While the Bush administration faces criticism about its handling of intelligence on Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government has endured a summer of political crisis over the issue. The debate has centered around a dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities the British government released in September 2002. Out of a storm of accusations that has tarnished the reputations of Blair’s government and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), two facts have emerged: there were disagreements over the dossier among intelligence officials, and key Blair aides were involved in reviewing the final drafts of the dossier. The depth of the aides’ involvement and the dissension among intelligence officials, however, remains murky.
The eye of the storm has recently moved before a judge. The Hutton Inquiry, which follows an investigation by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, has heard public testimony into the formation of the dossier by top officials, including Blair.
The Blair government continues to deny that it ever misled parliament or the public in the months before the Iraq war. In August 28 testimony before the Hutton Inquiry, Blair vehemently denied that the government inserted information into the September dossier against the wishes of the intelligence services. If that allegation were true, “it would have merited my resignation,” he said.
Several media reports in May and June helped spark the crisis by suggesting that Blair and his key aides interfered in the process of compiling intelligence on Iraq. In particular, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan reported May 29 on the radio show “Today” that “one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that [September 2002] dossier” on Iraq’s weapons programs said the government had ordered that the dossier on Iraq “be sexed up, to be made more exciting and ordered more facts to be...discovered.” The source, according to Gilligan, specifically pointed to the inclusion in the dossier and its executive summary of a statement saying that Iraq’s military planning allowed for some weapons of mass destruction “to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.” The source also allegedly accused Alastair Campbell, Blair’s close communications and strategy chief, of inserting the claim.
Gilligan refused to reveal his source, but on June 30, David Kelly, a top expert on biological and chemical weapons and an adviser for the Ministry of Defense, told his manager at the ministry that he had met with Gilligan May 22. The Ministry of Defense informed the Commons committee, and Kelly’s name was subsequently leaked to the press. Kelly gave public testimony before the Foreign Affairs Committee July 15 and testified in private to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which has also been investigating the use of intelligence on Iraq.
In his public testimony, Kelly said he did not think he was Gilligan’s main source. Kelly said he did not believe Campbell had transformed the September dossier, stated that he felt the September dossier was true and not embellished, and denied that he was aware whether the 45-minute claim was added to the dossier at the last minute.
From his conversation with Gilligan, Kelly said, “I do not see how he could make the authoritative statement he was making from the comments that I made.” He refused to deny categorically that he was the source, however, saying, “I do realize that in the conversation that I had there was reinforcement of some of the ideas he has put forward.”
The day after his private testimony, Kelly left his home and did not return. On July 18, police found Kelly dead of apparent suicide. On July 20, the BBC stated that Kelly was Gilligan’s main source.
Kelly’s death and the BBC’s identification of him as the main source ignited a firestorm of criticism against both the BBC and Blair. The prime minister appointed Lord Hutton to investigate the circumstances surrounding Kelly’s death. The inquiry, which began August 1, has gone far beyond the simple question of Kelly’s death to examine how the September dossier was drafted and published.
The inquiry has revealed that some intelligence officials were unhappy with aspects of the September dossier. In particular, concerns have arisen that the final language did not reflect the qualifications common in an intelligence document.
In a taped interview between Kelly and BBC reporter Susan Watts on May 30, 2003, Kelly indicated there was an argument between the intelligence services and Blair’s government. He said intelligence officials were possibly concerned about some of the facts that were in the dossier or at least were unhappy with the way the information was expressed.
Kelly, however, also said he did not think the Blair government was “being willfully dishonest” but was simply trying to phrase things so the public would understand. John Scarlett, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was charged with assembling the dossier, testified at the inquiry that he was responsible for the dossier and that it accurately reflected the intelligence.
Testimony before Lord Hutton has revealed that Campbell and other top aides were very involved in reviewing the final drafts of the dossier. E-mails sent between Blair aides show they were discussing phrasing in the dossier. Campbell denies inserting the claim that the Iraqi military could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so. The Wall Street Journal, however, reported August 24 that an earlier draft had said “[t]he Iraqi military may be able to deploy...” such weapons within 45 minutes and Campbell recommended that the phrase “may be” should read “are.”
Foreign Affairs Committee Findings
In events leading up to Kelly’s death, the Foreign Affairs Committee report released July 7 found the government innocent of a number of accusations regarding misuse of intelligence but was highly critical of two intelligence dossiers on Iraq that the government used as evidence in its bid to win over public opinion.
The report concluded that Campbell was not responsible for including the 45-minutes claim in the September dossier. The committee also exonerated Campbell of exerting any undue pressure on those drafting the dossier, although it did criticize him for chairing a meeting on an intelligence matter. Campbell announced his resignation August 29, saying he had planned to resign since April 7.
In the case of the September dossier, “allegations of politically inspired meddling cannot credibly be established,” the report says. But the committee also complains that British ministers refused committee members access to intelligence papers and personnel, saying that without such access, “we cannot know if it was in any respect faulty or misrepresented.”
The committee report expresses basic confidence that the Joint Intelligence Committee acted responsibly with the intelligence, but it also expresses concern that certain points were overemphasized, such as the 45-minute claim. In addition, the committee indicated that the United Kingdom probably relied too much on U.S. intelligence and on Iraqi exiles.
Beyond the September dossier, serious doubts have been raised about a February dossier focused on Iraqi attempts to deceive the international community. British officials have since admitted that the February dossier used material from a journal article published by an American scholar. The committee harangued the government for plagiarizing the work and called the February dossier “almost wholly counter-productive,” adding that “the February dossier was badly handled and was misrepresented as to its provenance.”
The committee stated that Blair did not intentionally mislead parliament when he referred to the February dossier as “further intelligence,” because he did not necessarily know that the key sections in the report did not come from intelligence sources. The committee also concluded, however, that Blair “inadvertently” misrepresented its status.