Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Blair ‘did not respond to crucial reports on WMD’

Times of London -

Tony Blair received two secret intelligence reports saying that Saddam Hussein did not have working weapons of mass destruction just days before ordering the invasion of Iraq.

Sir John Scarlett, the former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, told the official inquiry into the war yesterday that the Prime Minister then did not respond to the reports, which had crucial military significance.

He also distanced himself from Mr Blair’s claim six months before the invasion that “intelligence had established beyond doubt” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Sir John said that he regretted the claim that Saddam could deploy WMD within 45 minutes. He revealed that British Intelligence received a report 13 days before the invasion saying that Saddam did not have missiles that could reach Israel and none that could carry biological or chemical weapons. Sir John agreed that the phrase had been “lost in translation”.

A further report, received on the eve of the war in March 2003, said that Iraq’s chemical weapons had been dispersed and that Saddam had not ordered them to be reassembled.

Sir John said that his reports went directly to the Prime Minister’s office. “I was certainly working absolutely on the basis that these updates were at this stage being read carefully,” he said. “The consequence of concealing \ is they would be difficult to use and that was highly relevant because it would be difficult to use against US, UK military forces. So I am pretty sure it was taken on board.” However, he stressed that the official intelligence assessment that Iraq had useable chemical and biological warfare capabilities that could be delivered by artillery, missiles and possibly unmanned aerial drones had not changed.

Sir John drew up the Government’s dossier in September 2002, which contained the controversial claim that Saddam could deploy WMD within 45 minutes. He said that the report had been “firmed up” just five days before publication when the Joint Intelligence Committee received “reliable and authoritative” new information about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons.

But yesterday Sir John, who became head of MI6 from 2004 until earlier this year, distanced himself from the claim of the Prime Minister then in the foreword of the dossier that

“intelligence had established beyond doubt” that Saddam had WMD. He said that he regarded the foreword as “quite separate” from the rest of the document and did not believe that it was for him to alter Mr Blair’s “overtly political” statement.

Sir John acknowledged that it would have been better if the now infamous claim that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons that could be deployed within 45 minutes had referred to battlefield munitions rather than missiles. But he insisted that it had never been his intention to mislead.

The inquiry refused to question Sir John in public about allegations that the “45-minute” claim was based on gossip from a taxi driver who had overheard a conversation between army officers two years earlier. Sir John Chilcot, the chairman, said that such issues would be dealt with in private.

The inquiry continues.