MoD official who met Gilligan 'denies 45-minute claim'

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The row between the Government and the BBC took a new twist last night after a Ministry of Defence official admitted meeting the journalist Andrew Gilligan to talk about Iraqi weapons dossiers.

The MoD said that the middle-ranking official met Mr Gilligan, the defence correspondent for BBC Radio 4's Today programme, at a hotel in central London. He said that Mr Gilligan asked him about the role of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's director of communications, in allegedly "sexing up" claims about weapons of mass destruction.

The official allegedly denied any involvement in reports by Mr Gilligan that the Government had pressurised the intelligence services to insert claims that Saddam Hussein was able to deploy weapons of mass destruction "within 45 minutes".

The official, who is not a member of the intelligence service, has been in his position for four years, has served as member of Unscom, the United Nations mission which carried out inspections for Iraq's alleged chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons until 1998.

MoD sources said last night that he will not face any charges under the Official Secrets Act, or face dismissal. He may be subject to disciplinary action for an "unauthorised meeting" with a journalist.

The Government was prepared to pass on the name of the MoD official to the BBC. Mr Gilligan had stated that his information came from one source and he is believed to have given the identity of the person to Richard Sambrook, the BBC's head of news.

The MoD said last night that it was " not claiming that the official was the source for Mr Gilligan's story". A spokesman denied that the public release of the matter was part of a "dirty tricks campaign" against the BBC journalist.

In a statement, the MoD said the official met Mr Gilligan on 22 May, one week before his broadcast on the Today programme about the alleged "sexing up" of the Government's September dossier.

The statement said: "He says that when Mr Gilligan asked about the role of Alastair Campbell with regard to the 45-minute issue, he made no comment and explained that he was not involved in the process of drawing up the intelligence parts of the dossier.

"He says he made no other comment about Mr Campbell. When Mr Gilligan asked him why the 45-minute point was in the dossier, he says he commented that it was 'probably for impact'. He says he did not see the 45-minute intelligence report on which it was based."

The official was an expert on weapons of mass destruction who had advised ministers on the issue and had contributed towards drafts of the historical accounts of UN inspections in the first Government dossier.

The MoD said that, with the agreement of the official concerned, it had now passed his name to the chairman of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, Ann Taylor, in case the members wanted to interview him.

The BBC said last night: "The description of the individual contained in the statement does not match Mr Gilligan's source in some important ways. Mr Gilligan's source does not work in the Ministry of Defence and he has known the source for a number of years not months."