BBC rebuts Downing Street attack
 
The head of BBC News has accused Downing Street press chief Alastair Campbell of waging a "personal vendetta" against the journalist behind the Iraq weapons row.

In a nine-page letter to Mr Campbell, Richard Sambrook said the BBC refused to give the apology demanded by Number 10 over claims it reported about the government's first dossier on Iraq's weapons.

BBC defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan last month reported that a senior intelligence official had told him the dossier was "sexed up" on Downing Street's request.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Friday again denied that claim, but one Conservative MP investigating the row has accused the government of shifting its story.

Revenge?

Mr Sambrook's letter escalates the war of words between the government and the BBC.

In it, he gives a point-by-point rebuttal of the spin doctor's attack on the BBC.

He says: "You will see that I do not accept the validity of your attacks on our journalism and on Andrew Gilligan in particular.

I do not accept the validity of your attacks on our journalism
Richard Sambrook

"We have to believe that you are conducting a personal vendetta against a particular journalist whose reports on a number of occasions have caused you discomfort."

He said the source behind the claim was credible and it would have been wrong to suppress the story because there was only one source for it.

Later Mr Campbell branded the BBC letter "outrageous".

"It confirms our central charge they do not have a shred of evidence to justify their lies broadcast many times on BBC outlets that we deliberately exaggerated and abused British intelligence and so misled Parliament and the public," he said.

The government have branded as a "lie" the claim in the BBC report that extra prominence was given in the dossier at Downing Street's request to a claim that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes.

The Commons foreign affairs select committee on Friday grilled Mr Straw over that claim in last September's dossier both in public and in private.

Mr Straw acknowledged the 45 minutes intelligence was not in the original draft of the dossier.

But he insisted that this was because the information did not come to light until September.

His words appeared to contradict Downing Street press chief Alastair Campbell's evidence that the 45 minutes claim was in the "very first draft" of the dossier.

'Shifting ground'

Later Mr Straw said he had received a note saying Mr Campbell would be writing to the committee explaining that the claim was included in the first draft of the dossier he had seen.

But Time magazine's Jeff McAllister said Mr Campbell had briefed American journalists in March about a dossier which sounded substantially the same as the final dossier published in September.

It's the old tactic - when you're on difficult ground, counter-attack
Labour MP Austin Mitchell

Mr McAllister acknowledged that the press chief did not say he had seen the dossier.

The foreign secretary said Mr Campbell was writing to the MPs with details of how he suggested changes to the dossier to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), he said.

The dossier was one of two issued by the government on Iraq - the second was the so-called "dodgy dossier" released earlier this year which plagiarised an academic work.

Tory MP Richard Ottaway, among those who questioned Mr Straw, said: "The story seems to be shifting as time goes by and who can tell exactly where the truth lies."

Those doubts come despite Mr Straw promising "decisive evidence" in the committee's private session, in which Mr Ottaway said the minister had been "very forthcoming".

'Decisive'

During heated public exchanges on Friday, committee chairman Donald Anderson demanded the Commons foreign affairs committee be allowed to question the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).

But Mr Straw accused Mr Anderson of trying to involve the government in a "turf war" with another Commons committee investigating the weapons row.

The Commons intelligence and security committee, which meets only in private and which is investigating the case for war against Iraq, was the right place for the JIC chairman to be questioned, said Mr Straw.

That prompted Mr Anderson to complain: "What you are saying in effect is that you using this jurisdictional point to stop the committee having what could be absolutely decisive evidence."

Mr Straw countered: "I will be producing decisive evidence in any event and unless you are saying I have come here not to tell the truth and to tell other than the truth, I ought to be believed."