How weak '45 minutes' claim became rock-solid case for war

Alastair Campbell is adamant he was not responsible for "sexing up" the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and in a way he is right. The evidence emerging at the Hutton inquiry over the last fortnight - including emails and documents never made public before - shows that the production of the dossier and the hardening of its language was a protracted affair, under the influence of many more minds than just Mr Campbell's. Any sexing up was done by a crowd.

"Was this dossier really building the case for going to war?" asked Peter Knox, junior counsel to the inquiry, on Wednesday. Examining an email from Daniel Pruce, a member of the Downing Street communications team, he asked: "Is there not some force in the suggestion that the way Mr Pruce appears to be looking at this job is to build a case, a bit like building a prosecution case?"

The inquiry was set up to examine the circumstances surrounding the apparent suicide of Dr David Kelly, the government scientist who found himself at the centre of a war between Downing St and the BBC. It has exposed a wealth of detail about the infinitely more important conflict in Iraq, and the way the Government went about persuading the British public it was justified in joining an unprovoked invasion to oust Saddam.

The dossier was crucial in that campaign and provided the foundation for Britain's efforts to raise international support for the invasion. For all Saddam's undoubted brutality, the only legal basis for war was that he had an arsenal of unconventional weapons ready for use on his neighbours and as far afield as Cyprus, where British forces are stationed. It was decided that the Government would have to make public its secret intelligence on Iraq, and that the document should be written by John Scarlett, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). Last week's evidence to the Hutton inquiry made clear that his efforts were being commented upon by a Downing Street chorus that included Tony Blair, Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, and Alastair Campbell, his director of communications.

The most controversial claim, mentioned four times in the dossier, was that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of the order being given. In June Mr Campbell said in a letter to the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), which was examining the decision to go to war in Iraq, that he asked Mr Scarlett to make 11 changes in the dossier. None of them concerned the 45-minute allegation, but the Hutton inquiry has disclosed his original letter to the JIC chief, which asks for 15 changes - one of which is on precisely this point. Mr Scarlett's draft says: "The Iraqi military may be able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so." Mr Campbell comments that "'may' is weaker than the document's summary", which says "could deploy". "The language you queried ... has been tightened," Mr Scarlett replies, and the dossier made public on 24 September says: "Intelligence indicates that the Iraqi military are able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so." Mr Campbell also told the FAC that the 45-minute claim was in the first draft of the dossier he saw. When it was pointed out last week that there was no mention of it in a document considered by a meeting he chaired on 5 September, he answered that as far as he was concerned, the process only began when Mr Scarlett was brought in. That was not how he put it in a note after the meeting, however, which said: "Regarding the dossier, substantial rewrite."

This set off a process in which junior officials sent lengthy emails on the various drafts of the dossier, most of which Mr Campbell said he had not answered. "Much of the evidence we have is largely circumstantial," confesses one. "It's getting there, but it needs more work," says Mr Pruce on 11 September. Mr Campbell told the inquiry: "Pruce is a very good press officer, but this is him making contributions effectively above his pay grade."

Higher-paid figures had their own concerns, however. The same day Philip Bassett, a senior adviser to Mr Blair, writes: "Very long way to go ... Think we're in a lot of trouble with this as it stands." And Tom Kelly, one of the Prime Minister's two official spokesmen, comments: "There is one central weakness ... We know that he [Saddam] is a bad man... We know he is trying to get WMD - and this shows that attempts are intensifying. But can we show why we think he intends to use them aggressively, rather than in self-defence?"

Most telling of all, however, are Mr Powell's remarks on the next draft, a week before the dossier was published. Echoing Mr Kelly's point, he says: "The document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat, from Saddam. In other words it shows that he has the means but it does not demonstrate he has the motive to attack his neighbours, let alone the West. We will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he is an imminent threat." When it is launched, however, Mr Blair's foreword describes Iraq's WMD as a "current and serious" threat.

As late as 19 September, five days before publication, Mr Powell is asking: "Alastair - what will be the headline in the [Evening] Standard? What do we want it to be?" The answer, brought up on the screens of the Hutton inquiry to laughter, was: "45 MINUTES FROM ATTACK".

The dossier served to cement the idea that the existence of Iraq's prohibited weapons programmes was undisputed. Now any statement by the Iraqi regime that it did not have chemical or biological weapons was automatically cast as a lie, a sign the regime had still not faced up to its international obligations.

The firmness of the dossier's conclusions meant that no other country could publicly question the existence of Iraq's weapons programmes without being seen as implicitly questioning Tony Blair's own credibility. Few were willing to risk offending Britain or supporting such an unpopular regime as the one in Baghdad. The argument became one over how to disarm Iraq, not whether further disarmament was necessary.

This gave the Government the upper hand in the deliberations in the Security Council. The claim in the September dossier that Iraq was continuing to produce prohibited weapons allowed Britain to justify delaying the entry of UN weapons inspectors until a new, tougher Security Council resolution was passed on 8 November, threatening "serious consequences" if its demands were not met.

One of those demands was that Iraq gave "a currently accurate, full and complete declaration of all aspects of its programmes to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other delivery systems" within 30 days. Iraq declared that it had some missiles that exceeded the UN-imposed 150km limit, but that it had no biological or chemical weapons. On the basis of the understanding that had been built up through the dossier, Mr Straw was able to tell the Security Council on 5 February of this declaration that "its central premise - that Iraq possesses no weapons of mass destruction - is a lie", and that this constituted a "material breach" of the Security Council's resolutions.

But when the inspectors returned to Iraq, the claims in the dossier were soon being called into question. Within weeks, all eight of the sites mentioned in the dossier had been visited by inspectors, who found no traces of prohibited materials or equipment at them. Many of the facilities seemed to have been disused for years.

On 7 March, Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief nuclear inspector, reported that "After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq." The dossier's claims about ongoing chemical and biological weapons programmes fared little better. The chief inspector, Hans Blix, said that after 731 inspections at 411 different sites, his staff "has not at any time ... found evidence of the continuation or resumption of programmes of weapons of mass destruction or significant quantities of proscribed items".

On 29 May this year, when American and British forces had been in Iraq for nearly two months without evidence of WMD having been found, whispered dissent in Whitehall was given a public voice when the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan made his now infamous Today programme report.

Mr Blair and his entourage were in Kuwait preparing for the Prime Minister's high-profile visit to meet British troops. Mr Campbell said he was "torn", unable to believe that anyone could take seriously the suggestion that Downing Street had "sexed up" the Iraq dossier. But it soon became a "firestorm" that had to be contained. The story had the potential to do enormous damage to the Prime Minister. "It was grim," wrote Mr Campbell in his diary, "it was grim for me, grim for TB and there is this huge stuff about trust."

As the febrile mood inside Downing Street began to infect the rest of Whitehall, Mr Gilligan refused to name his source. The trail went cold until Dr Kelly told the MoD he had talked to the journalist. One of the first concerns of the Government, as documents released to the Hutton inquiry show, was the credibility of its case on Iraqi WMD.

Mr Blair urged a gathering of key advisers to tell him about Dr Kelly's views. Mr Powell said the PM wanted to know "what he [Dr Kelly] would say" if he appeared before either of the committees looking into the run-up to the war. Sir Kevin Tebbit, permanent secretary at the MoD, "warned" that Dr Kelly was an expert on Iraqi WMD. "If he was summoned to give evidence, some of it might be uncomfortable on specifics such as the likelihood of there being weapons systems being ready for use within 45 minutes."

The clues to Dr Kelly's identity were out there. But the MoD was also devising a bolder "naming strategy" under which the scientist's name would not be volunteered but confirmed if suggested. Mr Campbell, clearly frustrated by this, wanted Dr Kelly's name to be released to a chosen journalist, but accepted it was a "bad idea" when his deputy Godric Smith confronted him about the plan.

Dr Kelly was named in the press and the rest is all too well known. But even after his death, Downing Street could not resist its desire for control over the case for war. As the Hutton inquiry into his death approached - and just two days before Dr Kelly's funeral - Tom Kelly, the Prime Minister's official spokesman branded the late weapons expert who had been so sceptical about the Government's claims a "Walter Mitty-style fantasist".

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