5 February 2004

A little light Hansard

In his resignation speech of 17 March 2003, Robin Cook told the House of Commons:

Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term?namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target. It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s when US companies sold Saddam anthrax agents and the then British Government approved chemical and munitions factories. Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for years, and which we helped to create? Why is it necessary to resort to war this week, while Saddam's ambition to complete his weapons programme is blocked by the presence of UN inspectors?

In today's debate on the Hutton report, Tony Blair said that he did not understand (when the September dossier was published) that the 45 minute claim did not refer to nuclear weapons but only to battlefield weapons.

Blair was then asked if he knew the difference before the war vote on 18 March, and answered:

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Prime Minister says that all the intelligence about the 45 minutes was made available. As he will be well aware, it has subsequently emerged that this related to battlefield weapons or small-calibre weaponry. In the eyes of many, if that information had been available, those weapons might not have been described as weapons of mass destruction threatening the region and the stability of the world. When did the Prime Minister know that information? In particular, did he know it when the House divided on 18 March?

The Prime Minister : No. I have already indicated exactly when this came to my attention. It was not before the debate on 18 March last year. The hon. Gentleman says that a battlefield weapon would not be a weapon of mass destruction, but if there were chemical, biological or nuclear battlefield weapons, they most certainly would be weapons of mass destruction. The idea that their use would not threaten the region's stability I find somewhat eccentric.

Cook addressed this issue later in the same debate:

There is one question that I have for the Butler inquiry to consider. I think that it falls within its remit, however narrow that may be. I have never doubted that Ministers believed all the information in the September dossier when that dossier was presented to Parliament, but I would be surprised if they believed all of it by the time the House was asked in March to vote for war. I say that because in between those two points we had two months of inspections by Hans Blix and the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq. We had given those inspectors, perfectly properly and correctly, our intelligence to guide them where to look, and they found nothing. Hans Blix has observed, "My God, if this was their best intelligence, what was the rest like?"

Those blank results were fed back to our intelligence agencies by the weapons inspectors. I would like the Butler inquiry to consider whether that knowledge that our intelligence had proved faulty changed any of the evaluation by the intelligence agencies of the threat from Saddam. If so, why did Ministers not tell the House before we went to war?

I shall pick up on the exchange between the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister earlier this afternoon. If I heard it correctly?I may have misheard it?the hon. Gentleman asked my right hon. Friend whether he was aware by March that we were considering battlefield weapons rather than wider long-range weapons of mass destruction.

If I heard him correctly, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said no. I am bound to say that I was surprised by that answer. The House will recall that in my resignation speech I made the very point that we were considering battlefield weapons and that Saddam probably had no real weapons of mass destruction. I invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who will reply to the debate, to consider with his advisers whether it might not be wise to qualify the Prime Minister's answer when he replies. I find it difficult to reconcile with what I knew, and what I am sure my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister knew when we had the vote in March.

Defence Secretary Hoon then confirmed his evidence before Hutton on 23 September 2003 (Para 225). Asked why he had not briefed Blair he resorted to bromides about how government works but then let the cat out of the bag:

The 45-minute claim was used so frequently not because it could be linked to the threat of missiles reaching here but because it was the only information in the document that implied that Iraq must already have the weapons, because it could get them to an unstated location 45 minutes later. That was the only evidence, and it contradicted the actual conclusions of the JIC, which is why so much was made of that claim.

It seems that Blair could not be briefed on the 45 minute claim because abandoning it would mean abandoning the very notion that the CBW weapons even existed. Be very clear when you read the Hoon speech:

it was the only information in the document that implied that Iraq must already have the weapons

Clearly, the Blair government has decided to adopt the Sgt Schultz defence first pioneered by the Man of Steel.

The prime minister's knowledge of the battlefield weapons/strategic weapons difference, and the time of that knowledge, was then a principal point of contention in the Commons debate on the Hutton report. Let us return to His Lordship himself:

A consideration of this distinction does not fall within my terms of reference, but the distinction was noted and commented on by the ISC in paragraphs 111 and 112 of its report presented to Parliament by the Prime Minister in September 2003:

111. Saddam was not considered a current or imminent threat to mainland UK, nor did the dossier say so. As we said in our analysis of the JIC Assessments, the most likely chemical and biological munitions to be used against Western forces were battlefield weapons (artillery and rockets), rather than strategic weapons. This should have been highlighted in the dossier.

Is it really Blair's position that he did not read the September 2003 ISC report, or the March 2003 Cook speech, and that at no stage between September 2003 and Match 2004 no-one made him aware of the difference. And is that really a credible position?

In summary Blair ought to have known the 45 minute claim related only to CBW battlefield weapons because:

  • Cook knew and said so publicly in March 2003 before the war vote
  • Hoon knew at some unspecified time before the war vote
  • the ISC knew in September 2003
  • in Britain the ISC reports to the prime minister

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