Tony Blair undermined the global fight against weapons proliferation by raising "false expectations" about Iraq's arsenal and by marginalising intelligence experts, Brian Jones, the key witness of the Hutton inquiry, has warned.
Dr Jones said there was a real danger that the failure to find chemical and biological weapons would lead the public to conclude that Mr Blair's justification for war was "a political sleight of hand".
In his first media interview, Dr Jones also told The Independent that intelligence on the Government's 45-minutes claim was so threadbare that it was impossible to know whether it referred to battlefield or strategic weapons.
There were calls for the Prime Minister to resign last week after he admitted he had not been briefed that the 45-minutes claim might refer only to battlefield munitions. Dr Jones's revelation that the intelligence was vague about the precise threat could ease the pressure on Mr Blair. But it also undermines one of the key claims in the Iraq weapons dossier.
Dr Jones, the former head of the nuclear, chemical and biological branch of the MoD's Defence Intelligence Staff, made headlines when he told the Hutton inquiry that he had formally complained about the dossier.
In today's interview, Dr Jones made it clear that his biggest fear was that his life's work on the dangers of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons proliferation risked being undermined by the failure to find stockpiles in Iraq.
He said: "There is a great danger that the whole Iraq issue is now muddying that pond. People have been told to look in that direction; Here is something to worry about'. Suddenly it appears that there was nothing. Personally, I don't think they will find stockpiles in Iraq and have been given a false expectation that they were there. So people will say WMD in general was never a problem because the whole thing was a political sleight of hand."
Dr Jones, who saw the intelligence assessment that included the 45-minute claim, pointed out for the first time that it merely outlined "possible scenarios" as opposed to any specific threat posed by Iraq.
"I think it was dealing with an attempt to think through possible scenarios. It wasn't, I think, dealing with, This is the threat'. It was saying something more like, If the threat we are worried about is there, how would it work? How would it play in a more practical sense?'."
The controversy over which minister was told what about the 45-minute claim had missed the real point. "The fact was that it was so nebulous that there was nothing you could really hang your hat on," he said.
Dr Jones queried briefings given to ministers including Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, and Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary who resigned as Leader of the Commons, in which the 45-minute claim was linked with battlefield weapons. "Who was giving the briefings? Where were the experts? There were clearly no experts involved in those briefings. And a great confusion reigns about WMD," he said.
He criticised the practice of giving ministers raw, unanalysed intelligence. He said he and other intelligence analysts directly briefed ministers in the last Tory government and were invited to sit in on Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) meetings. Successive governments had failed to fund analysts to keep up with the increasing amount of material on worldwide security threats, he said, and reorganisations left experts with less clout in Whitehall. Mr Blair has constantly warned about the dangers of WMD proliferation but it appeared that he was failing to fund the expert analysts needed to combat it.
The growing threat of terrorism and proliferation meant that other arms of intelligence seemed to get more funding for WMD "but this was not matched in my part of the DIS", Dr Jones said. "I suppose everyone says this about their own team, but mine wasn't big enough. Certainly I think there was an imbalance in the WMD area, over the past five to 10 years. Latterly it did not match increases elsewhere nor the increase in the volume of reporting that there was to analyse."
Dr Jones said analysts used to have much more influence and access, both on the JIC and on ministers. Sir Percy Cradock, a former JIC chairman, "would invite experts to come along and sit in on a JIC meeting for the relevant paper. Latterly that hasn't happened, certainly not in my area of expertise."
Air Marshal Sir John Walker, who was chief of Defence Intelligence and deputy chairman of the JIC, also allowed the experts more access. "Walker used to say you go ahead, you brief the minister. I would say, are you coming in too and he would say you don't need me, you're the expert'," Dr Jones said.