The WMD ignorance of Tony Blair

SINCE September 2002, I have been writing regularly about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and the claim that within 45 minutes, British interests could be at risk.

SINCE September 2002, I have been writing regularly about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and the claim that within 45 minutes, British interests could be at risk.

This assertion was one of the primary reasons given for going to war.

At no time was I ever contacted and told I was wrong. This newspaper is read by Labour MPs, the regional office of the Labour Party, Labour's headquarters, 10 Downing Street, the Government Office for the East of England, the Ministry of Defence's east region media officer and across the globe on the Internet.

The point was well-made in the Commons debate on Wednesday by Suffolk Coastal Conservative, John Gummer. "In a Government which is known constantly to urge the Press and the BBC to correct their mistakes, why did no one press the newspapers to correct what they new to be untrue - the headlines that suggested that the 45 minute claim referred to the sort of weapons that most of us thought threatened immediately and directly the great capitals of, at least, the middle east and, many thought, even of Europe?"

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The way I and every other lobby-based journalist interpreted the so-called dodgy dossier was never corrected. Therefore, what I was saying was accurate. But apparently nobody told the Prime Minister.

Questioned during Wednesday's Commons debate on the Hutton Inquiry, Mr Blair said he had not known what sort of weapons were being referred to at the time of the crucial vote on March 18 - six months after the publication of the infamous dossier.

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"I have already indicated exactly when this came to my attention. It wasn't before the debate on March 18 last year," he told MPs.

Michael Ancram, shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "It beggar's belief." It certainly does.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said yesterday the type of weapon the 45-minute claim referred to was "not a huge issue" at the time.

Asked on BBC Breakfast why he had not corrected the wrong impression in the media that Britain could have been attacked by Saddam Hussein's regime with weapons of mass destruction in under an hour, Mr Hoon replied: "I didn't see those newspapers, so the question of a correction did not arise, as far as I was concerned."

Asked on Sky News who was to "blame"' for not informing the Prime Minister that the 45-minute point referred only to battlefield weapons, Mr Hoon replied: "I don't believe there is a question of blame."

He added: "As far as I'm concerned, this was not a matter of great public concern at the time."

I'm sorry, Secretary of State, but you're wrong.

MPs of all parties voted to take military action in the belief that weapons could be fired against British interests - particularly in Cyprus - at 45 minutes notice.

Of course, battlefield WMDs are still appalling. Using them in a theatre of war, or against the Kurds, would have been an act of barbarity on Saddam's part. But, of course, no weapons have been found, and even if they had, it does not get over the fundamental point that nothing was done by the Government to dispel the belief that these WMD's were not battlefield but large tactical missiles which were being hidden in the sands of Iraq.

Downing Street says the original MI6 report on the 45 minute point had not specified the "delivery system" involved and so there had been no reason for the Prime Minister to ask the question.

As former Overseas Development Secretary Clare Short said in the Commons: "Surely the crucial point for the world is that the dossier exaggerated how immediate the threat was, and that was the justification to rush to war by a preordained date."

Former foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned from the Government over the war, said he was "surprised"' by Mr Blair's claim not to know the nature of the weapons covered.

"In my resignation speech I did make the very point that we were considering battlefield weapons and that Saddam probably had no real weapons of mass destruction. I find it difficult to reconcile what I knew and what I am sure the Prime Minister knew at the time we had the vote in March."

What an utter shambles. This week's revelations cast a huge shadow over the findings of the Hutton Report, which exonerated the Government of mendacity and threw the whole blame for the Kelly affair on the BBC.

The new inquiry into intelligence failings, ordered this week, must be empowered to look "dodgy" dossier and find out why the Prime Minister didn't know what seemingly everyone else in Whitehall and the media did.

Air Marshal Sir John Walker, a former chief of defence intelligence and deputy chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, believes "an inquiry just into intelligence will not do much good.

"It was not just the intelligence supplied that took into the war. Others took that decision. What we have seen is an example to a government that has tried to use the JIC as a public relations exercise. It doesn't look as if it has been a great success."

The Liberal Democrats have opted out of the all-party inquiry. Foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell said the reception given to the Hutton report showed that "an inquiry which excluded politicians from scrutiny is unlikely to command public confidence."

Sir Menzies said the Prime Minister and others should be willing to submit to scrutiny their competence and judgment in the discharge of their responsibilities.

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