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What we were told, what we know now and the unresolved issues

By Paul Waugh, Deputy Political Editor

06 February 2004

Michael Howard, the Tory leader,called yesterday for Tony Blair to resign after the Prime Minister admitted that he did not know the Government's claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes referred simply to battlefield munitions.

As Mr Howard labelled Mr Blair's failure to ask key questions about the intelligence "a gross dereliction of duty", Downing Street revealed that Mr Blair did not know the truth until the summer, after the military conflict. Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, said he knew, and said the reason he had not told the Prime Minister was that there was no point of controversy about it.

The 45-minute claim appeared in the September 2002 dossier on Iraq's capabilities and inferred that the chemical and biological weapons could be delivered by long-range missiles. It prompted newspaper headlines suggesting British interests in Cyprus were at risk. The Government did nothing to correct that impression.

Brian Jones, the former leading expert on WMD at the Ministry of Defence, said this week that there was widespread disquiet in the intelligence community over the representation of the claim. The controversy, which the Government hoped had been lanced after Lord Hutton exonerated it last week, is gathering pace.

WHAT WE WERE TOLD

The Government's dossier, published in September 2002, cited the 45-minute claim no fewer than four times. It was deemed so important to Tony Blair's case that it was highlighted in his own foreword, in the executive summary and twice in the body of the text.

The wording varied slightly, but the strongest formulation was in the body of the text: "The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so."

Mr Blair's own use of the phrase came almost immediately after claims about the threat posed by Saddam's ballistic missile programme. He made it clear it was the basis for his belief that Iraq was a "serious and current threat".

Mr Blair followed up with a speech to Parliament on the same day in which he again underlined the 45-minute claim. The dossier concludes, he said, "that Saddam ... has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons which could be activated within 45 minutes".

That afternoon, the Evening Standard's headline shouted "45 MINUTES FROM ATTACK", with a photo of ballistic missiles that could be used to attack long-range targets.

The next day, The Sun had the headline "45 MINUTES FROM DOOM". The story began: "British servicemen and tourists in Cyprus could be annihilated by germ warfare missiles launched by Iraq, it was revealed yesterday. They could thud into the Mediterranean island within 45 MINUTES".

WHAT WE KNOW NOW

MI6 first received a so-called CX report, containing raw intelligence, on 29 August.

Thanks to Andrew Gilligan's report in May last year, we learned that the intelligence came in late and was single-sourced. The Hutton inquiry discovered that David Kelly had been the source for both of these claims.

It later emerged that the information had been relayed by an Iraqi general to an exiled Iraqi opposition activist described as "reliable" by MI6.

The raw intelligence was translated into a formal assessment by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) on 5 September which was then revised on 9 September. "Intelligence indicates that chemical and biological munitions could be with military units and ready for firing within 20-45 minutes," the final assessment read.

The Intelligence and Security Committee, the only parliamentary body to have looked at the raw intelligence and the assessments, concluded last year that the wording "did not precisely reflect the intelligence provided" by MI6.

"The JIC did not know precisely which munitions could be deployed from where to where and the context of the intelligence was not included ... this omission was then reflected in the 24 September dossier."

Worse still, the MPs discovered that the claim was assessed by some in MI6 to refer to short-range munitions and not long-range missiles.

The report said: "The claim ... was always likely to attract attention because it was arresting detail that the public had not seen before. As the 45-minutes claim was new ... the context of the intelligence and any assessment needed to be explained." The battlefield context "should have been highlighted in the dossier".

The Hutton inquiry also shed more light on the claim. We learned that Brian Jones, the head of the nuclear, biological and chemical branch of the MoD's Defence Intelligence Staff, had formally complained to his bosses that he and his staff could not accept its inclusion, as worded, in the dossier.

The Government obviously wanted the dossier to make waves. We learnt that Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, sent an e-mail to Alastair Campbell, No 10's former director of communications, asking "What will the headline be in the Standard? ... What do we want it to be?"

We also discovered that Mr Campbell had been responsible for the claim in the body of the text being strengthened. An early draft of the dossier stated that the Iraqi military "may be able" to deploy the weapons in 45 minutes. Following an e-mail from Mr Campbell to John Scarlett, the chairman of the JIC, the sentence was changed to "are able" to deploy.

Mr Blair, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, and a raft of ministers said yesterday that the claim was not important. But the headlines in two of Britain's most influential papers ensured the public had a stark impression of the dossier's 45-minutes point. Furthermore, it now appears that the reason Mr Blair subsequently dropped the claim on the eve of war was because he was told that MI6 suggested it referred to battlefield weapons.

Robin Cook, a former foreign secretary, revealed in his diaries that he had a conversation about Saddam's arsenal with Mr Blair on 5 March. Mr Cook had been briefed by MI6 that Iraq had no WMD in the sense that they could strike strategic cities. But it probably had "several thousand battlefield chemical munitions" and Mr Cook asked if Mr Blair worried they would be used against British troops. Mr Blair's response was: "Yes, but all the effort he has had to put into concealment makes it difficult for him to assemble them quickly to use." So Mr Blair did appear to know on the eve of war that the 45-minute claim was groundless and had been advised that it referred to battlefield weapons.

Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, said to Lord Hutton that the 45-minutes claim had been given "undue prominence" in the dossier.

UNRESOLVED ISSUES

The credibility of the Iraqi general and the Iraq opposition activist who relayed the 45-minutes intelligence must be in serious question. American intelligence experts were highly suspicious of information coming from exiles in the US and the UK because they were so desperate to oust Saddam.

Dr Jones has called on the Government to publish the intelligence submitted to MI6, not just on 45 minutes but also on claims that Saddam was continuing to produce chemical and biological weapons. He suggested that only then would the public see just how threadbare intelligence was.

It is unclear why Mr Hoon failed to tell Mr Blair that the claim related to battlefield weapons. Mr Hoon has mysteriously forgotten exactly when he was first made "aware" of the headlines and when exactly he asked about it.

Mr Hoon says there was no public controversy about the 45-minute point but that is because no one knew the claim was controversial. It was only after Mr Gilligan's report and Dr Kelly's suicide that light was shone on the whole area.

Is Mr Blair again distancing himself from the intelligence services in the hope of scapegoating them over the fact that WMD have not been found?

If Mr Blair did not know about the battlefield point in September 2002, he has to explain why he didn't ask his intelligence chiefs what it referred to. Troops were massing at the time. Was it a slip of the tongue that led Mr Blair to tell MPs that he didn't know the battlefield point on 18 March?

Military chiefs repeatedly told former ministers that they didn't feel Iraq posed an imminent threat. No one in the Government has answered the obvious point that Saddam could not have used any weapons against Western targets or Israel because nuclear retaliation would be swift.

Most crucial, why does Mr Blair insist that the 45-minute point was not important? Dr Jones has made the point that the claim is one of the few in the dossier that declares that WMD existed. The only other clear claim that WMD existed was the equally controversial intelligence that Saddam continued to produced chemical weapons.