As Lord Hutton prepares to wrap up his investigation into the suicide of arms expert David Kelly, it seems that British Prime Minister Tony Blair will escape legal charges that his government had falsified and exaggerated pre-war intelligence information on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Yet, Blair is hardly in the clear: the investigation’s revelations about the Blair government’s handling of intelligence and its treatment of Kelly have significantly damaged the Labor leader’s political standing.
The Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) concluded in a Sept. 11 report that, during the preparation of a September 2002 dossier documenting British intelligence analysis of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs and capabilities, the Blair government had not applied political pressure on the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which was in charge of drafting the dossier. Referring to a May 29 report by BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan that alleged such pressure and first sparked the controversy, the ISC said, “The dossier was not ‘sexed up’ by Alastair Cambell or anyone else.”
Testifying before the committee, Blair said he took the nation to war because he was concerned that an Iraqi WMD capability would develop “into a nexus between terrorism and WMD.” He noted that “time will tell whether it’s true or not true.”
The committee also criticized some of the claims within the dossier for their lack of clarity and context. In particular, the committee said the dossier should have emphasized that, although it could determine if Iraq had developed biological and chemical capabilities, it did not have firm intelligence of exactly what had been produced and in what quantities. The committee also said that the Blair government had not placed in its proper context a claim that Iraq was prepared to use biological or chemical weapons on 45 minutes’ notice. The panel said that this charge had originally referred merely to battlefield munitions and not any larger strategic capabilities.
The 45-minute claim has been at the center of the intelligence controversy. In his May BBC report, Gilligan had cited an unnamed senior intelligence official “in charge of drawing up that dossier,” later acknowledged to be Kelly. Gilligan said the official asserted that the claim had been added over the criticisms of the intelligence community at the insistence of Downing Street. In June, Gilligan wrote in the Sunday Mail that, according to his source, Blair communications director Alastair Cambell had given the order.
Government officials have continued to deny that there was any government pressure over that or any other claim made in the dossier. (See ACT, September 2003.)
In his second appearance before the Hutton Inquiry, Campbell again said that he had only been involved with the creation of the dossiers in a “presentational” role and that he had not had any say in the substance of the report.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6 Secret Intelligence Service, made a rare public appearance to testify before the inquiry that he had personally followed the creation of the dossier throughout its creation and that he was satisfied with the process. Dearlove said that he had considered the 45-minute claim to be “well-sourced.” He was “bemused” by the accusation that good intelligence could not come from a single source, saying that many reports produced by MI6 are single-source yet are still considered to be reliable. Dearlove did say, however, that “in hindsight” it should have been made clearer that the claim referred to short-range battlefield weapons.
To be sure, John Scarlett, the head of the JIC, admitted that he had revised the dossier after receiving an e-mail from Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell, removing a reference stating that Saddam would only use biological or chemical weapons when “under threat.” Powell’s e-mail asked Scarlett to redraft the statement, because it would have supported arguments that Hussein would only be a threat if attacked.
But in his testimony, Scarlett argued that the e-mail only made him re-examine the statement and that removing the explicit phrase was justified given recent intelligence that placed Iraqi WMD and its importance in the context of Hussein’s “perception of his regional position, his plans to acquire and maintain regional influence and, as one report, and maybe more, put it: dominate his neighbors.” Given this interpretation, he said that removing the phrase permitted him to act within his instruction from the JIC to keep the dossier in line with the most recent intelligence.
Kelly was found dead July 18 after becoming caught up in a conflict between the Blair government and the BBC over Gilligan’s accusations. The government has faced strong criticism over the way Kelly’s name was revealed to the public. Representatives of the Kelly family have accused the government of using Kelly as “a pawn in their political battle with the BBC.”
Blair has seen his popularity plummet as a result of the crisis and late September polls in the Guardian show that 61 percent of British voters are unhappy with the job he is doing as prime minister and that only 38 percent now believe the war in Iraq was justified.
Facing even greater political trouble is Secretary of Defense Geoff Hoon. Hoon already faced substantial public criticism for his role in revealing Kelly’s identity as Gilligan’s source. But the ISC report also disclosed that Hoon had failed to disclose that two aides had submitted written concerns about the dossier to him prior to its publication. The ISC characterized this failure as “unhelpful and potentially misleading,” leading Conservative leader Ian Duncan Smith to call for Hoon’s resignation. Hoon said that he regretted any “misunderstanding,” but a September 5 poll in the Sunday mail showed that 62 percent of the British public backed Smith’s call for Hoon’s resignation.
The Hutton Inquiry and the ISC are two of the three committees that have investigated the British governments handling of Iraqi intelligence. The Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee also concluded in July that Blair and his advisers did not interfere in the creation of dossiers.