For a moment Robin Cook was uncharacteristically tongue-tied when he rose to speak in the House of Commons last week. The former foreign secretary could not quite believe that he had just heard Tony Blair correctly.
During Wednesday's debate on Lord Hutton's report into the death of Dr David Kelly, the Conservative MP Richard Ottaway had a question for the Prime Minister. Did he know on 18 March last year, when Parliament voted to go to war, that the chemical and biological weapons that Iraq allegedly had ready for use in 45 minutes were battlefield munitions, not longer-range weapons of mass destruction?
Mr Blair replied flatly: "No. I have already indicated exactly when this came to my attention. It was not before the debate on 18 March." When he got his breath back, Mr Cook said he had known then that Iraq had no WMD in the true sense: he had said as much in his resignation speech. "I find it difficult," Mr Cook went on, "to reconcile what I knew, and what I'm sure the Prime Minister knew, with what he said."
If that was calling Tony Blair a liar in parliamentary language, Mr Cook also had the evidence of his published diary, The Point of Departure, which records a conversation with the Prime Minister about battlefield weapons on 5 March. The Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, said in the debate that he knew the true position before 18 March, which led to questions about why he had failed to tell Mr Blair.
By Thursday last week the Tory leader, Michael Howard, was demanding the Prime Minister's resignation. Once again an apparent opportunity for Mr Blair to set aside nagging questions about the case for war in Iraq, and with it the doubts about his credibility and trustworthiness, had gone awry.
A week earlier Lord Hutton had resoundingly supported Downing Street in its row with the BBC over the September 2002 WMD dossier, only for his report to be seen as so one-sided that it hurt the Government.
The Commons debate on the report seemed to pose few risks, only for Mr Ottaway's trap to leave the Prime Minister seeming either untruthful, or worse, incompetent.
How has Tony Blair got himself into a position where 54 per cent of those sampled in a poll in yesterday's Independent believe he is a liar? The answer is that after 11 September 2001 he put his fate in the hands of an administration in Washington which was determined to go to war in Iraq and which now seems heedless of the collateral damage to him as it distances itself from many of its past assertions.
On 24 February 2001 the newly installed US Secretary of State Colin Powell, held a joint press conference at the Ittihadiya Palace in Cairo with Egypt's foreign minister, Amre Moussa. Mr Powell declared in the clearest terms that he was certain the near decade of international sanctions imposed in Iraq had been effective in restraining Saddam.
"Frankly, [sanctions] have worked," he said. "[Saddam] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbours."
Just under two years later, this time in the no less impressive setting of the UN Security Council in New York, Mr Powell returned to the topic of Iraq. This time, aided with photographs taken by satellite, audio clips and testimony from supposedly high-level sources, he had a different story to tell.
Iraq was now accused of deliberately refusing UN demands to disarm. "Indeed," said American's most senior diplomat, "the facts and Iraq's behaviour show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction." He concluded: "Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11th world ... We must not shrink from whatever is ahead of us."
As David Kay, the man leading America's search for WMD has now admitted upon resigning, Mr Powell was correct when he spoke in 2001 and woefully wrong two years later. Every major assertion he made that day has been proved to be wrong.
Why? Was the intelligence wrong, or, rather, was it deliberately ignored?
George Tenet, director of the CIA, defended his agency last week, saying: "Let me be clear: analysts differed on several important aspects of these [WMD] programmes and those debates were spelled out ... in [a classified report to the White House]. They never said there was an imminent threat. Rather, they painted an objective assessment for our policy-makers of a brutal dictator who was continuing his efforts to deceive and build programmes that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests."
As the Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, has admitted, talk of ousting Saddam started just days after the attacks of 11 September, even though officials accepted there was no evidence that Saddam was involved. Just when Tony Blair signed up for "regime change" in Iraq - whether it was in the first weeks of 2003 when the "UN route" failed, or much earlier, in 2002 - remains obscure. But a clear picture has emerged in which the Bush administration, in tandem with its friends in London, aggressively pursued pieces of intelligence to support its claim that Saddam possessed WMD - and was therefore in breach of UN resolutions.
Those analyses that did not support that view - notably the CIA's National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002, which included 40 caveats about claims regarding Iraq's WMD - were simply ignored. The White House preferred the British dossier, produced the month before: in his State of the Union address in January last year, George Bush approvingly quoted Britain's claim that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa to develop nuclear weapons, ignoring warnings from his own intelligence agencies that it was false.
American appreciation for British efforts in the information war went back to Afghanistan, when Downing Street produced an eloquent dossier detailing the crimes of the Taliban regime and its support for al-Qa'ida.
In his Security Council speech Mr Powell commended another British document, produced a few days earlier, on Iraq's tactics of intimidation and deception, before it became known as the "dodgy dossier". Large chunks had been plagiarised from an old student thesis.
"I call it faith-based intelligence gathering," said Greg Thielmann, a former analyst with the State Department's Intelligence Bureau. Some analysts have claimed they were pressured into skewing the information to provide the sought-after "product", but Mr Thielmann, now retired, believes no arm-twisting was required: analysts and their managers were well aware what was needed, and a form of self-censorship took place.
"Analysts want to maintain relationships," he said. "Tenet spoke to the President six days a week [for his daily intelligence briefing]. If he went and said, 'Mr President, you have misrepresented what my analysts said,' how long would he keep going to the White House?"
But the senior officials in the Bush administration, their attention caught by the neo-conservative voices calling for the ousting of Saddam Hussein, to stabilise the Middle East and secure one of the biggest untapped oil supplies in the world, did not simply rely on the established analysts to provide them with information. They established their own units to analyse and gather information and report directly to them without the usual process of filters - "stovepiping" information straight to the White House.
Dick Cheney, US Vice-President, who is still unrepentantly making lurid claims about Iraq, had his own team of cherry-pickers. The Pentagon had the Office for Special Plans (OSP), which sponsored the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a group of Iraqi exiles headed by Ahmed Chalabi, currently the chair of the Iraqi Governing Council.
The exiles provided defectors and witnesses who told the OSP exactly what it wanted to hear: that Saddam was producing WMD, that he was ready to use them and that the people of Iraq would greet American troops with flowers should Washington decided to oust Saddam.
With few exceptions, all of the information provided by the INC defectors was incorrect. A report issued last year by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) said defectors invented or exaggerated their claims to have personal knowledge of the regime and its alleged weapons of mass destruction. The US paid more than $1m for such information. And while Britain fed dubious items of intelligence to the US, experts on this side of the Atlantic believe at least some of the equally unreliable INC material made its way here. With its intelligence headquarters in London, the INC had direct contacts with British officials.
Each side steered clear of certain allegations made by its partner, however. After one mention by Mr Bush on the day the British dossier was published, the Americans never picked up on the notorious 45-minute claim. Britain, meanwhile, was silent on attempts in the US to link Saddam Hussein with al-Qa'ida, though that did not prevent vaguer warnings about the danger of Iraqi WMD falling into the hands of terrorists.
Robert David Steele, a former CIA operative, said: "Yes, I think there was an intelligence failure, but I don't think there can be an intelligence failure without a preceding policy failure. In the absence of adequate intelligence we allowed political mendacity to fill a vacuum."
Such suspicions, which have dogged the Prime Minister for months, are now eroding support for George Bush in an election year, and he is not likely to have much room for concern about his ally as he looks for an escape route.
The Independent on Sunday reported exclusively last week that Mr Blair's allies feared he was about to be hung out to dry by the White House. The newspaper had barely reached the shops before this prediction came true. President Bush announced an inquiry into whether the intelligence services got it wrong, something Mr Blair had resisted for months.
The Prime Minister hoped that Lord Hutton's hearings into the narrower question of why Dr David Kelly killed himself would satisfy the British public's appetite for inquiries. Lord Falconer, Mr Blair's oldest ally in the Cabinet, said on Sunday that "little would be achieved" by any other inquiry.
Hours later, Mr Blair found his reverse gear. When Washington announced it would hold an inquiry, Downing Street conceded that Britain must have one too. On Monday evening, the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, had a telephone call from the Prime Minister asking if he would agree to let the Conservatives be represented on the inquiry team.
Mr Howard insisted that the inquiry must look not just at the intelligence gathered, but the use that the Government made of it. Mr Blair agreed to that in principle, but was not willing to yield to the Liberal Democrat demand for an inquiry which would judge whether the Government was right to go to war.
While the Tories signed up to Lord Butler's inquiry, the Lib Dems have decided to stay out. It may prove a wise choice for Charles Kennedy: confidence in the inquiry, which will meet behind closed doors, was hardly reinforced by the rush last week to elevate all its members to the Privy Council, on the grounds that a PC after your name means you can be trusted with a secret in a way that other people cannot. Ann Taylor, the former Chief Whip, was the only existing PC, so the other four members - Lord Butler of Brockwell, Michael Mates MP, Sir John Chilcot and Field Marshal Lord Inge - all had to be raised to the same level.
As one fellow Privy Counsellor remarked: "The dear old Queen has been kissing hands all week."
The Butler inquiry is due to report this summer, but Mr Blair may well have more to fear from the parallel exercise being conducted in Washington, which has been given a deadline to report next March - after the November presidential poll, but uncomfortably close to the putative date of a British general election. No one in the US will have anything to lose if as much blame as possible can be shifted over here.
Whether the Prime Minister can escape being judged a fool or a liar depends crucially on the "45-minute" claim. It was the strongest evidence the Government offered before the war that Saddam Hussein was not merely defying the authority of the United Nations, but presented a "serious and current" threat to the West, as Mr Blair put it when presenting the dossier to the Commons on 24 September 2002. The document alleged that Iraq had "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."
It resulted in headlines the following day such as "Saddam can strike in 45 minutes" in the Daily Express and "Brits 45 minutes from doom" in The Sun, which said British troops and tourists on Cyprus were within range. Mr Blair's statement in Parliament last week means that he would have believed The Sun's report was correct. Mr Hoon, who would have known otherwise, said he didn't see the news coverage until several months later.
The first official clarification of what the "45 minutes" referred to did not come until the Hutton inquiry last August - four months after the war had ended and nearly a year after the claim was first published. John Scarlett, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and author of the dossier, said it referred, not to missiles for warheads, but to "battlefield mortar shells or small-calibre weaponry, quite different from missiles". Mr Hoon confirmed when he appeared before Lord Hutton that he knew this at the time.
We now know that the Joint Intelligence Committee sent three assessments of Iraqi weaponry to Downing Street between September 2002 and 18 March, when MPs voted to send British troops to war. The last of those assessments arrived just before the war, according to Mr Cook.
According to the Government, it highlighted "intelligence indicating that chemical weapons remained disassembled and that Saddam had not yet ordered their assembly". The JIC also said other intelligence showed that "the 750km range Al Hussein ballistic missiles remained disassembled and that it would take several days to assemble them". But Mr Blair still apparently did not know what could be deployed in 45 minutes.
Mr Cook suggested yesterday that this discrepancy should be investigated by the Butler committee. If Mr Blair is right, then the committee would surely have to give the JIC a severe rebuke for withholding vital information from the Prime Minister. But if it turns out that the correct information was among the three assessments, Mr Blair could have trouble explaining his answer to Mr Ottaway last week.
Another possibility is that he did not read the assessments, even though Britain was on the brink of war. That would save him from the charge of mendacity, at the cost making him appear irresponsible. With no experience of defence or foreign affairs before arriving in Downing Street, one Whitehall veteran pointed out, he might not have grasped the intelligence: "I doubt whether we will ever find out what Tony Blair knew at any particular time," he said, "unless he signed a piece of paper which turns up. He believes what he is saying."
Mr Thielmann, the former intelligence analyst, expressed little optimism that either British or American inquiry would get to the crux of the issue - the politicisation of intelligence: "We are like-minded in whitewashes, [twisting] intelligence, and going to war when it is not necessary."The 45-minute claim sent the troops to war in Iraq, but expert after expert questioned its validity
"Iraq's military forces are able to use chemical and biological weapons ... The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of a decision to do so"
Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: the Assessment of the British Government, 24 September 2002
"The dossier... concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons... which could be activated within 45 minutes"
Tony Blair, House of Commons, 24 September 2002
"45 minutes from attack"
Headline, Evening Standard, 24 September 2002
[Saddam's] "...weapons of mass destruction remained hidden as they are hidden to this day. He did not have the time to recover the weapons ... to reassemble the missiles and fire"
Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, 23 April 2003
"We were told Saddam had weapons ready for use within 45 minutes. It's now 45 days since the war finished and we have still not found anything"
Robin Cook, 28 May 2003
"Most people in intelligence weren't happy with the dossier because it didn't reflect the considered view they were putting forward. The classic example was the statement that weapons of mass destruction were ready for use within 45 minutes. That information was not in the original draft. It was included in the dossier against our wishes because it wasn't reliable. Most things in the dossier were double source but that was single source, and we believe that the source was wrong"
'Senior British official', later revealed as Dr David Kelly, quoted by Andrew Gilligan on Today, 29 May 2003
"The claim that the claim about 45 minutes provoked disquiet amongst the intelligence community who disagreed with its inclusion in the dossier ... is completely untrue."
Tony Blair, 4 June 2003
"I don't know exactly how they calculated this figure of 45 minutes... That seems pretty far off the mark"
Former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, 13 July 2003
"It related to munitions, which we had interpreted to mean battlefield mortar shells or small-calibre weaponry, quite different from missiles"
John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, to the Hutton inquiry, 26 August 2003
"The phrase 'within 45 minutes' that was included in the British report did not correspond to reality"
Dimitris Perricos, UN chief weapons inspector, 31 August 2003
"The report from the Secret Intelligence Service did not specify the specific delivery system to which the time of 45 minutes applied"
Tony Blair, House of Commons, 5 February 2004
"The question of what kind of system could deliver weapons of mass destruction was not something of any great debate at the time"
Geoff Hoon, 5 February 2004
The secrets of the little blue box that can alter the course of history
Tony Blair's astonishing admission last week that he was not aware that the 45-minute claim related to battlefield weapons raises the question: how are Prime Ministers briefed?
Like Prime Ministers before him, Mr Blair receives his intelligence feed in a blue box with a red stripe. Inside is "CX" material - classified assessments sent to him by the Joint Intelligence Committee. The box is presented at regular intervals, but not necessarily every day.
Although techniques such as electronic eavesdropping and satellite imaging mean the methods used are more sophisticated, the nature of the final intelligence assessments has changed little since the Second World War.
Historians have been frustrated, however, in their attempts to assess how different occupants of No 10 treat the top-secret feeds.
Prime ministerial copies of JIC assessments are not among classified papers released under the 30-year rule, so we cannot see the remarks scribbled in their margins, although Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher are known to have been assiduous in their attention to detail.
A senior figure who delivered intelligence assessments to a number of senior ministers including at least one PM reported they were often simply ignored.
"You must always remember that when the CX material is given to them by people like me, if it doesn't fit with what they already believe about the world they may well disregard it."
Professor Peter Hennessy, the acknowledged world expert on the office of Prime Minister, says Anthony Eden, pictured, was the last premier caught disregarding a crucial JIC assessment.
Eden was told by intelligence chiefs 10 days after Nasser's seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956 that a war without US backing would be a disastrous mistake.
Harold Macmillan, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was also told that war would lead to the collapse of sterling. "All very gloomy and no doubt true," he wrote on the assessment.
Professor Hennessy is perplexed at what appears to be similar inaction by Mr Blair on receiving the crucial JIC assessments in the run-up to war with Iraq.
"Tony Blair is a Prime Minister who is legendary in his capacity to focus on the issue of the hour.
"Claims of weapons of mass destruction and their possible use were not just the issue of the hour, they were the issue of his premiership, because the legality of the Government's claims to go to war without another UN resolution turned on the urgency indicated by the intelligence feed," he said.
"For this famously focused PM not to have lingered long and carefully on this utterly crucial issue is very hard to absorb.
"Future historians, I am certain, will linger long and hard over just that."
The questions Butler must ask: why were the UN inspectors pulled out? And why did we rely so heavily on disaffected Iraqi defectors?
The Government has set up an inquiry under Lord Butler to look into the accuracy of the intelligence that led us into war in Iraq, but it needs to go much wider than simply examining the claims made in the September 2002 dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Between the issue of the dossier and the start of the war in March last year, United Nations weapons inspectors returned to Iraq, then left again amid public claims from Britain and the US that they were not proving effective in uncovering Saddam Hussein's WMD activities. Was there intelligence to this effect?
The Intelligence and Security Committee, appointed by the Prime Minister, commented last September that the presence of UN inspectors must have inhibited production and storage of chemical and biological agents and munitions, and complained that this was not fully reflected in the intelligence it had seen. But last week the Government said that the Joint Intelligence Committee, the clearing body for all the agencies, had specifically pointed out in December 2002 that "Iraq's ability to use CBW might be constrained by the difficulty of producing more while UN inspectors were present."
Which view of the intelligence agencies is correct? Was the Government told the inspectors were unable to contain Iraq, and is that why they were pulled out? The inquiry needs to find out.
Lord Butler and his colleagues must also examine the sources of intelligence, on which there were very widely contrasting views, particularly in the US.
Some say the intelligence assessments relied mainly on previous UN inspection reports, while others, including the former head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), David Kay, placed far more emphasis on the claims of Iraqi defectors.
The inquiry should examine the extent to which the British Government relied on "human intelligence", much of it from people with political ambitions, including people now given positions of power in Iraq by the occupation authorities. Although Britain did not place the same emphasis as the US on alleging links between Saddam and al-Qa'ida, the Prime Minister frequently invoked the dangers of a future alliance between Iraq and terrorists.
Since the ISG began its work, it has become clear that Baghdad was highly suspicious of Islamist groups, and denied them access to its territory and to its work on sophisticated weapons.
What was British intelligence on this point at the time? We need to know to what extent Mr Blair's comments were based on the assessments put forward by the Joint Intelligence Committee.
The Butler inquiry has to examine the discrepancy between what intelligence told us at the time about Iraq's WMD and what the ISG is now discovering. But as it begins its work, it should bear in mind that the ISG is far from being a neutral body. The group has reported, for example, that Iraq's work on missile technology was in breach of UN Security Council resolutions, but it is by no means clear that the ISG's interpretation of the resolutions is correct.
The ISG's members, including Mr Kay himself, were appointed by the CIA and the Pentagon, which were themselves responsible for many of the disputed claims about Iraq.
The ISG went into Iraq assuming that weapons would be found, and the Butler inquiry must examine the group's work as critically as that of the intelligence agencies.
Glen Rangwala is a Cambridge University expert on WMD and Middle East politicsReuse content