How a sensational claim exploded in the face of the Government

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The most astonishing thing about the 45-minute claim is that before it was withdrawn yesterday by the Government for being wrong, it had caused one death, at least one inquiry and the decapitation of the BBC.

The most astonishing thing about the 45-minute claim is that before it was withdrawn yesterday by the Government for being wrong, it had caused one death, at least one inquiry and the decapitation of the BBC.

The Government set out to prove in its September 2002 dossier that the weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein posed a risk to the British people, and to use that argument as a justification for war. So the dossier warned that extended-range Iraqi Scud missiles were capable of reaching "Cyprus, eastern Turkey, Tehran and Israel".

Add to the mix, the affirmation in the dossier's foreword by Tony Blair that Saddam's military planning "allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them" and the headlines in the tabloids wereguaranteed. On the day of the report's publication, 24 September 2002, the Evening Standard headline screamed: "45 minutes from attack".

Other newspapers and commentators picked up on the claim that Saddam's weapons could reach British military bases in Cyprus, as well as the alarming affirmation that Iraq had attempted to procure "significant quantities" of uranium from an African country. But otherwise, as the Butler report on the intelligence that led to the war points out, "when first published, it was regarded as cautious, and even dull".

At the time, the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, said he felt that the dossier was more an argument for arms inspections than for war.

But the 45-minute claim exploded again in the public domain after the war, when journalists began investigating the puzzling lack of real discoveries of weapons of mass destruction as US and British troops fanned out through the country they had invaded.

In May 2003, Andrew Gilligan, the BBC Today programme reporter, had a fateful conversation with Dr David Kelly, a former UN weapons inspector attached both to the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office as an expert. During the course of their conversation in a London hotel, the weapons expert mentioned the unease in the intelligence services about the 45-minute claim in the September dossier.

On 29 May, in a broadcast that went out at 6.07am, Mr Gilligan appeared to suggest that the Government had known that there was no basis to the claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes, but went ahead with it anyway. Even then, there was no furore. Until Mr Gilligan suggested in an article in The Mail on Sunday - still quoting his anonymous source - that the person responsible for inserting the 45-minute claim was Alastair Campbell. Dr Kelly had inadvertently walked into a minefield. The resulting storm led to an intensification of the war between the BBC and Downing Street over the reporting of Iraq, the death of Dr Kelly after he was "outed" as Mr Gilligan's source, and the Hutton inquiry.

During the investigation by Lord Hutton into Dr Kelly's suicide, the 45-minute claim resurfaced with the startling revelation from the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, that it had not applied to long-range missiles at all, as everybody had supposed. The conclusions of Lord Hutton, who reported in January, then led to the resignations of Mr Gilligan and his bosses at the BBC, including the director-general, Greg Dyke, and the chairman of the board, Gavyn Davies. Lord Hutton criticised the BBC's "unfounded" report and Mr Blair accepted an apology from the BBC. Mr Campbell had already resigned as Tony Blair's spokesman, saying there was no connection to the Hutton inquiry.

THEN AND NOW - WHAT THEY SAID

THE 45-MINUTE CLAIM

What they said then: The Government's September 2002 dossier highlighted in its introduction the claim that Saddam's military planning "allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them." The Evening Standard headline on that day was "45 minutes from attack".

What they say now: Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, revealed yesterday in parliament that the chief of the secret intelligence service had withdrawn the claim, which had been associated with claims the Government had "sexed up" its intelligence reports, following criticism of its validity by the Butler report.

BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS PRODUCTION

What they said then: In February 2003, Jack Straw said "it is clear that the regime continued to hold vast stocks of deadly weaponry." President George Bush in his State of the Union address in January 2003 spoke of "several mobile weapons laboratories" mobilised by Saddam Hussein.

What they say now: Mr Straw yesterday informed parliament a line of reporting that produced claims about Iraqi production of biological agent should be withdrawn. The Butler report had criticised the reporting of the liaison service as "seriously flawed." The same service produced the claim about mobile germ laboratories.

CONNECTION BETWEEN SADDAM AND AL QA'IDA

What they said then: British intelligence was always wary of the US claim of co-operation between Saddam Hussein and al Qa'ida. US Vice president Dick Cheney, highlighted a purported meeting between between the lead hijacker of the 11 September attacks and an Iraqi agent. Another link was highlighted by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in February 2003.

What they say now: Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, admitted last week that "to my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two." He subsequently backtracked, saying that his comments had been "misunderstood."

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