Blair's war: PM ignored intelligence advice on Iraq

By Paul Waugh and Kim Sengupta

12 September 2003

Another of Tony Blair's main justifications for war on Iraq was blown apart yesterday by the disclosure that intelligence chiefs had warned that deposing Saddam Hussein would increase the risk of terror attacks on Britain.

The Prime Minister told Parliament and the public earlier this year that the West had to act against Baghdad to prevent chemical and biological weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists.

But exactly two years after al-Qa'ida's 11 September attack, a committee of MPs revealed that the Mr Blair had been told that the threat from Osama bin Laden "would be heightened by military action against Iraq". The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), chaired by the Labour MP Ann Taylor, also criticised the Government's dossier on the Iraqi threat, concluding that key claims should have been omitted or heavily qualified.

The ISC's report put further pressure on Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, accusing him of giving "unhelpful and potentially misleading evidence" on the extent of dissent within the MoD about the dossier.

But the political spotlight switched firmly to Mr Blair himself after the ISC revealed for the first time details of a briefing he received from intelligence chiefs in the run-up to the war.

As MPs prepared to vote on the war on 18 March, he even said that links between Iraq and al-Qa'ida were hardening. "The possibility of the two coming together, of terrorists groups in possession of a weapon of mass destruction or even a so-called dirty radiological bomb - is now in my judgement a real and present danger to Britain and its national security," he said.

Yet just over five weeks before the American-led invasion of Iraq, Mr Blair was told secretly by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) that there was no evidence of any link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Crucially, the JIC "assessed that al-Qa'ida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests and that threat would be heightened by military action".

The assessment, dated 10 February 2003 and titled "International Terrorism: War with Iraq", warned that the fall of Saddam would risk aiding the transfer of weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. "The JIC assessed that any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists," it said.

In his private evidence to the ISC in July, Mr Blair admitted that "there was obviously a danger that in attacking Iraq you ended up provoking the very thing you were trying to avoid". He said he judged the risk of inaction was worse. "I suppose time will tell whether it's true or it's not true," he said.

The revelation is potentially highly damaging to the Prime Minister precisely because he appears to have overriden advice from intelligence experts.

Mr Blair's spokesman said the JIC warning of the heightened terrorist threat had not been discussed in full Cabinet.

Robin Cook, who resigned as Leader of the House of Commons just before the war, said: "Both of the Government's principal reasons for going to war have been demolished. They said there were weapons of mass destruction and there are none. They also said they wanted to curb the threat from terrorism. This report shows that Mr Blair was warned terrorism would get worse."

The ISC concluded that the September dossier had not been "sexed up" by Alastair Campbell or anyone in Downing Street. Its report makes clear, though, that the dossier was altered to present Saddam as a current and imminent threat, singling out for criticism the claim that chemical and biological weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes.

The MPs said the dossier should have made clear the claim related not to missiles that could attack the West but only to battlefield munitions. They also criticised the removal from the final dossier of an admission by Mr Blair in an early draft that Saddam could not launch a nuclear attack on the UK.