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Blair is told: "its time to answer vital questions"

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Blair told: it's time to answer vital questions

Michael White and Matt Wells

Tuesday July 8, 2003

The Guardian

The government was last night confronted with fresh challenges to its case for waging war in Iraq when a Labour dominated Commons committee posed a series of unexpectedly sceptical questions about Whitehall's prewar intelligence assessment.

Far from giving Tony Blair's defence of his government's conduct an easy run, the Commons foreign affairs select committee listed four unanswered questions over claims made in the September dossier about Saddam Hussein's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes and his missing missiles.

As expected, the committee formally acquitted Mr Blair's communications director, Alastair Campbell, of "improper influence" or "sexing up" the dossier by knowingly inserting false claims that Saddam's weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes of an order, and doing so against the advice of intelligence officials. But they still want ministers to say if they continue to believe that claim is accurate.

"We conclude that the 45 minutes claim did not warrant the prominence given to it in the dossier, because it was based on intelligence from a single, uncorroborated source. We recommend that the government explain why the claim was given such prominence," the report states.

It is now up to the much more secretive intelligence and security committee to question M16 in private. It will report in the autumn.

By then ministers will have had time to reply to yesterday's challenges - probably in a matter of weeks, senior officials said.

The four questions the government must answer are:

· Is the September dossier's verdict on Iraq's chemical and biological weapons threat still valid?

· What is the current assessment of the dossier's warnings on Samoud 2 missiles and its claim that Iraq had 20 unaccounted for Hussein missiles?

· When was Jack Straw, foreign secretary, told that documents claiming Iraq had sought uranium from Niger were forged?

· Is the "45 minute" claim accurate in the light of the subsequent war when weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were not used?

No 10 will not readily back off any of its dossier data and yesterday even defended parts of the "dodgy dossier". Privately Blair aides admit that the MPs are right to say that the 300-strong Iraq Survey Group, currently searching for weapons, is crucial to the final verdict on WMD.

The opposition leader, Iain Duncan Smith, called for Mr Blair to apologise for "inadvertently" misleading the Commons.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, called for an independent inquiry because the incomplete report "takes us little further forward".

He complained that the "Auntie v Ali" show had been a cynical sideshow.

Yesterday's report, entitled The Decision to Go to War in Iraq, was hailed as vindication by both Downing Street and the BBC, which has been under intense pressure to admit it made an error and to apologise for first promoting the "sexing up" claim, which it said came from an unnamed intelligence official, on May 29.

As revealed in last Thursday's Guardian, the MPs decided: "We conclude that Alastair Campbell did not play any role in the inclusion of the 45 minute claim" and that "ministers did not mislead parliament" over the "dodgy dossier" published in February and containing material culled from a PhD thesis.

But the report is scathing about that dossier - for which Mr Campbell was responsible - calling it "wholly counter-productive" and presented to parliament in a "fundamentally wrong" way in which the prime minister himself "inadvertently made a bad situation worse".

Last night Mr Campbell denied waging a vendetta against the BBC, but renewed his call for the corporation to admit that allegations first made by a defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, were false, rather than simply defending its right to broadcast them.

He did not call for an apology, but does not intend to drop the issue.

No 10 hinted that its milder tone will make it easier for the BBC to back down. But BBC executives also claimed vindication for their determination, backed by the board of governors, not to be browbeaten. Greg Dyke, the director general, sent staff a congratulatory email and claimed that Mr Campbell had "stepped back" from his sweeping attack on BBC fairness.

Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of news, said he wanted to move on. "We are prepared to draw a line under it today if the government is," he said.

Downing Street continued to complain that the BBC had failed to say whether it be lieved the claims made by Gilligan's source, but Mr Sambrook said it did not have to. The source was senior and credible enough to report his concerns, particularly in the light of concerns about the second, "dodgy", dossier.

John Humphrys, the Radio 4 Today programme presenter, said the episode had proved the BBC's mettle.

"We're an independent news organisation. We take our orders from our bosses and not Alastair Campbell," he told MediaGuardian.co.uk.

The 11-strong committee of MPs reached yesterday's 33 conclusions after a series of votes to toughen its language in which three Tory MPs and one Liberal Democrat were intermittently joined by the committee's Labour chairman, Donald Anderson, and the maverick backbencher Andrew Mackinlay.

But one Tory amendment which would have delivered a sceptical "non proven" verdict on Mr Campbell's role was defeated 6-4, and another 6-5 on Mr Anderson's casting vote, leaving committee members complaining that they had not been given enough documentation to make a proper judgment on the case.

Key points

The committee challenged the government to answer four key questions:

· Does it still consider its September dossier to be accurate

· Does it still consider claims about Iraq's ability to pose a threat within 45 minutes to be accurate

· What is its current assessment of Iraq's missile infrastructure

· When did it learn from the CIA that documents related to claims that Iraq had taken uranium from Niger were forged

Other conclusions

· Ministers did not mislead parliament

· It is too early to tell whether the government's assertions on Iraq's banned weapons will be borne out

· The"dodgy dossier" was badly handled and counter-productive

· The prime minister's presentation of the dossier in parliament "inadvertently made a bad situation worse"

· On the evidence available, Alastair Campbell did not exert improper influence on drafting of September dossier. However, he should not have chaired meetings on intelligence matters

· The first dossier "was in all probability well-founded on the basis of the intelligence then available"

· Andrew Gilligan's contacts should be investigated

· Committee should have been allowed to take evidence from intelligence papers and personnel

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