Claims of political meddling 'are not sustainable'

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Ministers were told yesterday to explain why they gave undue prominence to the claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy chemical or biological weapons "within 45 minutes" when they published their assessment of Iraq's arsenal in September last year.

The long-awaited report of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee also warned that the language used in the September dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was "more assertive than that traditionally used in intelligence documents".

But in a knife-edge decision settled by Donald Anderson, the committee's Labour chairman, Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's director of communications and strategy, was cleared of deliberately "sexing up" the dossier. He "did not exert or seek to exert improper influence" on the drafting of the document, the committee concluded.

The committee's 103-page report said the September dossier was "well-founded" on the basis of the available intelligence, and allegations of "political meddling" could not be sustained. MPs called for an investigation into the source of a claim by the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan that the Government tried to "sex up" the dossier. But they said continuing disquiet about the claims were unlikely to settled without further evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programmes.

They sharply criticised ministers for failing to provide the full intelligence drafts on which the dossier was based, and said it was "wrong" for Mr Campbell to chair a meeting to draft an intelligence-led document.

MPs condemned as a "disaster" the second dossier in February on Saddam's efforts to conceal his weaponry, which has been labelled the "dodgy dossier" because 90 per cent of its contents were lifted from academic publications on the internet. The committee came within a whisker of accusing Tony Blair of misleading Parliament by presenting the report as "further intelligence" in the House of Commons.

They said: "The Prime Minister, who had not been informed about its provenance, doubts about which only came to light several days later, misrepresented its status and thus inadvertently made a bad situation worse."

MPs were also highly critical of the Government's claim that Iraq tried to get uranium from Niger, which was later rejected by the International Atomic Energy Authority as based on forged documents.

THE 45-MINUTE CLAIM

The claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction capable of deployment within 45 minutes was one of the most striking ­ and controversial - allegations in the Government's September dossier.

Questions about the veracity and reliability of the claim came to dominate the select committee's inquiry. Its report points to the carefully crafted nature of the allegation, that "some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them".

Later evidence from the Foreign Office confirmed that intelligence suggested that biological or chemical weapons "could be delivered to units within 45 minutes of an order".

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, told MPs that the claim was scarcely mentioned in Commons debates, select committee hearings or on radio and television. But, the report says: "This answer begs the question why the 45-minute claim was highlighted by the Prime Minister when he presented the dossier to the House, and why it was given such prominence in the dossier itself, being mentioned no fewer than four times."

It added: "We note with disappointment that we were unable to find out why John Scarlett [the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee] chose to give the 45-minute claim such prominence as we have been prevented from questioning him".

ANDREW GILLIGAN AND THE BBC'S ALLEGATIONS

The single casting vote of the committee chairman Mr Anderson settled the politically crucial question of whether Alastair Campbell sought to "sex up" the Government's September dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

MPs were also split over the decision explicitly to clear Mr Campbell of Andrew Gilligan's main charge; that he gave the 45-minute claim more prominence in the dossier. By six to four the committee found he "did not play any role" in the inclusion of the claim. But they said it was wrong for him to chair a planning meeting on 9 September on the dossier, a meeting that would normally be chaired by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).

MPs gave great weight to the decision of the chairman of the JIC and the chiefs of the intelligence agencies to back Mr Campbell. They said: "If Mr Campbell is not correct in this statement, he and those who have made similar statements, from the Prime Minister through the Foreign Secretary to the chairman of the JIC are in contempt of Parliament. We cannot believe this is so."

DID THE SEPTEMBER DOSSIER EXAGGERATE THE THREAT FROM SADDAM?

The report highlighted extreme difficulties in obtaining reliable and up-to-date intelligence information about Iraq. It quoted the International Institute for Strategic Studies' assessment that the record of Western agencies gathering intelligence on the country's weaponry was "very poor".

The report said: "It appears likely there was only limited access to reliable human intelligence in Iraq, and as a consequence the UK may have been heavily reliant on US technical intelligence, on defectors and on exiles with an agenda of their own."

The MPs were critical of the difference in style and emphasis between the executive summary in the September dossier and the more reserved and cautious style in the main body of the text. "In significant respects, the executive summary is stronger than the main texts," they said. The report also highlighted the concerns of the former foreign secretary Robin Cook, who said a "lot of the intelligence" in the dossier had proved to be wrong.

The MPs warned: "We conclude that continuing disquiet and unease about the claims made in the September dossier are unlikely to be dispelled unless more evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programmes comes to light."

They want ministers to make clear whether they still believe the dossier to be accurate.

THE NIGER CONNECTION

The Government faces a sharp rebuke from MPs over its repeated claims that Saddam tried to get uranium from the African state of Niger to restart his nuclear weapons programme. The claim was dismissed by the International Atomic Energy Authority, which said it was based on forged documents.

But the Foreign Office told MPs Britain did not see or possess the documents before the dossier's publication and insisted they were not supplied by Britain. They say the claim "drew on intelligence reporting from more than one source".

The MPs declared themselves "puzzled by this". The report said: "If the United Kingdom did not supply the documents ... on what did it base the claim in the dossier?"

Their report demanded to know when the Foreign Office was told by the US government that the documents about Niger were forged and expressed concern that on 4 June Tony Blair told MPs he had to investigate if the intelligence was correct. The MPs said it was "very odd indeed" that the Government "asserts that it was not relying on the evidence which has since been shown to have been forged, but that eight months later it is still reviewing the other evidence".

THE "DODGY DOSSIER"

Alastair Campbell faces the heaviest criticism for his role in conceiving and overseeing the infamous "dodgy dossier", largely lifted from academic material culled from the internet. The MPs accused him of failing to ask two basic and crucial questions about the origins of the information, and lambasted ministers for giving the director of communications too much autonomy. They said Mr Campbell had "failed to ask whether the material in the document was predominantly intelligence material or not", prompting Mr Blair to imply in the House of Commons that the document was based on intelligence material.

Second, the report said, he had failed to ask "what were the non-intelligence sources being used and why were they not attributed". It said: "Failure to ask this caused the plagiarisation error not to be picked up before the document was published, with serious consequences for the presentation of the Government's case on Iraq."

The MPs cleared Mr Campbell of intentionally trying to mislead Parliament, but warned that insufficient attention was paid to the detail of a "pivotal" document. The MPs stopped just short of accusing Mr Blair of misleading Parliament, but are withering in their criticism of the way the document was produced. They said: "By referring to the document on the floor of the House as 'further intelligence', the Prime Minister ... misrepresented its status and thus inadvertently made a made situation worse.

"We conclude it was wholly unacceptable for the Government to plagiarise work without attribution and to amend it without either highlighting the amendment or gaining the assent of the original author ... It was fundamentally wrong to allow such a document to be presented to Parliament and made widely available without ministerial oversight."

MACHINERY OF GOVERNMENT

The MPs expressed concern about decision-making at the heart of Government after Clare Short, the former international development secretary said a small, unelected coterie around Tony Blair made crucial decisions before the war. They expressed "surprise" that the Cabinet's defence and overseas policy committee had not met since June 2001.

They warned: "The extent to which the Cabinet and its committees are or are not fully engaged in determining policy and exercising control over officials goes wider than foreign policy, and thus wider than this committee's responsibilities. But we have heard enough to be concerned."

The committee members' conclusions

RICHARD OTTAWAY (Conservative MP for Croydon South)

"I have reached the conclusion that the Government did exaggerate the case for war in the run-up to the critical vote in Parliament."

ANDREW MACKINLAY (Labour MP for Thurrock)

"It is breathtaking to find that the (February dossier) could be produced in the way it was with the Prime Minister misled and there was never an attempt to remedy the situation."

JOHN MAPLES (Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon)

[On Alastair Campbell chairing the committee which produced the dossier] "There is a real problem here. As a result, you get rotten decisions and rotten actions."

DONALD ANDERSON (committee chairman and Labour MP for Swansea East)

"The PM made a statement to the House which inadvertently and mistakenly suggested that the document was based largely on intelligence, when perhaps about 10 per cent of it was, the rest being borrowed from plagiarised published sources."

GISELA STUART (Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston)

"We have been given no evidence whatsoever that indicates either No 10 or Alastair Campbell acted improperly."

SIR JOHN STANLEY (Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling)

On the intelligence assessment: "It cannot be said today that that assessment is incorrect, nor can it be said to be correct."

BILL OLNER (Labour MP for Nuneaton)

"It all comes down to what is the truth in what Alastair Campbell said what Andrew Gilligan said. I certainly did not see any of Mr Gilligan's sources being ratified."

Comments