Campbell departs ahead of second Hutton inquisition

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Indy Politics

Alastair Campbell gave a bravura performance at the Hutton inquiry, a masterclass in dodging and weaving through tricky questions. The consensus as he left the witness box was that not a glove had been laid on him.

But the Prime Minister's director of communications and strategy must have known that when he returned for the inevitable cross-examination, in a few weeks' time, the going would be much tougher. Serious discrepancies would be highlighted between his evidence and confidential documents released by the inquiry as well as testimony that followed.

This left a strong possibility that Mr Campbell would be the subject of criticism in Lord Hutton's eventual report. And one theory is that by leaving now, he has attempted to avoid the opprobrium of departing as a guilty man.

Mr Campbell had assured the inquiry that he had "no input, output, no involvement" whatsoever in drawing up last September's Iraq weapons dossier. Similarly, he insisted that he played no part in disclosing the identity of Dr David Kelly, the source of the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan's report about the Government "sexing up" the dossier, to the media.

It took little time for Mr Campbell's defence to unravel. Official papers posted on the Hutton inquiry website showed that he had asked John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), in charge of compiling the dossier, for no less than 15 changes to the draft dossier a week before its publication on 24 September. This included one affecting the claim that Saddam Hussein could launch a chemical and biological attack within 45 minutes.

The Hutton documents show that Mr Campbell may have misled Parliament as well as the inquiry. After giving his testimony to the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee examining the Government's case for war, in June, Mr Campbell admitted asking Mr Scarlett for 11 changes. The letter, leaked to a national newspaper by a Labour MP on the committee, showed that Mr Campbell had not referred to the "45 minutes" threat. Lord Hutton, however, published the original letter Mr Campbell sent to the JIC chairman. It showed that he had, in fact, asked for changes to the supposed "45 minutes threat", and obtained his demand. The draft dossier had stated that Iraq "may be able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes". Mr Campbell complained in his letter that the word "may" was too weak. Mr Scarlett replied that "the language you queried ... had been tightened". The published dossier read: "The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of a decision to do so."

The Hutton documents also revealed that Mr Campbell had prevailed upon the JIC chairman to include a claim in the dossier that Saddam could have a nuclear arsenal within two years.

Mr Scarlett's draft dossier had said that on the eventuality of the United Nations sanctions being lifted Iraq would take five years to produce a weapon but that "this timescale would shorten if Iraq succeeded in obtaining fissile material from abroad".

On 18 September Mr Campbell wrote to Mr Scarlett in an e-mail that he had shown the draft dossier to a woman in his office who found the nuclear section "confusing and unconvincing". Her view was: "It left me thinking there is nothing much to worry about."

To heighten the sense of alarm for his female colleague and the public at large, Mr Campbell sent another e-mail to Mr Scarlett the following day, saying: "I think it would be simpler to have just one clearer section on nuclear lines perhaps on the following lines ...

" 'In these circumstances, the JIC assessed in early 2002 that they could produce nuclear weapons in between one and two years'."

A new draft of the dossier, produced on the same day, stated: "We therefore judge that if Iraq obtained fissile material and other essential components from foreign sources, the timeline for production of nuclear weapons would be shortened and Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon in between one and two years."

Mr Campbell's enthusiasm for exaggerating Iraq's nuclear threat could explain why Downing Street was keen to maintain the allegation that Saddam was trying to buy uranium from Niger, despite the claim being widely dismissed, even by the US administration.

Mr Campbell's claim that he had played no part in Downing Street's activities over the naming of Dr Kelly was disproved by Godric Smith, his own deputy, and the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon. During his evidence, pointing the finger of responsibility firmly at Downing Street, the Defence Secretary told the inquiry how Mr Campbell had told him that he wanted to leak Dr Kelly's name to a "friendly" newspaper. Mr Smith, one of the Prime Minister's official spokesmen, told Lord Hutton that he had overheard the conversation. He expressed his reservations to Tom Kelly, Mr Blair's other spokesman, and together they managed to dissuade Mr Campbell from his plan.