MI6 chief defends 45-minute weapons claim

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Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the Secret Intelligence Service MI6, made an unprecedented appearance before a public inquiry today when he gave evidence to Lord Hutton's inquiry into the death of government wepaons expert David Kelly.

Sir Richard's face was not visible on the inquiry's TV screens and even the lawyers were unable to see him.

James Dingemans QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked Sir Richard when he first became aware of the claim in the Government's dossier on Iraqi arms that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which could be deployed within 45 minutes.

He replied: "Can I just say you used the word 'claim'? I would prefer to refer to it as a piece of well-sourced intelligence."

Sir Richard said that the 45-minute intelligence came from a "established and reliable source" quoting a senior Iraqi military officer who was in a position to know this information.

But later, the MI6 head there had been "misinterpretation" of the 45-minute claim. Mr Dingemans asked Sir Richard if he believed it was given "undue prominence".

He replied: "I think, given the misinterpretation that was placed on the 45-minute intelligence, with the benefit of hindsight you can say that is a valid criticism but I am confident the intelligence was accurate and that the use made of it was entirely consistent with the original report."

Lord Hutton asked what he meant by "misinterpretation". Sir Richard replied: "The original report referred to chemical and biological munitions and that was taken to refer to battlefield weapons.

"I think what subsequently happened in the reporting was that it was taken that the 45 minutes applied, let's say, to weapons of a longer range, just battlefield material."

He was asked about the wording of one of the drafts and referred to a document which argued that it was too strong.

He said of the dossier: "I think it's a fair reflection of the way that the DIS (Defence Intelligence Service) approaches such (drafts) and was very careful in the words that they used."

Shown another memo which expressed concern about a single source used for the dossier, he said: "I'm rather amused by that sentence. Much high quality intelligence which is factual or proved to be factual is single source material."

Mr Dingemans asked: "Were you aware of any unhappiness over the 45-munute claim?"

Sir Richard replied: "No, I certainly wasn't."

Mr Dingemans asked if Sir Richard was aware of comments made by Alastair Campbell, former Downing Street communications chief, on 17 September.

Sir Richard replied: "I did not see that memo but, in fact, I was aware from my senior officer who was working on the draft that there had been a debate over the amount of time it might take the Iraqis to develop a nuclear weapon.

"I know there was, let's say, rigorous response to questions in terms of sticking with the original intelligence in recording these issues in the original dossier," he told the inquiry