Tony Blair’s “dodgy” dossier gets an entire chapter in the Chilcot Inquiry’s report into the Iraq war, published today.
Blair’s government published the dossier in September 2002 to back up the case for war with “intelligence” on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). This intelligence later turned out to be false.
But the dossier is also controversial for having been “sexed up”—sensationalised—by Blair’s director of communications and strategy Alastair Campbell.
It is most infamous for implying that Iraq had WMDs that could be launched against British military bases in Cyprus within 45 minutes.
Despite agreeing that the purpose of the dossier was to “make the case” for action against Iraq, the report remarkably finds that, “There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No.10 improperly influenced the text.”
Yet the chapter on the dossier describes several examples of Campbell suggesting draft changes and asking for rewrites before the dossier was published.
For instance the report describes a meeting on the dossier chaired by Campbell in September 2002.
Quoting a passage from Campbell’s own published diaries, the report says, “Commenting on the meeting, Mr Campbell wrote that the dossier: ‘…had to be revelatory and we needed to show that it was new and informative and part of a bigger case’.”
Campbell also wrote that John Scarlett, chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee and in charge of producing the dossier “was clearly aware of the responsibility, he was so serious”.
The report also describes how Campbell later sent notes on a draft to Scarlett with comments from Blair. It says, “Mr Campbell wrote that Mr Blair thought it was ‘a very good job and it was convincing’, but had a number of comments.”
The report notes that the dossier had originally been commissioned by 10 Downing Street in February 2002, and that Campbell would, “retain the lead role on the timing/form of its release”.
At that time Blair was preparing for a meeting in Crawford, Texas, with US president Bush. The dossier was supposed to be released before that meeting.
At first the dossier would focus on WMDs in four countries—North Korea, Iran, Libya and Iraq. These four countries had recently been described by Bush as an “axis of evil” in a speech that January.
But as the report explains, “overall, the threat from Iraq was viewed as less serious than that from other key countries of concern – Iran, Libya and North Korea.”
Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, made his own suggestions. After reading a draft on 8 March, Straw commented, “Good, but should not Iraq be first and also have more text? The paper has to show why there is an exceptional threat from Iraq. It does not quite do this yet.”
The report also finds that Straw later decided the dossier should focus solely on Iraq, and that its publication was postponed on 22 March when, “Straw was advised that the evidence would not convince public opinion that there was an imminent threat from Iraq.”
Evidence submitted to the Inquiry shows that Scarlett, ostensibly neutral, also suggested changes to back up the government’s case.
On 15 March he commented, “The foreign secretary felt that an earlier draft did not demonstrate why Iraq posed a greater threat than other countries of concern.
“You may still wish to consider whether more impact could be achieved if the paper only covered Iraq. This would have the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD, Iraq is not that exceptional.”
Campbell had significant influence over the structure and language used in the dossier. He also wrote its foreword, which appeared in Blair’s name.
The foreword 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.”
This appears directly after a claim that Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein saw “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.”
The claim actually referred to battlefield weapons rather than the long-range ballistic missiles that were implied in the report. But this was also obscured during a re-write of the dossier—and the claim was inserted close to a paragraph speculating about Hussein’s ability to target Cyprus.
The 45 minute claim was picked up by the media and became a central part of the case for war.
Yet Chilcot’s report appears to accept that the claims were “understandably written in more direct and less nuanced language” because they were intended for the public.
It asks, “whether, in doing so, they conveyed more certainty and knowledge than was justified.”
One of the report’s conclusions is that combining intelligence with the government’s “interpretation and presentation of the evidence in order to make the case for policy action” was “a mistake”.
But the September dossier was key to paving the way for war—there was nothing mistaken about it.