No respite for Blair as MPs reopen intelligence inquiry

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The inquiry into the flawed intelligence which led Britain to war in Iraq on false claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction is to be reopened by a Labour-led select committee.

The Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs (FAC) agreed at a meeting behind closed doors to write to Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, with a series of questions, including whether he told the Prime Minister that the intelligence had been withdrawn in July last year, because it was no longer judged to be credible.

The Independent also learnt that the Prime Minister's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) agreed at a separate private meeting yesterday to look into the revelations in the Butler report that MI6 had withdrawn the intelligence underpinning the WMD claims.

The decision by the two committees to pursue the unravelling of the evidence surrounding the Government's Iraq dossiers was a fresh blow to Mr Blair after surviving Tuesday's Commons debate on Iraq. He was hoping to draw a line under the row for the summer, but it is now certain to continue rumbling until the party conferences in the autumn.

The Government also will be alarmed to discover that Donald Anderson, the Labour chairman of the FAC, may also have lost the Labour majority on the committee after two Labour MPs who have been highly critical of the Government - Eric Illsley and Andrew Mackinlay - refused to vote with the Labour majority.

The Labour MPs on the committee tried to stop it pursuing the inquiry beyond writing to Mr Straw. However, in a split vote, it was agreed to use an expert to investigate the disparities in the evidence to Hutton and that taken by the committee in private session from Mr Straw. Mr Illsley and Mr Mackinlay abstained in the vote, allowing the opposition MPs on the committee, including the Liberal Democrat David Chidgey, and Andrew Mackay, a former Tory whip, to inflict a four-three defeat.

The opposition MPs will seek the support of Mr Illsley and Mr Mackinlay to recall Mr Straw if disparities are found in the evidence. The MPs want to know why neither they nor the Hutton inquiry were told about the withdrawal by MI6 of the crucial evidence in July, 2003.

Mr Straw revealed on Tuesday that he was told of the withdrawal in September last year. Mr Blair refused yesterday to give details about when he was told, but insisted it was "as a result of the Butler inquiry" into the intelligence mistakes. Bob Marshall-Andrews QC, a Labour MP opposed to the war, tabled a further question to Mr Blair demanding the date on which Mr Blair was told. Mr Marshall-Andrews said: "This is the silver bullet. Someone is going to come out of the shadows and say, 'I did tell the Prime Minister before he went before the Hutton inquiry'. That would be fatal for Tony Blair. Politically, he would be dead."

The ISC inquiry is part of its rolling programme of intelligence scrutiny. Sources close to the committee said they had agreed yesterday to continue investigating the withdrawal of the evidence. They have more power than the FAC to demand to see ministers' intelligence briefings. They were told orally by Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, in July last year that the intelligence on chemical and biological weapons had been withdrawn as unreliable. They kept it secret until the Butler report was delivered. "It was given to us in more than usual confidence," said the source.

Lord King of Bridgwater, a former Tory defence secretary and ISC chairman, said both the ISC and the FAC were right to launch new investigations to restore confidence in their scrutiny role. He said it was "extraordinary" that Mr Blair was not told that the discredited intelligence was withdrawn even though Mr Straw was informed last September. He added that either the Civil Service was falling down on the job or the Prime Minister was told and did not remember it because there were not proper minutes.

MPs were sceptical that Mr Blair was not told, saying it "beggared belief" that backbenchers on the ISC were aware of the withdrawal of the intelligence while the Prime Minister was not. They pointed to a memorandum sent by Mr Straw to the FAC last July which said: "The Prime Minister and other ministers who are members of the Committee on Security and Intelligence see all Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) papers." The JIC was told that the evidence was discredited and withdrawn.

There was speculation at Westminster that officials had decided not to tell Mr Blair in order to create "a firewall" to protect him from allegations that he misled Parliament over the threat posed by Iraq.

Asked if that was the case, Mr Blair's official spokesman said Downing Street would not be drawn into "processology". He added: "The important thing is that this was one element but not the only element."

Meanwhile, Lord Butler has been summoned to the Commons Public Administration Select Committee on 21 October to give more evidence on his finding that Mr Blair had operated a "sofa-style'' clique, instead of proper Cabinet committees with minutes.

THIRTEEN MONTHS OF SCRUTINY

BUTLER INQUIRY

Investigated the flaws in intelligence on WMD and their use by Downing Street. Started, 5 February 2004; published, 14 July 2004.

Findings: Intelligence on WMD was patchy and sporadic, and limitations of the intelligence in the September 2002 dossier were not "made sufficiently clear", with important caveats removed.

HUTTON INQUIRY

Looked into the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly. Started, 1 August 2003; reported, 28 January 2004.

Findings: Dr Kelly's meeting with Andrew Gilligan breached civil service rules. BBC editorial systems defective. No 10 did not "sex up" WMD dossier.

INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY COMMITTEE

Wide remit to investigate the claims in intelligence dossiers and BBC allegations, concerning the way they were drawn up. Started, 8 May 2003; reported, 9 September 2003.

Findings: The fact that the 45-minute claim referred to battlefield weapons, not missiles, should have been highlighted.

COMMONS FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

Investigated decision to go to war in Iraq. Started, 17 June 2003; reported, 21 July 2003.

Findings: Cleared Tony Blair's former director of communications, Alastair Campbell, of BBC charge of "sexing up" dossier on WMD against the wishes of the intelligence services; 45-minute claim did not warrant the prominence given to it in the dossier.

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