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September 12, 2003
Blair on the rack over Iraq terror warning
By Philip Webster, Political Editor and Michael Evans, Defence Editor
Intelligence chiefs said action would increase al-Qaeda threat
TONY BLAIR was facing fresh questions over the Iraq war last night after it was revealed that intelligence chiefs had told him that military action would increase the risk of terrorist attacks.
Mr Blair took Britain to war in spite of a warning that the collapse of the Iraqi regime would make it easier for terrorist groups to obtain chemical and biological weapons, and that the threat from al-Qaeda would be heightened by action to depose Saddam.
The advice from the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which Mr Blair did not disclose before the war, was given in an assessment on February 10, five weeks before the action started. Its release, by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee yesterday, immediately sparked attacks from critics who had said that war would intensify the terrorism risk.
The top-secret assessment, International Terrorism: War with Iraq, stated that there was no intelligence that Iraq had provided chemical and biological materials to al-Qaeda, but judged that in the event of an imminent regime collapse, “there would be a risk of transfer of such material”, to al-Qaeda or another terrorist group.
Reporting on the intelligence provided to the Government about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the committee revealed that when Mr Blair was questioned about the terrorism threat, he accepted that “one of the most difficult aspects of this is that there was obviously a danger that in attacking Iraq you ended up provoking the very thing you were trying to avoid”.
But he asked whether it was possible to leave the threat of Iraq’s weapons one day being linked to worldwide terrorism untouched. He said: “This is where you have just got to make your judgment about this, and it remains my judgment, and I suppose time will tell whether it is true or not.”
Critics are bound to ask why Mr Blair, who presented the Iraq weapons dossier as having the endorsement of the JIC, did not acknowledge the committee’s misgivings over the terrorist threat. Several senior politicians gave similar warnings at the time. Speaking in a debate in February Kenneth Clarke, the former Conservative Chancellor, said: “The next time a large bomb explodes in a Western city, or an Arab or Muslim regime topples and is replaced by extremists, the Government must consider the extent to which the policy contributed to it.”
And last night Robin Cook, who resigned from the Government over the war, said that Mr Blair should be accountable for what happened. “They claimed that there was a threat from terrorism,” he told Channel 4 News. “There was a real threat from terrorism, but it has got worse since the war. What we know now is that the Government was warned that it would get worse. We now need No 10 to come clean on why it was that we ended up going to war on intelligence that ended up being so wrong on weapons of mass destruction and, now, why it was that we ended up going to war against the advice — which turned out to be right — that terrorism would get worse.”
The Prime Minister also came under implicit criticism yesterday for omitting from his foreword to the dossier a statement that he was not claiming that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on the UK. The statement had been in the first draft and the Intelligence and Security Committee said that it was “unfortunate” that it was taken out.
The committee’s report cleared the Government in general, and Alastair Campbell in particular, of “sexing up” the dossier — the BBC claim that led to its battle with Downing Street and ultimately the death of David Kelly.
However, the Government was criticised for failing to make clear that its assessment of Saddam’s arsenal was based on limited intelligence. The committee said that the intelligence services had struggled to get information about Saddam’s clandestine weapons programme and that the dossier should have highlighted the shortage of new material.
The dossier also claimed that Saddam “had” chemical and biological weapons, and the foreword — drawn up by Mr Campbell and signed by Mr Blair — used the phrase “continued to produce chemical and biological weapons”. That, said the committee, could give the impression that Saddam was actively producing such weapons when the JIC did not know what had been produced. “We believe that this uncertainty should have been highlighted to give a balanced view,” the report concluded.
As expected, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, was criticised for not providing enough information to the committee about concerns within the Defence Intelligence Staff about the dossier. But the report stopped short of accusing him of “misleading” the committee. Mr Hoon is bruised, but his fate will depend on the findings of the Hutton inquiry. In the Commons, Mr Hoon expressed his “regret” for any “misunderstanding” that had arisen over his evidence.
Iain Duncan Smith said his position had become untenable, and that he should resign or be sacked immediately.