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MI6, Jack Straw, defence staff: Blair ignored them all


His public assertions on Iraq were at odds with what he was told in private

John Ware
Saturday March 26, 2005
The Guardian

I was recently speaking to a former senior civil servant about the prime minister's relationship with the truth. "Has he got one?" he asked. He was deadly serious.

Because of the way Tony Blair made the case for war with Iraq, quite a lot of people have begun to think the relationship is tenuous. The suggestion that he found in the attorney general a lawyer who fortuitously told him that what he wanted to do was legal adds to the perception. Blair himself denies anyone was deceived.

It would be fairer, perhaps, to ask why some of his claims in public during the build-up to war, when compared to what was going on in private, show up inconsistencies that more than two years on have still to be explained.

Central to this question is a meeting on July 23 2002. The minutes were taken by Blair's private secretary, and were not to be discussed with anyone not on the circulation list. This excluded most cabinet ministers.

The prime minister was at a crossroads. Having told the White House he wouldn't "budge" in his support for regime change, he had sought to persuade the president at their summit in April that, in return for British troops, Bush should seek as much support as possible through the UN for invasion, if that's what it came to.

By July, the neocons had chipped away at the president's flirtation with multilateralism. Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, and Kevin Tebbit, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, had returned from separate visits to the US and were reporting that an invasion was inevitable.

Would the prime minister continue with his commitment to the Americans and risk a huge split within the parliamentary Labour party; or would he pull out and risk damage to the alliance?

Dearlove reported that the "facts and the intelligence" were being "fixed" by the Americans "round the policy", meaning not that they were inventing the intelligence on WMD, but that they were trawling around for intelligence to support the decision President Bush had already made to replace the Iraqi regime. Did something similar happen here?

People close to Blair have told me that whenever he was invited to rethink his commitment to Bush, he closed down the conversation. Following the July 23 meeting, he redoubled his efforts to get Bush to go through the UN, in part to make it palatable to the PLP - provided the UN did not dictate the terms or timing of an invasion.

His problem was that British public opinion was lagging far behind the rapidly advancing American military timetable. The intelligence case had to be built up, in order to convince the public that the removal of Saddam Hussein was worth British troops dying for.

Prior to July 23, the prime minister had been told the intelligence on Saddam still having weapons of mass destruction was thin. The joint intelligence committee, described it as "patchy" and "sporadic" and the defence and overseas secretariat said "our intelligence is poor". Two-thirds of MI6's intelligence on Iraq in 2002 had been coming from just two main sources.

A draft dossier summarising the intelligence for the public had been postponed the previous March, partly because it was not convincing - though Blair flatly denied this at the time. We now know that the day after it was postponed, Peter Ricketts, the Foreign Office's political director, had penned his thoughts for Jack Straw to pass on to the prime minister: "I am relieved that you decided to postpone publication ... even the best of Iraq's WMD programmes ... have not, so far as we know, been stepped up."

On July 23, Jack Straw again said he was not convinced Iraq posed a threat sufficient to warrant an invasion, having previously put this in writing to the prime minister. Straw thought the case was "thin".

But Blair's commitment to the president was unshakeable. Following the meeting, MI6 revisited its handful of main sources, urging them to go out and get everything they could. The driving force for this was presentation. There was to be a new dossier.

In August came four reports that were influential. One was from an MI6 source who had previously reported reliably on non-WMD issues but who had been tasked to find out what he could about weapons. Back came what turned out to be the nonsense about Saddam's ability to deploy chemical and biological weapons in 45 minutes. The JIC took this as confirmation that Saddam did actually have chemical and biological weapons.

When MI6 interviewed the source after the war, he is said to have denied ever having sent his message in the terms in which it had been reported.

The political imperative set by July 23 had a further disastrous consequence midway through the drafting of the dossier. A new source, who MI6 now suspect was in financial difficulties and may have spun a yarn for money, claimed for the first time positively to have details of the locations of chemical agent production. Again, there was no time to get collateral because the prime minister had set a deadline for the dossier's presentation to parliament, which he was about to specially recall.

A reliable source concludes that, as a result of the July 23 prime ministerial summit, "there was a direct cause and effect" between the arrival of last-minute uncorroborated intelligence and the political imperative set by Blair in order to keep his commitment to Bush.

It's now clear that the JIC lost its critical faculties by failing to spot that the intelligence was being fixed around that policy, much as the Americans were doing. The committee had allowed itself to become sucked into helping Blair make the case for war.

Yet if the JIC gave these new, meagre, intelligence pickings credibility beyond their merit, Blair went a step further in his foreword to the dossier by asserting the intelligence was "beyond doubt", reinforced in parliament by his assertion that the intelligence picture was "extensive, detailed and authoritative". It was nothing of the sort, and we know from Lord Butler's review that he had been told of its inherent weaknesses.

Was the fervour of Blair's belief in weapons such that he did not recognise these weaknesses? Or, did he deliberately hide them because, as Robin Cook says, he was committed to the Americans?

Blair had also been told by the attorney general of the risks he ran in going to war without the explicit support of the UN security council. To this day, these caveats have not been disclosed to parliament or even the cabinet.

In judging the truthfulness of the prime minister on Iraq, the central question remains: how he reconciles what he said in public with what he knew in private.

� John Ware is a BBC Panorama reporter; his programme, Iraq: the Truth and Tony, was broadcast last Sunday
www.bbc.co.uk/panorama

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