessment”. Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, will soon be summoned before the intelligence and security committee to give more evidence on why he believed the WMD intelligence.

The dilemma for the government is that it is now trapped by the Hutton report. Hutton found against the BBC and heads rolled; if it is eventually dragged out of the government that there were no WMD, or that the intelligence services were encouraged to exaggerate the threat, or that lies were told, then the blood-letting at the Beeb could look like a playground punch-up in comparison to the savage harvest that would unfold in Whitehall.

WHAT THEY SAID THEN ... AND NOW

George W Bush - January 29, 2003

“Twelve years ago, Saddam Hussein faced the prospect of being the last casualty in a war he had started and lost. To spare himself, he agreed to disarm of all weapons of mass destruction. For the next 12 years, he systematically violated that agreement. He pursued chemical, biological and nuclear weapons even while inspectors were in his country.”

George W Bush - January 30, 2004

“I want the American people to know that I too want to know the facts. I want to be able to compare what the Iraq Survey Group has found with what we thought prior to going into Iraq.”

Condoleeza Rice - January 23, 2003

“Instead of a commitment to disarm, Iraq has a high-level political commitment to maintain and conceal its weapons, led by Saddam Hussein and his son Qusay, who controls the Special Security Organisation, which runs Iraq's concealment activities.”

Condoleeza Rice - January 29, 2004

“What we have is evidence that there are differences between what we knew going in and what we found on the ground.”