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Blair's plea of ignorance no smart move



TONY Blair is a master of detail. He has made his career from having minute facts at his disposal, then using them with surgical precision. This is why it is so hard to believe that he sent Britain into war without being fully briefed on Iraqís weapons.

The Prime Minister has only himself to blame for the incredulity sweeping Westminster. He regularly astonishes his allies and enemies with his stamina - and ability to stand three hours being grilled by MPs without one single error.

And this, we are now asked to believe, is the same Mr Blair who neither asked nor was told that Saddam Husseinís weapons of mass destruction could not fit on missiles.

The chemical and biological weapons which could be deployed within 45 minutes - a central claim to his Iraq dossier - were only fit to be fired across a battlefield. MI6 knew this; Geoff Hoon knew this but Britainís Prime Minister was kept in the dark.

Convinced? Neither is any MP in the House of Commons in spite of their protestations of loyalty yesterday - all of whom have seen Mr Blairís extraordinary memory and attention to detail in close action.

The smell of foul play was being made even stronger yesterday by Mr Hoonís performance on BBC Radio and while giving evidence to the foreign affairs committee. He is asking us to believe that he did not read press coverage of the Iraq dossier.

The Defence Secretary can be forgiven for bypassing the newspapers most days. Many ministers do: but the headlines are normally read out to them by officials who scan cuttings and tell the Secretary of State everything he needs to know.

The coverage of the September dossier was crucial for Britain because the media - and not government documents - is the conduit to which political information is imparted to the British people.

Mr Hoon needed to know what the public considered to be the case for war. Certainly, he was on a government trip to Warsaw and the Ukraine, but Blairite ministers are never out of touch with the media. Ever.

They have a coterie of advisers who skim headlines, and tell them the messages. They have advisers who listen to radio broadcasts at 6am and phone up producers to complain.

So the day after Mr Blairís dossier, was the Secretary of State for Defence living in such a bubble that he neither inquired nor was told what the country was reading about the case for war? This is implausible.

And it also contradicts what he told Lord Huttonís inquiry over the summer, when he said he was "aware" of the headlines (if not having deigned to read them himself). They said that Saddamís banned weapons could be launched in 45 minutes.

Launched, that is, on the end of long-range missiles and able to hit British forces in Cyprus. This was the clear impression given by the dossier - and, if Mr Blair is to be believed, it is an impression he wrongly considered to be true.

So while the Prime Minister and Britain was being told this incorrect story, Mr Hoon, meanwhile, instantly knew that these weapons would only be used on a battlefield. So why, he was again asked yesterday, didnít he tell the Prime Minister this was wrong?

"As far as Iím concerned, this was not a matter of great public concern at the time," Mr Hoon said. So why didnít he at least advise the newspapers? Here comes the least plausible excuse of them all.

"I spend more time than I care to trying to correct misleading items in newspapers and the media. My experience is that they are extremely resistant. This is an area where I do not feel that the government would have had much success."

At the time, the Daily Mirror and the Independent were desperate for facts to prove that No 10ís dossier was exaggerated: both newspapers would have devoted their front page to Mr Hoonís revelation. And pro-war newspapers would find it intriguing that this detail was left out of the dossier.

Mr Hoon would have known this - and, even if he didnít, his media advisers would be under no illusion. This is a government which came to power on its ability to master media psychology: these are skills it is paranoid about retaining.

It is far more likely that Mr Hoon, and No 10, were quite happy that the media had jumped to the conclusion that Saddamís weapons could be fired by missiles. It hardened the case for war, without any mendacity from government.

It would take a complete absence of political acumen not to realise that ministers could, in one phone call, make clear that Saddamís chemical and biological weapons would not reach his neighbours.

It takes a complete absence of political acumen to think that this is not an important fact. While this may be true of Mr Hoon, it is emphatically not true of Mr Blair.

Which leaves open the final question: why should the Prime Minister lie about something like this? Why should he pretend to be ignorant of such a crucial fact? Had he been spinning so much that he had forgotten where the truth really lay?

In the House of Commons, this is the mystery beginning to be spoken about. Mr Blairís enemies believe he can be ruthless and mendacious - but not lazy or ignorant. His plea of ignorance just doesnít stack up.

We now know that, on the eve of the war, British intelligence reported that the 45-minute claim was no longer certain - and that Saddamís chemical weapons had not even been assembled.

The 45-minute claim, says the Foreign Office, was only ever intended to be a "snapshot of Iraq at the time". It could be that the Prime Minister stopped thinking about it.

The Butler inquiry, set up to investigate use of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, will not get to the bottom of this as it has no remit to quiz politicians. A week after Lord Huttonís report, the mystery seems deeper than ever.