Blair Denies Britain Distorted Intelligence Reports on Iraq


LONDON, June 4  Prime Minister Tony Blair told a boisterous session of the House of Commons today that charges that the government distorted intelligence reports to exaggerate the threat of weapons of mass destruction and justify war in Iraq were false. He said a parliamentary committee would investigate the matter and make public its findings.

The announcement of the new inquiry by the joint Commons and House of Lords intelligence and security committee, which will parallel one by the House's foreign affairs panel, did not silence repeated calls on Mr. Blair by lawmakers to authorize an independent judicial investigation entirely free of the government's control.

The joint panel has access to all intelligence, but it reports to the prime minister rather than to the Commons, takes its evidence behind closed doors and censors its reports before publishing them.

The dispute over the presentation of intelligence evidence is a serious one for Mr. Blair, who regularly appeals for public trust but whose government has continually been accused of spinning information in its favor. This past week, the two members of his cabinet who resigned over the war, Robin Cook and Clare Short, both suggested that the government misled the country about the reasons behind the war.

"These allegations are not going to go away," said Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the opposition Conservatives. "The truth is that nobody believes a word now that the prime minister is saying."

Mr. Duncan Smith, who had given the government's war policy his unquestioning backing, may have done Mr. Blair an unintended favor, however, by joining his critics. With the argument suddenly cast in partisan terms, Labor backbenchers gave the prime minister shouted support of a kind he has not had in many months from his own restive party members.

At issue is a BBC report, attributed to unnamed security officials, that Downing Street intervened in the preparation of a crucial intelligence dossier in September to highlight a claim that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes. The citation was put forward at a time when the government was working to persuade the then-dubious British public of the need for prompt action against Iraq.

Mr. Blair told the House today that the allegation of high-level interference was "completely and totally untrue," and John Reid, the leader of the Commons, added his own charge in newspaper and broadcast interviews this morning that "rogue elements" within British intelligence were behind the leak.

Mr. Blair said that the 45-minute mention had been approved by the official security study group "and them alone." He added, "I want to make it clear to the House that there was no attempt at any time, by any official or minister of member of the Number 10 staff to override the intelligence judgments of the joint intelligence committee." No. 10 Downing Street is the official residence of British leaders and is often used as a shorthand reference to prime ministers in the way the White House is for American presidents.

Mr. Blair said that those raising the allegations of intelligence manipulation had been opposed to any military action in Iraq from the start and were now looking for ways to discredit its success. "Iraq is now free, and we should be proud of that," he said.

Questioned repeatedly over why occupation forces had not yet turned up any of the feared weapons, Mr. Blair said they had instead devoted themselves to the more pressing needs of humanitarian aid and reconstructing Iraq.

He pleaded for patience and said that a newly expanded team of up to 1,400 inspectors from Britain, the United States and Australia was just now beginning its search. "I have absolutely no doubt at all that they will find the clearest possible evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, asked why doubters of the war effort should extend him patience now when he would not do the same for Hans Blix, the head of the United Nations inspectors, at the time he was asking for more time to uncover arms before any military action was launched.

In today's debate, backers of a motion calling for an independent judicial review cited the United States Senate's decision to conduct open and televised hearings on possible abuse of C.I.A. intelligence as a model that Britain should follow. The Liberal Democrat motion, though backed by the Tories, was defeated 301 to 203.