9 February 2004

A little heavy Hansard

Back in September 2003, the Intelligence and Security Committee expressed concern about the way the 45-minute claim as presented in the September dossier. The Government Response to the Intelligence and Security Committee Report on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction has now appeared, although with an odd lack of fanfare. To quote:

12. But the Committee also criticises (paragraphs 110 and 111) the way in which some of the detail in the dossier was presented. It believes that the uncertainty over Saddam�s chemical and biological capacity should have been highlighted to give a balanced view; that the nature of the threat should have been more clearly spelt out, in particular that Saddam was not considered a current or imminent threat to mainland UK; and that the most likely chemical and biological munitions to be used against Western forces were battlefield weapons (artillery and rockets) rather than strategic weapons. The Committee also notes (paragraph 112) that, as the dossier was for public consumption and not for experienced readers of intelligence material, the context of the intelligence on the 45 minutes claim should have been explained, in particular the fact that it was assessed to refer to battlefield chemical and biological munitions and their movement on the battlefield.

13. The Government believes that the dossier did present a balanced view of Iraq�s CBW capability based on the intelligence available. The dossier made clear (paragraph 14, page 16) that the withdrawal of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) had greatly diminished the ability of the international community to monitor and assess Iraq�s continued efforts to reconstitute its programmes. It also noted (paragraph 13, page 16) that UNSCOM was unable to account for significant quantities of agents, precursors and munitions.

The British government had an opportunity to correct the 45 minute error. It did not do so. Unexplained and undeveloped statements that merely say: 'We were right' do not assist their case, except to suggest they have attended Lord Hutton's school for arguing the impossible.

Tony Blair claims to have told parliament exactly when he understood that the 45 minute claim applied only to battlefield weapons. I have searched the Hutton report debate and Blair's appearance before the Liaison Committee. Beyond saying it was after the war vote on 18 March he has not actually given an exact time. I suspect he will have to give a more exacting answer or face much more exacting questions in the next few days.

According to the Independent, the Joint Intelligence Committee sent an assessment to the government before 18 March 2003 in which they stated that the 45 minute claim applied only to battlefield CBW weapons. Has the Man of Steel seconded some of his staff to Number 10? Did Blair throw the JIC assessment overboard?

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