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Britons left with their suspicions

Boss Hog

TRIBE Member
Britons left with their suspicions
Hutton absolution seemed to be just what Blair needed
But polls indicate public rejection of 'whitewash' report


SANDRO CONTENTA

LONDON - The notion that a politician could suffer from too much of a good thing was surely fanciful until British Prime Minister Tony Blair scored his knockout victory against the BBC last week.

By any measure, it looked like a complete triumph.

Allegations hounding Blair for months — that his office "sexed up" intelligence on Iraq to drag a reluctant country to war — were thoroughly rejected by Lord Brian Hutton's inquiry report.

The vindication Hutton showered on Blair was matched only by the condemnation the former High Court justice heaped on the BBC, which first broadcast the accusations in a radio report last May.

While the public broadcaster was described as editorially rotten from top to bottom, Blair and his officials were fully exonerated in a complex saga that included the suicide of Dr. David Kelly, a government expert on Iraq's weapons.

Kelly, the unnamed source in the BBC's "sexed-up" story, was found dead in a wooded area near his Oxfordshire home July 18. The eminent scientist had downed painkillers and slashed his left wrist.

Within hours of the Hutton report's release Wednesday, Blair was demanding apologies and scalps from all who had questioned his integrity.

Resignations at the BBC came swiftly: first the chairperson, then the chief executive and, on Friday, reporter Andrew Gilligan, the story's author.

Blair had the venerable, muckraking broadcaster on its knees, where many believe he wanted it.

His political rivals, who for weeks had plotted to use Hutton's report to blast Blair's integrity, were left without ammunition.

For a prime minister who began the week facing the prospect of resignation, there was a sudden flash of the invincible Labour party leader of old — the "Teflon Tony" who swept to power in 1997.

And then, almost as quickly, the pendulum swung back, as if the nation collectively imposed a reality check.

Led by a press that roundly described Hutton's conclusions as grossly one-sided, many Britons judged the report too good, for Blair, to be true.

A poll in Friday's Daily Telegraph found 56 per cent of those surveyed agreed the Hutton report was a "whitewash" and that because, the law lord was "too ready to sympathize with the government."

In a Guardian poll the same day, 37 per cent believed Blair should resign, despite having been fully cleared of wrongdoing. And both polls found that people were two or three times more likely to trust the BBC than the government.

"Unfortunately for Mr. Blair and the government, they had already established a reputation for not always telling the truth, for being somewhat dodgy," says political scientist Anthony King, who analyzed the poll for the Telegraph.

"And one judge's report about one incident is not going to transform a general impression that has been created over several years."

Nor does it help Blair that the more people read the Hutton report, the more they conclude the judge disregarded evidence that seems to corroborate the main thrust of the BBC story — that intelligence contained in a pre-war dossier was "sexed up" and that some in the intelligence services were unhappy about it.

If people remember anything about the infamous dossier, it's the claim — repeated four times — that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction could be launched "within 45 minutes" of an order to do so.

Not only have such weapons not been found, the man Washington appointed to head the post-war hunt for them, David Kay, concluded last week that Saddam Hussein didn't have any WMD before the U.S. and British invasion.

Hutton decided it was beyond his mandate to judge whether the intelligence was faulty.

Still, Blair's main justification for war — Saddam's imminent threat — has gone up in smoke, and King says it's not doing his credibility any good.

"The issue of Blair's general veracity and integrity will not go away. Seeds of doubt have been planted in people's minds, and they've germinated."

Blair insists on waiting for the final report of the Iraq Survey Group before conceding that banned weapons don't exist. But with even President George W. Bush making clear Friday that pre-war intelligence was faulty, Blair is cutting a lonely — some say ridiculous — figure.

"Now that even the White House has admitted that we're probably never going to find weapons of mass destruction, I do think it's very difficult for the British government to pretend that some day pigs might fly and the weapons will turn up," said Robin Cook, who resigned his cabinet post last March to protest Blair's push for war.

On Tuesday, Blair will face a parliamentary committee and some believe he may muse about faulty intelligence.

In one sense, pleading bad intelligence gets Blair off the hook. If indeed he did mislead the country on Iraq's imminent threat, he could argue he did so in good faith.

But anti-war Labour MPs, the opposition and respected spymasters want an inquiry to determine why Britain's spy services got Iraq's threat so wrong.

Sir John Walker, former chief of Defence Intelligence, told the BBC that such fundamental mistakes are potentially too dangerous to shrug off.

"We have attacked a country that we thought had weapons of mass destruction, and it turns out that they didn't," he said.

"I ask you to consider what happens if, next time, we go somewhere we didn't think had weapons of mass destruction, and they did. We could end up with a considerable number of body bags."

Defence analyst Paul Beaver argues that too much of Britain's pre-war intelligence on Iraq was based on defectors' reports.

"We all know defectors exaggerate," he says. "They tell people what they think they want to hear."

Blair is firmly resisting calls for another inquiry about the war, wishing to draw no further attention to a debate that has divided both his party and the country.

But evidence at the Hutton inquiry has fuelled questions about the quality of British intelligence and the role of political pressure.

The dossier's most spectacular claim — that weapons of mass destruction could be launched within 45 minutes — was received by Britain's intelligence services on Aug. 29, 2002, while staff were already drafting the document Blair would make public a month later.

"Our concern was that what we were hearing was second-hand information," says Brian Jones, who heads the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons section of the Defence Intelligence Analysis Staff.

He agrees with Hutton that "a person in Iraq had been told by another person in Iraq that these weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes."

Last week, the Guardian newspaper quoted an official with the Iraqi National Accord saying his rebel group passed the "45-minutes" information to Britain's M16 spy agency.

The information came from a lieutenant-colonel in the Iraqi army, named al-Dabbagh, who is now reportedly in hiding.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph several weeks ago, al-Dabbagh said the information he passed on was based on talk from superiors. He said he never actually saw the weapons.

Jones told the inquiry his unit lacked "collateral intelligence that allowed us to add confidence, if you like, to this single source.

"We had not seen the weapons being produced. We had no evidence of any recent testing or field trials and things like that. So that all cast some doubts in our minds on that particular piece of intelligence."

Besides, the intelligence report was clearly referring to battlefield munitions — artillery shells, mortars and rockets — that could be filled with biological or chemical weapons.

Jones made clear he did not consider those to be weapons of mass destruction, partly because battlefield munitions don't travel far. On Sept. 19, he wrote a letter to his boss expressing concern that intelligence in the dossier was being expressed too strongly.

Jones said the concerns were known to David Kelly, who wrote a small part of the dossier and saw drafts of it.

Blair's dossier to parliament contained nothing that limited the threat to battlefield weapons. Newspaper headlines the next day claimed Britons could be hit by long-range weapons of mass destruction.

No one in Blair's government thought it important to rectify the public misperception.

Asked at the inquiry if the 45-minute claim was given "undue prominence" in the dossier, Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, said: "Well, I think given the misinterpretation that was placed on the 45-minute intelligence, with the benefit of hindsight you can say that is a valid criticism."

Still, he defended the intelligence as accurate.

By the time Jones wrote his memo of concern, the Sept. 19 draft of the 45-minute claim included this passage:

"Intelligence indicates that the Iraqi military are able to deploy chemical and biological weapons within forty-five minutes of an order to do so."

An earlier draft was more equivocal, saying Iraq "may be able to deploy" the deadly weapons. But Blair's former communications director, Alastair Campbell, wanted "stronger" language.

The head of the intelligence committee approving the drafts, John Scarlett, changed it to "are able to deploy."

The way the 45-minute claim was handled is one reason Gilligan insists he got most of the story right.

What he got wrong was a statement he made at 6:07 a.m. — in an unscripted "talk back" with the radio show's presenter — that Blair's office "probably knew" the 45-minute claim was wrong, yet put it in the dossier nonetheless.

It's an accusation Gilligan didn't repeated in his subsequent stories. Still, his sloppy journalism cost the BBC dearly, even as it opened the door to what may be the most important post-war story yet.

Hutton's ruling on the controversy saved Blair from an issue that could have forced his resignation.

He gave Blair and his officials blanket absolution, but his inquiry fuelled suspicions that won't go away.

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