Blair admits he did not know 45-minute claim referred to battlefield weapons

Nigel Morris,Ben Russell
Thursday 05 February 2004 01:00

Tony Blair admitted yesterday he led the crucial parliamentary debate that approved the war in Iraq without knowing the full truth behind the Government's claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.

He was pressed in the Commons to spell out when he knew that the claim Iraq could launch a deadly attack with weapons of mass destruction within that period related only to battlefield weapons, rather than long-range missiles. Mr Blair said: "I've already indicated exactly when this came to my attention; it wasn't before the debate on 18 March.

"When you say that a battlefield weapon would not be a weapon of mass destruction, if there were chemical or biological or nuclear battlefield weapons that most certainly would be held as a weapon of mass destruction and the idea that their use wouldn't threaten regional stability I find somewhat eccentric."

In comments that appeared to contradict evidence to the Hutton inquiry by Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Blair said: "The report from the Secret Intelligence Service [MI6] did not specify the specific delivery system to which the time of 45 minutes applied."

Mr Hoon admitted to the Hutton inquiry he had known it probably referred to battlefield weapons but had done nothing to correct the media reporting.

Winding up the debate last night, Mr Hoon acknowledged that he knew the 45 minute claim related only to battlefield weapons before the March debate, even though Mr Blair did not. He insisted "the issue of the delivery system was not an issue at the time" and said he had only asked about the type of weapon "out of curiosity".

Challenged to explain why Mr Blair did not know the claim related to battlefield weapons, Mr Hoon said: "The Prime Minister will speak for himself, but I make it clear that inevitably... in the details of Government activity in the responsibilities I carry out are inevitably going to provide a great deal more detailed information than is available at all times."

But an incredulous Michael Howard, the Tory leader, said: "Is the Secretary of State seriously suggesting that he had this information but that he did not pass it on to the Prime Minister? Is that what he is telling the House this evening?"

Critics of the war seized on Mr Blair's comments. The former foreign secretary Robin Cook said: "I find it difficult to reconcile what I knew and what I'm sure the Prime Minister knew at the time we had the vote in March." The claim by Brian Jones in The Independent yesterday that the anxieties of intelligence officers about the dossier were overruled was repeatedly aired during the debate, which had to be suspended for 10 minutes because of heckling by anti-war demonstrators.

Mr Blair acknowledged that there was a question over the failure of intelligence chiefs to consider the doubts of Dr Jones over the threat posed by Iraq. But the Prime Minister insisted questions of procedure within Dr Jones's department were "a million miles away" from the former BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan's claim that Downing Street "sexed up" the dossier that made the case for war. He said Dr Jones's concern about the wording was "hardly of earth-shattering significance".

Mr Blair rejected demands, led by the Tory leader, Michael Howard, to publish the secret intelligence that is said to have backed the 45-minute claim. Mr Howard said: "Dr Jones saw all the intelligence there was to see on it; so incidentally did Lord Hutton. The intelligence referred to in the [Independent] article which he did not see was, I am told, intelligence about the production of chemical and biological warfare agents ... because the SIS put it out on a very restricted basis due to source sensitivity. His superiors were, however, briefed on the intelligence. It does not actually bear on the 45-minute point at all."

Mr Blair said the BBC report that prompted the Hutton inquiry was "100 per cent wrong", but he conceded intelligence service concern over the phrasing of the Government's dossier was the "grain of truth" behind Mr Gilligan's story.

Flanked by Mr Hoon, and 10 other Cabinet ministers, Mr Blair agreed with one MP that opposition to the Hutton report's findings was prompted by "frustration" that no ministers had been forced out by the issue. He said: "The report ­ clear, forensic and utterly comprehensive in terms of the analysis of the evidence ­ is the best defence to the charges of government whitewash, often by the same people who just over a week ago were describing Lord Hutton as a model of impartiality, wisdom and insight." Mr Howard said:"Writing in The Independent today, Dr Brian Jones has made a specific request to the Prime Minister to publish now the intelligence which he was not shown at the time, which he says lies behind the Government's claims that Iraq was actively producing chemical weapons and could launch an attack within 45 minutes of an order to do so. Dr Jones clearly does not believe, given that Saddam Hussein has now been overthrown, that even if that intelligence came from a source that was sensitive then at the time when Saddam still ruled Iraq, it is sensitive now. It seems to me the request which Dr Jones has made is an entirely reasonable one."

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "The Government made every conceivable effort to have a public presentation, in terms of the interpretation of that document, that clearly was designed to move people decidedly in one direction, and one direction only."

Andrew Mackinlay, a Labour MP, urged parliamentary committees not to take the "soft option". He said: "It's our duty not to buckle under this. It seems to me that what we want are MPs who are still prepared to ignore the sign which says, 'no trespass, don't go here'."

Bernard Jenkin, shadow defence secretary at the time of the war, said: "If we want the public to believe that published intelligence information is intelligence and not propaganda we've got to be able to answer the question: at what stage does intelligence become propaganda when it is in the hands of the spin doctors and the politicians?"

Tam Dalyell, a Labour MP and critic of the war, said outside the chamber: "As Father of the House, in 41 years in the Commons, I thought I had heard it all. Not so. I have just heard Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon say from the despatch box 'Ask the Prime Minister'.

"I fear the awful truth is that Blair did jolly well know on March 18 that any weapons of mass destruction were battlefield weapons - and suppressed the information from the House before the crucial vote."

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