The rush to war: Straw admits that dossier was 'embarrassing'

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The Downing Street dossier alleging Iraq could deploy biological weapons within 45 minutes was re-drafted several times to "present the best case" against Saddam Hussein, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, admitted yesterday.

In the most detailed government comments to date on the nature of the September dossier, Mr Straw told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that it went through "a number of drafts".

He denied allegations by the BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, the document had been "sexed up" or "transformed" at the request of Number 10.

But Mr Straw did reveal the dossier had "started life" early last September and had undergone presentational changes, including the addition of Tony Blair's foreword making claims about Baghdad's weapons capability. "My colleagues suggested there should be a foreword," Mr Straw said.

"It went back and forth several times ... it is an iterative process where various drafts are shared and documents go through all sorts of drafting. I make comments, officials make comments.

"It is not a question of someone saying 'this must go back'. It is, here is a document, does it present the best case of evidence that was being sourced and adjudicated by others, namely the JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee)?" he said.

Peter Ricketts, the former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee and now a senior Foreign Office official, also told the MPs that the JIC "took ownership" of the September dossier and approved it.

But, when asked directly by Donald Anderson, the chairman of the committee, if the "ambiguities" of normal intelligence reports had been "altered", Mr Ricketts ducked the question. He insisted the JIC had approved the document in its name.

During his appearance before the select committee, Mr Straw staunchly defended the September dossier and the dossier produced in February.

He said he had no doubts about the authenticity of the first document, despite the fact no weapons of mass destruction had been found and claims about Saddam acquiring nuclear material from Niger were proved to be forgeries.

"Some of what is in here has been proved by events, none has been disproved," he said. It was "nonsense" to suggest the whole burden of the Government's case against Saddam rested on the 45 minute claim, he added.

"Neither the Prime Minister nor I have ever used the word 'immediate' or 'imminent' in relation to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. What we talked about in the dossier was a 'current and serious threat' which is very different."

"We didn't use the phrase immediate or imminent because it means ... as it were, about to happen today or tomorrow. We didn't use that because frankly the evidence didn't justify it."

Mr Straw said war was justified by the "bigger picture" of Saddam's weapons violations, but he made clear he wanted to distance himself from the 45-minute claim. "It wasn't my claim. (But) I stand by the integrity of the JIC who have made the assessment."

When asked about the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction, Mr Straw said the lack of progress was down to fears that Saddam could resurface, and informants' doubts they would be granted immunity.

He revealed the US-dominated weapons inspection team, in Iraq at present, would "probably" report on its findings at the end of its mission.

Andrew MacKinlay, a Labour committee member, said he and fellow backbenchers were "legitimately angry" they had voted with the Government on the basis of the second "dodgy" dossier, much of which effectively plagiarised a 12-year-old academic study.

Mr Straw said he understood their anger because the way it had been prepared was unsatisfactory.

In a clear attempt to clear the Foreign Office of any involvement in the document, he said none of his officials or minister's knew of it.

Last week, Ibrahim al-Marashi, the Californian PhD student whose thesis was plagiarised for the second dossier, demanded an apology from the Government for putting at risk his family living in Iraq.

Mr Straw said: "He is owed an apology. I am very happy now to give an apology on behalf of the Government."

The Foreign Secretary defended Mr Blair over the second dossier: "I think it was an entirely reasonable assumption from him ... that it had come through the normal channels."

Asked whether he wished the second dossier had not been published at all, Mr Straw said: "Yes. Given what happened."

Mr Straw said the Foreign Office was trying to establish why changes were made in the second dossier including altering the words "opposition groups" to "terrorist organisations".

Neither Mr Straw, nor Sir Michael Jay, the head of the diplomatic service, could explain why the names of four Downing Street officials had appeared on the dossier when it was published on the Number 10 website.

John Maples, the MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, rounded on Mr Straw, telling him that the dossier was "amateurish and irresponsible and quite frankly fraudulent".

Sir John Stanley, a Tory member of the committee, said when Mr Blair told the Commons on 3 February the JIC had authorised the second document, he had misled Parliament or been misled by officials. Mr Straw said neither was true.

Mr Straw denied claims from Clare Short, the former International Development Secretary, that the Cabinet had been put into "deep freeze" between July and October in 2002. The Cabinet had met in special session in September and a ministerial committee met 28 times until April this year. He admitted that few details were put on paper because of fears it would "filter its way to Saddam".

Mr Straw said fears of the involvement of the Downing Street officials were overblown. "There has always been an entourage at Number 10 and people should chill out about that."

REVEALED: How Campbell's staff left their electronic fingerprints on controversial dossier

By Raymond Whitaker, Paul Waugh and Charles Arthur

"Iraq - Its infrastructure of concealment, deception and intimidation", published by the Government in January, was quickly dubbed the "dodgy dossier" after a Cambridge academic, Dr Glen Rangwala, pointed out that it had been cobbled together from published articles and a 12-year-old student thesis.

However, what did not emerge until yesterday was that it was possible to detect the names of the last four people to have worked on the dossier. The version posted on the internet carried a "revision log", easily viewed by those who know their way around Microsoft Word, showing the last 10 revisions made to the document.

All four of the people named in the log worked for the Communications Information Centre (CIC), a Downing Street unit set up under Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's director of communications, to put the Government's case for the Iraq war.

Around Whitehall the four have been linked to the dossier ever since it came out, but Mr Campbell is said to have insisted on appearing before the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee today to clarify their involvement. How he will explain the electronic evidence is not clear.

The four names - Paul Hamill, John Pratt, Alison Blackshaw and Murtaza Khan - were put to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, when he appeared yesterday.

Sir John Stanley, Tory MP for Tonbridge and Malling, told the committee that Dr Rangwala had informed him just before the hearing of the detailed "computer trail" for the dossier. In the few hours before the four names were erased from the internet, he had "hard copy evidence" that the dossier had been saved under the name of Paul Hamill.

The committee was told by Sir Michael Jay, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, that Mr Hamill had been seconded to the CIC by the Ministry of Defence. Sir Michael described Mr Hamill's role at the CIC as "director of story development", but Mr Straw said: "These are detailed questions you will have to ask Mr Campbell."

John Maples, Tory MP for Stratford upon Avon, described Mr Khan as a "news editor for the Downing Street website", while Mr Pratt was a "junior official in the Number 10 strategy unit". Mr Straw said he did not know the individuals concerned.

Most intriguing, however, is the appearance in the log of Alison Blackshaw, Mr Campbell's personal assistant. A copy of the revision log obtained by The Independent shows that the document was saved twice to floppy disk, the second time by Ms Blackshaw.

According to an internet security consultant, Richard Smith, it appeared that she was "signing off" on the final version before it was passed to Mr Khan for posting on the internet.

The Boston-based Mr Smith is best-known for using Microsoft Word's "revision log" to help detect David Smith, who was jailed in New Jersey for creating Melissa, a notorious computer virus.

"I was surprised at how primitive the technology seemed to be in Downing Street," said the consultant. "I haven't used a floppy disk for five years."

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