Blair's burden

Print edition : August 01, 2003
in London

Prime Minister Tony Blair at a meeting of the House of Commons Liaison Committee in London on July 8.-AP/PARLIAMENT TV

A LABOUR-DOMINATED committee, chaired by a Member of Parliament from his own party, was perhaps the last chance for British Prime Minister Tony Blair to salvage something from the wreckage of his Iraq policy. So far, two senior Cabinet Ministers have resigned over the issue and Blair's own popularity has plummeted to its lowest point since he came to power six years ago.

In the event, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which inquired into allegations of manipulation and misuse of intelligence by the government, produced a report that sharply questions Blair's case for going to war. The committee refused to be distracted by Blair's powerful communications chief Alastair Campbell's attempt to turn the inquiry into a battle with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) over a report alleging that he had "sexed up" a key intelligence dossier last September in an attempt to exaggerate the threat from Saddam Hussein.

The committee granted him a minor victory by clearing him of the allegation but once the "sideshow", as one committee member put it, was got out of the way it returned to the one issue which has been at the heart of the controversy over Blair's Iraq policy - namely, the accuracy of the intelligence and how it was presented by the government, more specifically by the Prime Minister's Office in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

In a damaging report, made public on July 7, the 11-member committee stopped short of accusing Blair of intentionally misleading Parliament but concluded that he "misrepresented" the status of a dossier produced by his office in February this year when he claimed contained fresh intelligence about Iraq's weapons capability. The dossier, famously known as the "dodgy dossier" because it was found to have been lifted from an old Ph.D thesis, was also given to the United States Secretary of State Colin Powell who praised it in a crucial speech at the United Nations Security Council.

The committee pointed out that it was "fundamentally wrong" for the Prime Minister to have mentioned it in Parliament as it "inadvertently made a bad situation worse". Opposition MPs have seized on the committee's remarks to demand an explanation from Blair on how a plagiarised dossier was passed off as an intelligence document. They also want to know at what point he got to know of the real nature of the document, and why he did not come to Parliament then to clear the air. Many of his own MPs may not have voted in favour of the war if he had not claimed that there was new intelligence to suggest heightened threat from Iraq.

More embarrassingly for the government, the committee heavily underlined the doubts that still persist about the existence of Iraq's famous weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which were used as the key justification for the invasion but have not been found nearly three months after the war ended. It said the "jury is still out" on the government's WMD claims and called on it to set out whether it still considered those claims to be correct.

While broadly concluding that the claims made in the September dossier were "in all probability well founded on the basis of the intelligence then available," the committee observed: "We further conclude that the jury is still out on the accuracy of the September dossier until substantial evidence of Iraq's WMD, or of their destruction, is found."

John Stanley, a Tory member of the committee, said this was the first time ever that Britain committed its troops to war simply on the basis of intelligence and it was a "fundamental issue" whether that intelligence was accurate.

The committee posed a series of questions which the government must answer. These include: (1) Does it consider the September dossier to be valid in the light of the fact that no weapons have been found? (2) Is the claim that Iraq had the capability to deploy its weapons within "45 minutes" still seen to be accurate considering that no weapons were used? (3) When did Foreign Secretary Jack Straw come to know that documents relating to Iraq's alleged attempt to acquire uranium from Niger were forged? and (4) What is the government's current assessment of Iraq's missile programme?

The committee pulled up the government for "highlighting" the 45-minute claim despite the fact that it was based on a "single source and that there was no corroborating evidence". The committee said: "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."

However, thanks to the casting vote of the committee's chairman Donald Anderson, a Labour MP, Campbell was exonerated of the BBC's allegation that the 45-minute bit was included at his behest in defiance of the wishes of the intelligence community. The committee said that Campbell "did not play any role in the inclusion of the 45-minutes claim" and that "on the basis of the evidence available to us Alastair Campbell did not exert or seek to exert improper influence on the drafting of the September dossier".

But Campbell's role in preparing the discredited February dossier has been heavily criticised. The report blamed him squarely for the way it was prepared and handled and, in a scathing attack, said: "... there can be no doubt that whatever the accuracy of the information it contains, it was disaster. The February dossier was badly handled and was misrepresented as to its provenance and was thus counterproductive."

The Opposition is demanding an independent judicial inquiry into how intelligence was handled and presented, but the government has already rejected the idea. Blair has also refused to apologise to MPs for the "dodgy" dossier saying that the government had already said sorry and that in any case the information contained in the dossier was accurate, even if parts of it had been lifted from a thesis without attribution.

The report has added to the pressure on the Blair government to explain its actions in the build-up to the war. The results of an opinion poll published in The Times a day after the report was released indicated a sharp drop in public support for the invasion and a dramatic erosion in Blair's personal credibility, putting him behind the two main Opposition figures - Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and Liberal Democratic chief Charles Kennedy.

While the government's spin doctors have sought to shrug off the report, even Labour-friendly observers believe that it is bad news for Blair. The Guardian, whose sister publication The Observer supported the war, noted in an editorial that the report underlined "just how desperately hard the government struggled to make its case for going to war in Iraq... in the face of the public... in the face of the facts... and in the face of considerable scepticism inside government and Whitehall." And failed because the case "was not - and is still not - convincing".

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