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Blair in Trouble

The political day begins, in Britain, at six in the morning, when BBC Radio 4’s Today program goes on the air. This is a three-hour news magazine with reportage and political interviews. During the first hour, before the politicians are ready to talk, much of the information tends to be disseminated in the form of “two-ways”—unscripted conversations between the presenters and the correspondents. Later, after the seven and eight o’clock news bulletins, come the key topical political interviews, which successive governments have both craved and feared, for the presenters are mostly first-rate and refuse to let the politicians get away with propaganda.

When relations are bad between the government and the BBC, as during the last years of the last Conservative administration, and as they have been particularly during the last few months, one has to get one’s news through the medium of a quarrel, and this is sometimes tiresome. One therefore values the relative calm and efficiency of the early-morning broadcast, when presenter and reporter, in their professional way, let the listener in on what they expect will be the major developments ahead.

So it was that, on May 29 this year, just after the 6 AM bulletin, I was listening as usual when the following item came up. I reproduce the transcript in full, because the report has cast a long shadow on British politics, leading to warfare between the Blair government and the BBC, the death of an eminent scientist, two parliamentary reports, an official inquiry still sitting, one resignation, and perhaps more to follow. The reporter in this item, Andrew Gilligan, was, on the morning in question, audibly excited, as if he had just come into the studio on receipt of the news (although he had known this new intelligence for some days), and he was having uncharacteristic difficulty in choosing the correct words. It made for startling listening at the time, even if it is hard now to read.

John Humphrys: The government is facing more questions this morning over its claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Our defense correspondent is Andrew Gilligan. This in particular Andy is Tony Blair saying, they’d be ready to go within forty-five minutes.

Andrew Gilligan: That’s right, that was the central claim in his dossier which he published in September, the main er, case if you like against er, against Iraq and the main statement of the British Government’s belief of what it thought Iraq was up to and what we’ve been told by one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up the dossier was that actually the government erm, probably knew that that forty-five-minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in. What this person says, is that a week before the publication date of the dossier, it was actually rather erm, a bland production. It didn’t, the, the draft prepared for Mr. Blair by the intelligence agencies actually didn’t say very much more than was public knowledge already and erm, Downing Street, our source says, ordered a week before publication, ordered it to be sexed up, to be made more exciting, and ordered more facts to be er, to be discovered.

John Humphrys: When you say “more facts to be discovered,” does that suggest that they may not have been facts?

Andrew Gilligan: Well, erm, our source says that the dossier, as it was finally published, made the intelligence services unhappy, erm, because, to quote erm the source he said, there was basically, that there was, there was, there was unhappiness because it didn’t reflect the considered view they were putting forward, that’s a quote from our source and essentially, erm, the forty-five-minute point er, was, was probably the most important thing that was added. Erm, and the reason it hadn’t been in the original draft was that it was, it was only erm, it only came from one source and most of the other claims were from two, and the intelligence agencies say they don’t really believe it was necessarily true because they thought the person making the claim had actually made a mistake, it got, had got mixed up.

John Humphrys: Does any of this matter now, all this, all these months later? The war’s been fought and won.

Andrew Gilligan: Well the forty-five minutes isn’t just a detail, it did go to the heart of the government’s case that Saddam was an imminent threat and it was repeated four times in the dossier, including by the Prime Minister himself, in the foreword; so I think it probably does matter. Clearly, you know, if erm, if it, if it was, if it was wrong, things do, things are, got wrong in good faith but if they knew it was wrong before they actually made the claim, that’s perhaps a bit more serious.

John Humphrys: Andrew, many thanks; more about that later.1

Anyone from the relevant section of the intelligence services listening in to this early report would have been likely to recognize the authenticity of Gilligan’s report on two points: that the information about the forty-five-minute claim was included at a late stage in the government’s publicly distributed report called the “September Dossier,”2 and that it came from an uncorroborated source. Downing Street immediately countered, however, with the assertion that “not one word of the dossier was not entirely the work of the intelligence agencies.”3 Gilligan explained, correctly, later in the program, that the information did indeed come from the agencies but—and this is a point that has been stoutly challenged—that they were unhappy about it, claiming that the source had “misunderstood what was happening.”

At the time of this broadcast, the Today program was still regularly asking questions about the whereabouts of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and gave no sign of losing interest in the topic. This is because in Britain a great public emphasis was placed on the danger posed by Saddam’s possession of, or development of, these weapons. “Regime change,” for us, was not an avowed war aim.

In private, Blair’s calculations were rather different. Sir Peter Stothard, the former editor of the Times of London, was allowed to spend four weeks at Ten Downing Street. In his behind-the-scenes account of the war, he tells us with what seems like the best authority that, in September last year, Blair’s “analysis of the relations between Washington, London and Baghdad was clear and cold,” and rested on “six essential points to which he and his aides would regularly return”:

o Saddam Hussein’s past aggression, present support for terrorism and future ambitions made him a clear threat to his enemies. He was not the only threat, but he was a threat nonetheless.

o The United States and Britain were among his enemies.

o The people of the United States, still angered by the 11 September attacks, still sensing unfinished business from the first Gulf War twelve years before, would support a war on Iraq.

o Gulf War 2—President George W. Bush vs. Saddam Hussein—would happen whatever anyone else said or did.

o The people of Britain, continental Europe and most of the rest of the world would not even begin to support a war unless they had a say in it through the United Nations.

o It would be more damaging to long-term world peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein than if they had international support to do so.

Exactly whose wording this is, Stothard does not make clear. He says:

These six points—when scribbled on the back on an envelope or set out on the printed page—are not exceptional. What is exceptional is the certainty required to follow their logic. It is Tony Blair’s certainty that has been a surprise for many Labour MPs.

But of course in September last year, or at any time since, it would have come as a surprise to most Britons to be told that the reason for our participation in the coming Iraq war rested on points four and six: Bush was going to war anyway, and the United States victory would be “more damaging to long-term world peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein.” We thought America was supposed to be the ally, and Iraq the threat.4 Yet here an American victory is presented as a problem.

It was also in September last year that the government published its dossier on Iraq, with a foreword by Blair, in which the prime minister argued that

Saddam has used chemical weapons, not only against an enemy state, but against his own people. Intelligence reports make clear that he sees the building up of his WMD capability, and the belief overseas that he would use these weapons, as vital to his strategic interests, and in particular his goal of regional domination. And the document discloses that his military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.

Less than a week into the war itself, on March 25, Stothard describes the prime minister preparing himself for a press conference. “Right,” he says to his advisers, “Throw some questions at me.”

We’re taking a lot of desert but no towns,” says [Jonathan] Powell. “What’s going wrong?”

We’re not an army of occupation,” responds the man at the imaginary podium….

Why haven’t we found any chemical weapons?” asks [Sir David] Manning, as though he would really like an answer to that.

We’re concentrating first on the campaign,” says Tony Blair.

The fact that Manning, then Blair’s foreign policy adviser and since the beginning of September UK ambassador to Washington, should see this failure to find WMD as a problem, so early in the war, is striking. On the next page, at the press conference itself, Blair makes a point that Stothard tells us he did not rehearse:

He is asked whether he might have won more pre-war support in the Middle East and elsewhere if he had made his target “dictators of mass destruction, not weapons.” The Prime Minister now admits what has been clear for many days, that he has been “uncomfortable, frankly” within the context and confines of international law and United Nations resolutions. “If Saddam had disarmed and remained in place,” Tony Blair would not have been “comfortable” at all.

To remove that regime will send a huge signal not only to Iraq but right across the world,” he says….

But this does not mean, by the way, that the threat from WMD is no more than a fig leaf for regime change, at least according to Stothard’s evidence. Blair and his advisers, during the war, were anxious to find those weapons, in order to answer the carping of other Security Council members. They were clearly concerned to find them as soon as possible, and Stothard has said in an interview since that everything he knew about Blair and his entourage during the war was consistent with the publicly expressed view that Iraq’s WMD existed.

  1. 1

    Radio 4 Today Programme, May 29, 2003. The full transcript of this program can be found at www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/evidence-lists/evidence-bbc.htm.

  2. 2

    Two UK government dossiers on Iraq have proved notorious in the last year: the September Dossier of 2002 and the so-called “Dodgy Dossier,” produced in February of this year. The September Dossier was called Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction—The Assessment of the British Govern-ment. This was described as “based, in large part, on the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee.” The “Dodgy Dossier,” which posed as intelligence-derived material, was called Iraq—Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation. This proved to contain unattributed, out-of-date information downloaded from the Internet and plagiarized from an academic source.

  3. 3

    Radio 4 Today Programme, May 29, 2003.

  4. 4

    The significance of this passage was underlined by Martin Kettle in “America Wanted War,” The Guardian, July 16, 2003.

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