Iraq's missing weapons of mass destruction are opening a dangerous "credibility gap" between the Government and the public, a former intelligence chief has warned.
The remarks by Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former head of the joint intelligence committee, suggest that even if Downing Street wins its row with the BBC, questions about the origins of the Iraq war will remain unanswered.
Dame Pauline, who is also a BBC governor, suggested as long as coalition forces fail to uncover chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, questions will be asked about why troops were sent to war. "If you tell people you are going to war because there is an imminent threat to national security, and then in the aftermath nothing is found, it opens up a credibility gap of a kind which is dangerous in a democracy," she said in an interview with BBC News 24.
"It is hard to sustain the thesis that Iraq was weaponised at operational readiness as we were led to believe."
Other comments by Dame Pauline will reinforce the belief No 10 is winning its dispute with the BBC over its coverage of the controversy. A report by the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee tomorrow is expected to say it has found no evidence to support the BBC's claim that Downing Street officials tampered with intelligence reports to mislead the public over the scale of the threat.
Committee members have been shown documents supporting evidence given in public by the Prime Minister's director of communications, Alastair Campbell, who vehemently insisted that government dossiers setting out the case against Saddam Hussein accurately reflected what the Government had been told by intelligence services.
He has demanded that the BBC apologises for a report by Andrew Gilligan, its defence correspondent, who claimed on the Today programme that senior intelligence officers were angry over the way their reports had been "sexed up" by Downing Street.
Greg Dyke, the BBC's director general, and senior executives will appear before an emergency meeting of BBC governors today to defend the broadcast, which has created one of the most serious disputes with any government in the corporation's history.
Dame Pauline is the only one of the governors with direct knowledge of the intelligence community. A career diplomat, she chaired the joint intelligence committee between 1993 and 1994.
The interview, broadcast on Friday evening, suggests that she thinks the problem was in the information given to No 10 by the intelligence services, rather than in how it was used when the dossiers were being compiled. She criticised the decision by the Government to give prominence to an uncorroborated intelligence report that Iraq had weapons that could be activated in 45 minutes. She said that this "blew out of proportion" the threat posed by Iraq's weaponry.
She said: "It was an important argument underlying the thesis that there was a threat so imminent that it was right to act on it. But the intelligence community is standing behind that. You come back to questions about the basis of their information rather than the Government's presentation. I don't think the Government was consciously abusing it."
BBC news executives plan to publish a history of the dispute. An executive said: "Alastair will come out with some version of events to say: 'I was right all along'. He will construct the most aggressive soundbite he can. We are not going to let him misrepresent our argument."
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