Tony Blair's sensational pre-war claim that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction "could be activated within 45 minutes" was based on information from a single Iraqi defector of dubious reliability, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
British intelligence sources said the defector, recruited by Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, told his story to American officials. It was passed on to London as part of regular information-sharing with Washington, but British intelligence chiefs considered the "45 minutes" claim to be unreliable and uncorroborated by any other evidence. How it came to be included as the most dramatic element in the Government's "intelligence dossier" last September, making the case for war, is now the subject of a furious row in Whitehall and abroad.
The armed forces minister, Adam Ingram, admitted last week that the information had come from a single source. But Downing Street denied a report that the claim made its way into the dossier only after politicians rejected a more cautious draft prepared by the intelligence services and demanded that it be "sexed up".
Coming in the same week that the United States Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said Iraq might have destroyed its banned weapons before the war, the row has called into question the entire Anglo-American case on WMD. The failure to find such weapons has led to demands in the US and Britain for inquiries into whether the public was misled.
On Wednesday, the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee will meet behind closed doors to examine the Government's WMD claims, but it is not expected to have full access to the intelligence seen by ministers.
Irritated by the latest row about Iraq's missing weapons, which has overshadowed his six-day foreign tour, the Prime Minister has promised to bring out another dossier. Mr Blair said that he had seen some of the information obtained from Iraqi scientists now under interrogation, which proved that Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of dangerous weapons.
In an interview in St Petersburg with Sky News, being broadcast today, he said: "What we are going to do is assemble that evidence and present it properly to people. We are not going to give a running commentary on it. There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of potential WMD sites that are still being investigated. We have only just begun."
The Prime Minister's official spokesman vehemently denied yesterday that there was or had been any conflict between the Government and the intelligence services over Iraq, and claimed that leaks were probably coming from minor officials who did not have great inside knowledge.
President George Bush went further on Polish television, saying two trailers found laden with equipment in northern Iraq were proof of the existence of WMD. US intelligence agencies claim they were biological weapons production facilities. Mr Bush said: "Those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons - they're wrong. We found them."
The Prime Minister insisted that the information in the British dossier "is intelligence that comes through our Joint Intelligence Committee". He said: "It's not invented by politicians and it's not invented by our security service. Everything was cleared by the Joint Intelligence Committee, and was their judgement - not my judgement, or another politician's judgement."
But one intelligence source said: "The '45-minute' remark was part of the American intelligence input into the dossier. It was being treated cautiously by the British, but it was alighted on by the politicos and blown out of proportion." Intelligence circles remain confident that evidence of WMD will soon be found.
Controversy reigns over the work of a special unit within the Pentagon, created by Mr Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, which enthusiastically promoted the Iraqi National Congress's WMD claims over the scepticism of others, notably in the CIA. Yesterday The Guardian said the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, met his American counterpart, Colin Powell, in February to discuss their concerns about the quality of information on Iraq's banned weapons, and the claims being made by their respective political masters. The Government said the meeting never took place.Reuse content