Exposed: Blair, Iraq and the great deception

By Ben Russell, Political Correspondent

Independent (UK)

18 June 2003

Tony Blair was charged with deliberately misleading the public over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction yesterday as two former cabinet ministers revealed that MI6 believed Saddam Hussein's arsenal posed no immediate threat.

In an extraordinary public hearing at Westminster, Clare Short and Robin Cook told MPs that intelligence chiefs had concluded that the risk of Saddam using chemical or biological weapons was not high.

Ms Short, the former secretary of state for international development, said Mr Blair was guilty of "honourable deception" and claimed he used "a series of half-truths, exaggerations, reassurances that were not the case to get us into conflict by the spring.

"I believe that the Prime Minister must have concluded that it was honourable and desirable to back the US in going for military action in Iraq and therefore it was honourable for him to persuade us through various ruses and ways to get us there - so for him I think it was an honourable deception," said Ms Short.

Mr Cook, the former foreign secretary, accused ministers of "not presenting the whole picture" and presenting selective evidence to back the case for war.

Both former ministers said Mr Blair exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and condemned the Government's dossier on Saddam's arsenal as "shoddy" and "thin".

They spoke out at the start of the all-party Commons Foreign Affairs Committee's inquiry into Mr Blair's handling of the run-up to war.

Their testimony, based on detailed knowledge of intelligence reports from Iraq and personal briefings with senior figures from the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, undermined repeated claims made by Mr Blair and other senior ministers that Saddam represented an imminent threat to the Middle East and world.

Mr Cook told MPs that in his briefing with the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee: "I heard nothing to contradict anything I said in my resignation statement that Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction in the understood sense of the term."

Mr Cook, who saw all intelligence reports on Iraq between 1997 and 2001, said he did not believe that Saddam had succeeded in building biological weapons. He revealed that concerns about Iraq had eased to such an extent in the late 1990s that Britain considered "closing the files" on Saddam's nuclear and long-range missile programmes.

Ms Short, who saw raw intelligence reports and was briefed repeatedly by MI6 and the Defence Intelligence Staff before the war, said: "There is a risk, but the risk of use is not high, was probably the tone."

She insisted that she had never heard Mr Blair's now infamous claim that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons "within 45 minutes" in any of her intelligence reports.

Both former ministers bitterly attacked the Government's dossiers on Iraq's weapons. Mr Cook said of the first dossier: "I was taken aback at how thin the dossier was. There was a striking absence of any recent and alarming firm intelligence. The great majority was derivative.

"The plain fact is that a lot of the intelligence in the dossier turned out to be wrong.

"Stripped down, there was very little in that document that presented new alarming evidence of an imminent threat."

He said the second dossier - criticised as "dodgy" after it was revealed to include material from a PhD thesis culled from the internet - had been a "glorious and spectacular own goal", while Ms Short said it was a "shameful piece of work".

Mr Cook said: "There was a selection of evidence to support a conclusion, rather than a conclusion that arose from a full consideration of the evidence."

Ms Short added: "This phrase 'weapons of mass destruction'. When that is used, people think of bombs full of chemical and biological weapons waiting to rain out of the skies. They don't think of scientists in laboratories doing experiments ... That is where the falsity lies. Yes, he [Saddam] was dedicated to scientists carrying out chemical or biological work, but the suggestion to the public was it was all weaponised and a dangerous threat."

Mr Cook said: "Iraq was an appallingly difficult intelligence target to break. There was very little human intelligence on the ground and no hope of putting in a Western intelligence agent." But he warned: "The absence of intelligence is a bloody thin ground on which to go to war."

Ms Short used her hour-long appearance to attack Mr Blair's style of government, accusing a cabal of unelected advisers of sidelining the Cabinet and the Foreign Office in the approach to war.

She said: "Things were not decided properly; no records, no papers; in the Prime Minister's study - all informal with a small group of in people."

Downing Street declined to respond to the claims.

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "This reinforces our call for an independent judicial inquiry."