45 minutes from a major scandal
The deception of the public in the run up to war will not be forgotten
Wednesday February 18, 2004
When a government and its spin merchants accuse journalists of nit-picking, and insist it's time to "move on", you know they've got something to hide. And the evidence continues to pile up that this one has plenty to hide about how it misled the public over war on Iraq.
We could of course wait for Lord Butler, who will question ministers and intelligence officers in secret and report just before the long summer recess. But Butler will focus mainly on "systems and processes rather than on the actions of individuals". So John Scarlett, chairman of Whitehall's joint intelligence committee (JIC), Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's former communications director, and Tony Blair have, it seems, little to fear.
Butler's committee does include senior members of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, which last year strongly criticised the way the notorious 45-minute claim about Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" was hyped up in the government's September 2002 dossier. The presence of Field Marshal Lord Inge may also encourage pointed questions about intelligence, because of the military's need to know what was really judged a threat to Britain and British troops invading Iraq.
I am told that the JIC realised immediately the 45-minute claim referred only to short-range battlefield weapons, such as mortars. That was the "first assumption" made when the raw intelligence came in at the end of August 2002, according to a well-placed source. Yet this crucial assessment was omitted from the government's dossier published the following month and Blair has insisted he was unaware of what the claim referred to until well after the war was declared won.
Last month, on the day the Commons debated the Hutton report - which brushed aside the matter as of no consequence - the government published its response to the intelligence and security committee's criticisms. It claimed no reference was made to battlefield weapons in the JIC assessments because MI6's single, uncorroborated source "did not specify the nature of the delivery system to which the 45 minutes applied".
That explanation does not hold water, according to senior intelligence sources. It is the job of assessors to make judgments about vague intelligence reports, especially on such a potentially significant claim. This, I have been told, is precisely what they did.
One crucial unanswered question is why the intelligence assessment that the claim referred only to short-range weapons was not put down on paper. One answer is that the government's September 2002 dossier implied - and was evidently meant to imply - that the 45-minute claim referred to long-range weapons which could threaten Britain.
Such important pieces of intelligence are supposed be passed on to the prime minister by the JIC chairman. If, as Blair told MPs, he did not know to what weapons the 45-minute claim referred, we can only assume Scarlett did not tell him - as it was his job to do. Robin Cook says he did ask Scarlett and that his response was an important factor in his decision to resign in opposition to the war. Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, says he did not know what the 45-minute claim referred to until after the September dossier was out. Even then, he says, he only asked his officials out of "curiosity". We are further asked to believe that he did not tell Blair because he did not think the issue was significant - and that he did not bother to correct misleading stories about the claim because, on past form, it was a waste of time.
For months leading up to the invasion, the British public and MPs were told to rely on the September dossier in which Blair wrote that Saddam Hussein's "military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes", that the threat from his WMD was "serious and current", and that "we must ensure that [Saddam] does not get to use the weapons he has".
What we were not told was that by December 2002 the JIC was convinced Iraq's ability to use chemical and biological [CB] weapons "might be constrained" by the presence of UN inspectors. We were not told in March last year, immediately before the invasion of Iraq, that the JIC had reported Iraq's chemical weapons "remained disassembled", that intelligence on Iraqi CB weapons was "inconsistent" and that intelligence on the deployment of weapons was "sparse". All this was revealed in the government's response to the intelligence and security committee.
Parliament cannot allow this subterfuge to continue. The British people have a right to know now what the prime minister was told, and when, and what was kept from him, and why. The government is deluding itself if it imagines a scandal of this magnitude can be made to disappear.
· Richard Norton-Taylor is the Guardian's security affairs editor