x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Blair aide Alastair Campbell tight-lipped on 'dodgy dossier' claim

Campbell's only comment on the controversy was a message on Twitter saying: "Dossier not case for war. Set out why govt more concerned re Iraq WMD. Never met Gen Laurie."

LONDON // Tony Blair's closest aide refused to respond yesterday to allegations by a senior intelligence official that he "made the case" to go to war with Iraq.

Alastair Campbell's only comment on the controversy was a message on Twitter saying: "Dossier not case for war. Set out why govt more concerned re Iraq WMD. Never met Gen Laurie."

Mr Campbell, Mr Blair's communications director and his closest confidant, was referring to a letter published on Thursday by the Iraq inquiry in which Major Gen Michael Laurie accused Mr Campbell of skewing a report on Saddam Hussein harbouring weapons of mass destruction.

During inquiry questioning, Mr Campbell denied that a controversial dossier, which was made public and contained the false claim that Saddam Hussein had WMDs capable of being deployed in 45 minutes, was about promoting the "case for war".

When the dossier was published in September 2002, it gained worldwide attention and convinced many Britons, including a crucial number of MPs belonging to the ruling Labour Party, that the only solution was to topple Saddam militarily.

More than a year later, the letter from Gen Laurie, the defence ministry's director-general of intelligence collection from 2002 to 2003, was published by the inquiry, headed by Sir John Chilcot.

In it, Gen Laurie states: "Alastair Campbell said to the inquiry that the purpose of the dossier was not 'to make a case for war'.

"I had no doubt at that time this was exactly its purpose and these very words were used."

Gen Laurie says that the head of military intelligence, Air Marshal Sir Joe French, was "under pressure" to come up with proof of Saddam's weapons programmes.

The general says that it was clear to him that pressure was also being applied to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), whose chairman, Sir John Scarlett, put his name as author of the dossier.

"We knew at the time that the purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence, and that to make the best out of sparse and inconclusive intelligence the wording was developed with care," writes Gen Laurie.

"We could find no evidence of planes, missiles or equipment that related to WMD, generally concluding that they must have been dismantled, buried or taken abroad.

"There has probably never been a greater detailed scrutiny of every piece of ground in any country."

As Britain prepared to join the US-led invasion in the spring of 2003, the BBC first reported that the dossier had, in fact, been exaggerated to make a case for war - a claim that brought a furious response from Mr Campbell and, eventually, separate parliamentary and government inquiries.

David Kelly, a former UN weapons inspector who was named as the source of the BBC report, subsequently committed suicide.

Sir Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats - the only one of Britain's three major political parties to oppose the invasion - said yesterday that the Iraq inquiry members would now have to "resolve this direct and unequivocal conflict of evidence".

He said: "The controversy surrounding the dossier of September 2002 lies right at the very heart of the criticisms made of the Blair government.

"Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues will have to decide which of these two versions is correct. They can't both be right."

The Iraq inquiry, set up by the then prime minister Gordon Brown in 2009, was established to ascertain the justification and the legality of the invasion.

Its five-member committee has twice questioned Mr Blair along with other senior British politicians, diplomats and military officers.

Its final report, originally scheduled to be completed late last year but which is not now expected to be published until this October at the earliest, will also look at the conduct of the war, the supply of military equipment to UK troops, and the planning failures that led to Iraq's descent into chaos and sectarian war after the fall of Saddam.

dsapsted@thenational.ae