Cook attacks 'striking absence of evidence'

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Indy Politics

Robin Cook took apart the Government's justification for war in Iraq in just over an hour of testimony yesterday.

The former foreign secretary and leader of the Commons used the quiet forensic skills which made his name in opposition to pick away at the evidence used to argue that Saddam Hussein was a clear and immediate threat to his neighbours, and the international community.

Mr Cook used his knowledge of intelligence reports on Iraq from 1997 to 2001, and a face-to-face briefing from the chairman of the Government's joint intelligence committee, to insist that MI6 had not regarded Iraq's chemical or biological arsenal as a high risk to the world.

Mr Cook told members of the all-party Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that secret briefings he received immediately before the outbreak of war differed sharply from Downing Street's rhetoric.

He declared that the briefings reflected "word for word" the warning in his resignation speech that "Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term; namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target".

He also revealed that concerns about Saddam's arsenal had eased to the extent that Britain had considered "closing the files" on Iraq's nuclear and long-range missile programme in the late 1990s

In a devastating critique of the Government's culture of spinning, he accused ministers of carefully selecting intelligence information to back their case for war.

He said that the Government's first dossier on Iraq's weapons, which included the claim that weapons could be launched within 45 minutes, was "very thin".

He said: "I was taken aback at how thin the dossier was. There was a striking absence of any recent and alarming firm evidence. The great majority was derivative. The plain fact is that a lot of the intelligence in the dossier turned out to be wrong."

The second publication, now labelled the "dodgy dossier" after it emerged much had been culled from a PhD thesis, was condemned as "a glorious and spectacular own goal".

It was a quiet, understated performance, in sharp contrast with the highly charged testimony of Clare Short, the former secretary of state for international development. It came from a man who has become the respected leader of anti-war opinion on the back benches, amid increasing concern in Labour's ranks about the failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Unlike Ms Short, Mr Cook pointedly stepped back from attacking Mr Blair's goodwill in the run up to war.

Mr Cook likened raw intelligence to "alphabet soup". He said: "I fear on this occasion what happened was those bits of the alphabet which supported the case were selected.

"That's not deceit, not invention, but it was not presenting the whole picture. I that fear that the fundamental problem is, instead of using intelligence as evidence on which to base a conclusion for a policy, we used intelligence as a basis to justify a policy on which we had already settled."

There is endless talk in the Commons tea rooms about Mr Cook's motives. Some Labour MPs believe that he is still a potential leadership contender, something Mr Cook has strongly denied. But Labour insiders said there was a "vacancy" for a "stop Gordon Brown" leadership candidate to keep the Chancellor out of Downing Street after the resignation of Alan Milburn, the former Health Secretary, last week.

Some believe that Mr Cook would regard such a role as an irresistible challenge, given his feuds with Mr Brown, which go back more than 20 years. But others believe that Mr Cook has his sights on Brussels and a seat on the European Commission which will come up next year. He has retained his EU links by keeping his post as President of the Party of European Socialists.

THE CABINET AND 'HALF TRUTHS'

COOK'S ALLEGATIONS

* Ministers used selective intelligence information to justify their political decision to go to war.

* The Government's September dossier on Saddam's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction was "thin" and contained scant "recent and alarming firm evidence".

* M16 briefings indicated that Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programmes did not represent a high risk.

* The Government had considered "closing the files" on Saddam's nuclear and long-range missile programmes in the late 1990s.

* The Government's "dodgy dossier" published in February was "a glorious and spectacular own goal" and had not been discussed in Cabinet.

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