One year ago this month, the nation was treated to a publishing event, the political equivalent to the launch of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, with the difference that a book by JK Rowling is never meant to be anything but a fantasy for people with innocent minds, whereas Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction - The Assessment of the British Government, published on 24 September 2002, was intended to be a serious work with a serious purpose, and most readers began from the assumption that it was all true.
Its seriousness was underlined by the multi-million-pound operation behind it. Its compilation required months of meetings involving intelligence officers, civil servants, political advisers, ministers and, ultimately, Tony Blair. As the final draft was under way, MPs were recalled at 10 days' notice for a special sitting of Parliament.
On the day before publication, advance copies went out under strict security to British embassies across the world, where diplomats were encouraged to take the dossier and show it to their host governments - particularly if they were based in countries that had a seat on the United Nations Security Council. An officer from Special Branch hand-delivered an advance copy to the Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith.
On the day itself, as the Prime Minister's director of communications, Alastair Campbell, proudly told the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, months later: "The dossier attracted interest around the world. The 10 Downing Street, Foreign Office and BBC websites virtually collapsed on the day. It had a massive print run. It was a huge break with precedent. It was a very important document."
Indeed it was. When the dust settles on the Hutton inquiry, when the family of Dr David Kelly are free to grieve in private, when Mr Campbell has left Downing Street, and the career prospects of Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon and BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan have been clarified, that September dossier will still lurk as a political question.
The timing created chaos for the Liberal Democrats because it coincided with their annual conference and threatened to cost them hundreds of thousands of pounds in cancelled receptions and lost corporate sponsorship. But their leader, Charles Kennedy, was not forgotten in the pre-publication push. After he had arrived in Brighton, a telephone call from Whitehall informed him that he was entitled to his courtesy copy, 24 hours ahead of publication.
"I said: 'That's all right, we'll get somebody to pick it up', and they said: 'Oh no, we cannot do that' - and it was sent down to my hotel room to be received by me, and me alone, in person, from a Special Branch officer," Mr Kennedy told The Independent on Sunday. "That was all part of the infrastructure that was being constructed about this dossier. There was the most monumental push in the following 24 hours - leaks, stories in the newspapers, programmes commissioned, etc, etc, acres and acres of newsprint, saying that this was the definitive thing."
But after all that build-up, Mr Kennedy was one of many readers somewhat disappointed with the result. Most of the dossier repeated what was already known to anyone who had been following the Iraq crisis closely. The promise of startling new revelations drawn from the secret files of British intelligence did not seem to have produced anything much, except a repetition of a much disputed claim that Iraq was seeking to construct a nuclear bomb, and a startling sentence in the executive summary at the front. It read: "Iraq has military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons ... Some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them."
That was the headline-grabber, the stark image that stuck in the mind - that fearful weapons could be unleashed suddenly, without warning, on any of Iraq's neighbours. It was spotted almost immediately by an expert in the Irish Republic's Department of Foreign Affairs, when a British diplomat arrived in Iveagh House with a copy of the dossier, hoping it would secure Ireland's vital vote on the UN Security Council. Their specialist instantly dismissed it as utterly unbelievable, for technical and political reasons.
Politically, it was unthinkable that Saddam would allow the Iraqi army, which he deeply mistrusted, to hold weapons that they could use for a sudden strike against a presidential palace, he said. And technically, it defied belief that they could store these materials permanently in battle-ready conditions out in the heat of the Iraqi desert.
We now know that a number of intelligence officers - not least Dr David Kelly - queried this entry in the dossier. Not long afterwards, the Government quietly dropped this disputed claim. As Mr Blair himself pointed out in his evidence to the Hutton inquiry, it did form part of the eventual case for going to war the following March.
But that does not negate the damning verdict of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, which said in its report issued last week: "The dossier was for public consumption and not for experienced readers of intelligence material. The 45 minutes claim was always likely to attract attention, because it was arresting detail that the public had not seen before.
"The fact that it was assessed to refer to battlefield chemical and biological munitions and their movement on the battlefield, not to any other form of chemical or biological attack, should have been highlighted in the dossier. The omission ... was unhelpful to an understanding of this issue."
If the UK was not under threat from Iraq's elusive weapons of mass destruction, why take part in an attack on that country, in defiance of the wishes of the United Nations and of several allied Nato governments?
No one really knows the answer, apart from Tony Blair and a few of his very close advisers. One of the more remarkable revelations emerging from the Hutton inquiry is how little the Cabinet is involved in any real decision-making. The Cabinet was not, for instance, told that the intelligence services had warned that military action would increase the threat of terrorist attacks, although it was shown individually to seven Cabinet ministers, one-third of the total. The decision to go to war was Tony Blair's, and his alone.
Trying to extract an explanation for the war from Mr Blair's own pronouncements is like aiming at a moving target, because the reasons he gives change with the changing political circumstances.
In his foreword to the September dossier, Mr Blair warned that "in recent months", the evidence that Iraq possessed illegal weapons "has become more not less worrying" and that "the threat is serious and current". At that time, it was not being suggested that the UK itself was under threat. The first draft of Mr Blair's foreword to the dossier specified that Saddam could not make a nuclear attack on the UK, a sentence removed from the published version.
On 18 March - that critical day when MPs voted to endorse Mr Blair's decision to go to war - the Prime Minister warned of a growing threat from the link between terrorist groups and rogue states such as Iraq. "Those two threats have, of course, different motives and different origins, but they share one basic common view: they detest the freedom, democracy and tolerance that are the hallmarks of our way of life. At the moment, I accept fully that the association between the two is loose - but it is hardening. The possibility of the two coming together - of terrorist groups in possession of weapons of mass destruction or even of a so-called dirty radiological bomb - is now, in my judgement, a real and present danger to Britain and its national security." The inventory he listed was long and frightening - 10,000 litres of anthrax, a "far-reaching" VX nerve gas programme, 6,500 chemical munitions, "at least" 80 tons of mustard gas, sarin, botulinum toxin, "and a host of other biological poisons".
Six months after the overthrow of Saddam, none of this stuff has turned up, and the US administration appears to have abandoned any pretence that it ever will. However, for weeks after the occupation of Baghdad, Mr Blair clung to the belief that it was hidden away somewhere. In June, he was emphasising that the Iraq Survey Force had only just begun its thorough search, and must be given time.
Then, as time passed, he amended his forecast, saying that the inspectors were sure to find evidence of "weapons programmes" rather than battle-ready weapons. This month, he refined that still further, saying at his first press conference after the summer break: "I have no doubt at all - I have been in this position all the way through - that they will find evidence that those programmes were continuing well after Iraq was saying that they had been discontinued and shut down."
That the Iraq government lied to UN weapons inspectors has been well known since the 1990s. The most striking evidence was provided in 1996, when Saddam's sons-in-law defected to Jordan and exposed his duplicity. But no proof has yet turned up that Baghdad was still lying when the US and UK decided to go to war. The chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, among others, now thinks they may have been telling the truth.
Last week, Mr Blair told the Commons: "The notion that the issue of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction was invented by British or American intelligence is absurd." The previous week, he seemed to imply that the justification for the war had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, when he told journalists: "If we succeed in putting Iraq on its feet as a stable, prosperous and democratic country, then what a huge advertisement that is for the values of democracy."
So, if the weapons never turn up, Mr Blair is not going to concede that he was wrong. His Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, may have to resign over the death of David Kelly. Alastair Campbell is already going. Other public servants may come in for criticism, but if the claims made about Iraq's weaponry turn out to be a gigantic mistake, Mr Blair believes nonetheless that the war was fought in a just cause and that "history will forgive us".
Last week, the TUC condemned the decision to go to war without UN backing, and called for British troops to be pulled out. The Labour Party conference is likely to do the same at the end of the month. Tomorrow, Lord Hutton resumes his inquiry, which is likely to throw up more information casting doubt on the wisdom of the war.
History may forgive Tony Blair, but his more immediate problem is will his party forgive him. And will the British public?Reuse content