I know Tony Blair knew there was no stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before Britain and the United States launched the invasion. The revelation came in a bizarre encounter in a spartan, windowless room at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) headquarters in Whitehall. The meeting with the government’s expert on Iraq’s WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) capacity was arranged by Alastair Campbell.
What followed in that hour was chilling. If what I was told was correct, it can have only one unavoidable conclusion: the Prime Minister lied his way into war.
The facts as set out to me, then a political correspondent for a national newspaper, make a mockery of the PM’s attempt to hide behind an apology for the ‘wrong intelligence’. It means that Blair was never told by the intelligence services that Saddam Hussein was sitting on stockpiles of WMDs ready to be used in minutes.
The PM’s claim that Iraq was within 45 minutes of launching WMDs—a central plank of his case for war and a clinching factor in the House of Commons vote approving military action—fell apart earlier with a formal withdrawal by the Foreign Office of the infamous claim.
At a Labour Party conference in Brighton, Blair told delegates: ‘…the problem is, I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can’t, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam’.
But it was not the intelligence that was wrong. What was wrong, constitutionally, politically and morally, was what was done to the evidence and how it was used.
Time after time in the run-up to the war, Blair asserted Saddam’s imminent threat through WMD. In his own introduction to the ‘sexed-up’ dossier in September 2002, which first made the case for war, Blair said, ‘…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. I am quite clear that Saddam will go to extreme lengths, indeed has already done so, to hide these weapons and avoid giving them up.’
That’s not the version Alastair Campbell’s chosen messenger gave me. The meeting at the MoD followed a chat with Blair on a Prime Ministerial flight from South Africa, during which he sounded less than convincing, or even convinced, on Iraq’s WMDs. I informed Campbell that I did not believe the PM, and he informed Blair.
After a telephone discussion at the ‘highest level,’ my then editor agreed that he shared my doubts. Campbell consequently organised a one-on-one briefing for me with what he called the country’s ‘foremost’ intelligence analyst working on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
The MoD was expecting me when I turned up at the appointed time—Campbell had made sure of that. I was accompanied by a military press officer in full uniform to the subterranean room where the expert was waiting. The bearded, scruffily-dressed expert was introduced as promised—the government’s leading authority on WMD in Iraq. It was made clear that, while No 10 and Campbell had authorised the briefing, the identity of the expert must remain a secret.
I was astonished at what I was told, and from what I could tell, so was the army press officer listening in.
After an hour of detailed questioning, I said, incredulously, ‘You seem to be telling me that Saddam has no capacity in any of the categories of WMD.’ We had gone through all of them: nuclear, biological, chemical. I asked for a further five minutes to check through my notes in case I had missed anything.
‘There’s no need,’ said the anonymous expert. ‘That’s what I’m telling you..’ He said nuclear capacity, if Saddam got started, was 25 years away, and biological and chemical weapons capacity was non-existent. If Saddam had components for a WMD programme, they were not in any state to be transformed into weapons.
The army press officer seemed as stunned as I was as we eventually left the room. ‘You don’t seem to have got what you came for,’ she said, assuming, as I had, that Campbell’s purpose was to bury my doubts under a deluge of intelligence evidence which proved the Saddam threat.
‘No, but I think I May have been given the truth,’ I replied, not knowing then the portent of my own words. There were, according to the best intelligence and expert advice Number 10 could muster, no WMD.
That MoD meeting took place 18 months before the sexed up dossier appeared. Could the MoD have changed its mind? Perhaps the information given to me was wrong and corrected later when it was found that Saddam did in fact have stockpiles of WMD?
Not likely that in the intervening months between that briefing and Blair’s WMD claim that Saddam could have built up an arsenal of the type the PM was busy alarming MPs and the country about. Even more risible is the possibility that he could have made them all disappear in time again for the US/British invasion. Nor is it possible that the PM, as head of the security services, would have been denied the same intelligence as that given to me. Which part of ‘there are no WMDs’ did he not understand? And how did that translate into: ‘Saddam definitely has WMDs with which he is threatening British security’?
Since then, Blair has ducked and dived and given other reasons for the war, which were not the ones stated at the time.
Blair lost the nation’s trust over the reasons for going to war.