London, Sept. 15 (Reuters): Britain’s secretive intelligence chief conceded today that criticism of a dossier setting out Prime Minister Tony Blair’s case for war with Iraq was valid because its most sensational warning was “misinterpreted”.
Breaking with precedent, MI6 head Sir Richard Dearlove testified via audio-link to the judicial inquiry into the suicide of a weapons expert, which has raised questions about Blair’s reasons for war and sent his trust ratings plunging. Dearlove said he stood by the intelligence in the September 2002 dossier but added that a contentious assertion that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons at 45 minutes’ notice was only meant to refer to short-range arms.
“Given the misinterpretation placed on the 45-minutes intelligence, with the benefit of hindsight you could say that was valid criticism,” said Dearlove, chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), better known as MI6. “The original (intelligence) report referred... to battlefield weapons. What subsequently happened in the reporting was that it was taken that the 45 minutes applied to weapons of a longer range,” he said. The 45-minute claim was the most dramatic element of the dossier.
Blair’s team denies it “sexed up” the dossier on the threat posed by Iraq. But five months after Saddam’s overthrow, no banned weapons have been found in Iraq. Dearlove, whose disembodied voice echoed round the courtroom during his 40-minute testimony, insisted the 45-minutes’ claim was “a well-sourced piece of intelligence”.
Scientist David Kelly slashed his wrist in July after he was exposed as the source of a BBC report accusing the government of hyping up the case for war to win over sceptical Britons.
Blair’s public trust ratings have since evaporated. Although he will not have to testify again, his defence secretary Geoff Hoon and outgoing communications chief Alastair Campbell are recalled to be grilled by judge Lord Hutton next week. Hoon, Kelly’s ultimate boss, has been portrayed as a potential fall guy lined up to take the rap and protect Blair. He faces questions over why he overruled advice to protect Kelly from a hostile public grilling just days before the scientist’s death, and why concerns among defence intelligence staff over language in the dossier were not acted on. Fresh evidence of that concern emerged today when the inquiry was shown a letter from the Defence Intelligence Staff, sent just one week before Blair’s Iraq dossier was published, saying some of its claims were put too forcefully.
The judgment that Iraq had continued producing chemical and biological weapons was “too strong,” the letter said. It also described the 45-minute warning as “rather strong since it is based on a single source”.