Hoon: We let public think 45 minutes related to WMD

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Indy Politics

Geoff Hoon admitted yesterday he knew the "45-minute" claim at the heart of the Government's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction related only to battlefield arms and not strategic missiles.

But he denied the Government's dossier was misleading and insisted the Ministry of Defence was under no obligation to correct reports suggesting Saddam may have had strategic chemical or biological weapons, despite banner headlines about Iraqi missiles and bombs.

The misapprehension was allowed to persist from last September, when the dossier was published, until the end of last month when John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, gave evidence to the Hutton inquiry.

Mr Hoon, under intense cross-examination at the Hutton inquiry, acknowledged he had agreed the plan to confirm the name of Dr David Kelly to journalists. But he denied there had been a Whitehall "conspiracy" to leak the scientist's name to the press to help to "defeat" claims by the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan that the Government "sexed up" the dossier on Iraq's arsenal.

The Defence Secretary agreed that the decision to issue a press release confirming that an official had come forward as Mr Gilligan's possible source would increase the media's "enthusiasm" to confirm his identify. He also acknowledged that Dr Kelly's televised appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee would have added to "pressure" on the scientist.

Mr Hoon conceded that "with hindsight" some decisions may have been different, but he insisted they would have had no material effect on the handling of Dr Kelly's case. He defended the decision to confirm Dr Kelly's name, insisting he still believed it was the right thing to do.

Mr Hoon said press reports on the extent of Iraq's arsenal after the dossier was published were "exaggerated". He was questioned closely by Andrew Caldecott QC, for the BBC, on the Government's failure to correct such reports.

Mr Caldecott said the Government failed to issue a correction because "it would have been politically highly embarrassing because it would have revealed the dossier as published was at least highly capable of being misleading".

Mr Hoon said: "I do not accept that." He said he had asked Ministry of Defence officials what weapons were referred to by the claim that Saddam could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order to do so.

He was told the claim related to shells and battlefield material. But, Mr Caldecott asked: "Are you aware that on 25 September a number of newspapers had banner headlines suggesting that this related to strategic missiles or bombs? Why was no corrective statement published in relation to these reports?"

"I do not know," Mr Hoon replied. He said he did not think a correction had been considered.

Mr Caldecott said: "But Mr Hoon, you must have been horrified that the dossier had been misrepresented in this way. It was a complete distortion of what it actually was intended to convey, was it not?"

The Defence Secretary said: "I was not horrified, I realise journalists write things that are more dramatic than the information on which it is based."

Mr Caldecott asked if Mr Hoon felt people were "entitled to be given a true picture of the intelligence, not a vastly inflated one". The Defence Secretary replied: "That's a question you would have to put to journalists and the editors responsible."

Mr Caldecott asked: "Do you accept that you have an absolute duty to correct it?" Mr Hoon answered: "No, I do not."

Mr Hoon repeatedly clashed with Jeremy Gompertz QC, counsel to the Kelly family, as he was pressed over the decision to confirm Dr Kelly's name. He denied there was a government strategy to release the government scientist's name to the press.

Mr Gompertz said: "I would suggest to you that there was a deliberate government strategy to leak Dr Kelly's name into the public arena without appearing to do so?"

Mr Hoon replied: "You have put this point to a number of witnesses. They have denied it and I deny it." He added: "I don't believe there is the slightest shred of evidence for that assertion."

The Defence Secretary said he saw and approved the Ministry of Defence press statement revealing that an official had come forward as the possible source of Mr Gilligan's story.

He said he also authorised plans to confirm Dr Kelly's name if journalists put it to the MoD press office. But he denied seeing the controversial "Q&A" guidance for journalists, which accompanied the press release.

He also said he had not known that the Prime Minister's official spokesman, Tom Kelly, had given further details about Dr Kelly's position at a briefing for political journalists on the afternoon of 9 July.

"Counsel is suggesting there was some sort of conspiracy right across Government for all these people to be involved in giving out small parts of information which he has concluded provided a picture," Mr Hoon said. "But there is just no evidence of that. Certainly, as far as I was concerned there was no such conspiracy."

Mr Hoon conceded that, "with the benefit of hindsight", some of the details released about Dr Kelly could have helped journalists to identify him. But he said that Dr Kelly had fully accepted that his name would become public at some stage, and Mr Hoon strongly defended the way the MoD had behaved.

He said the only choices other than confirming Dr Kelly's name were to lie or to offer no comment, which could have led to other people being wrongly identified. "There is a possibility that different people might have judged, with the benefit of hindsight, that decisions could have been taken slightly differently," he said. "I don't believe this would have had any material effect."

Ben Russell