Sir Richard Dearlove, making history yesterday as the first head of MI6 to give evidence to a public inquiry, started with an instant objection to the phrase, the "45 minutes claim".
Otherwise known as C, he spluttered at the Hutton inquiry: "Can I just say you used the word 'claim'? I would prefer to refer to it as a piece of well-sourced intelligence."
But by the end, Sir Richard had accepted that with hindsight and due to misrepresentation, the now-common criticism of the contention that Iraq could deploy weapons within "45 minutes" was valid.
Asked by Lord Hutton what this "misrepresentation" was, Sir Richard acknowledged that the intelligence in the now-notorious September dossier referred to battlefield weapons and not long-range strategic missiles that could threaten Britain's national interest.
James Dingemans QC, counsel for the inquiry, asked him if he agreed now that the 45-minute claim was given undue prominence. "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," he 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."
Sir Richard's 57 minutes of testimony was given in a disembodied voice from behind a blank khaki-coloured screen.
Apart from being forced into the partial retreat on the "well sourced intelligence", he stuck rigidly to the script, saying repeatedly that the dossier was accurate.
And he had harsh words to describe the behaviour of David Kelly, the weapons scientist into whose death Lord Hutton is inquiring. Asked about a recorded conversation between Dr Kelly and Susan Watts, of BBC's Newsnight, in which the scientist talked of disquiet among his colleagues over the dossier, Sir Richard replied: "Can I also say in respect of this recorded conversation, as chief of the service I am shocked to see someone discussing one of the CX (or intelligence) reports, which is what he was discussing with a journalist, without authorisation. It is a serious breach of discipline."
MI6 had provided the bulk of the intelligence for the September dossier, including the 45-minute claim. Sir Richard said he was not aware of growing concern in the intelligence community about evidence in the dossier.
"The one point I would like to make, I reported to my directors - I think on September 19 - that we had had full visibility of the process of preparing the dossier and that the whole process had gone extremely well," he said.
"At the Joint Intelligence Committee [JIC] meeting on September 25 I proposed a vote of thanks to the chair of ... the JIC members for the way in which he and the assessment staff had conducted a difficult exercise and the integrity in which it had been done."
Sir Richard was asked if he was aware of comments such as those expressed in an e-mail from a member of the Defence Intelligence Staff complaining of "spin" in the dossier.
He replied: "No, I certainly wasn't." Sir Richard was shown another e-mail appealing for information for the dossier, saying it was "a last call" for intelligence. Asked if he was aware of the memo, he replied: "Not specifically, no, but I would say that a message like this from the assessment staff is common practice when they are engaged on an important piece of work and it is a signal to my staff to make sure that they have made every effort in the field to collect relevant intelligence in time for the conclusion of a paper being worked on by the JIC."
Sir Richard was asked about the wording of one of the drafts and complaints by members of the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) who protested that it was too strong.
He said of the dossier: "I think it's a fair reflection of the way that the DIS approaches such [drafts] and was very careful in the words that they used. When we circulate a report [to other intelligence agencies], there is a procedure by which any reader can comment on the report or question its contents, and that is a mechanism that is frequently used.
"The circulation of the report that included the piece about 45 minutes did not evoke any comment from customers at all."
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