Vol. 4 Num 94 Fri. August 29, 2003  
Front Page

Iraq data not hyped, claims Blair

Tony Blair yesterday told the Hutton inquiry he would have been forced to resign if the claims about the government "sexing up" its Iraq dossier had been true.

The prime minister was giving evidence to the inquiry into the death of government scientist Dr David Kelly, the source for the BBC report about intelligence in last September's dossier being exaggerated to make the case for war.

That report threatened his credibility as prime minister and, if true, "would have merited my resignation", said Blair.

He has also told the inquiry he took responsibility for the media strategy which led to Dr Kelly being publicly named as the suspected source of the BBC Today programme story.

Blair said his foreword to the controversial document made clear the dossier was responding to calls to show intelligence on Iraq and was not to be used "as the immediate reason for going to conflict".

Blair said he had not been aware of any unhappiness about the dossier among intelligence officers.

When he had heard BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan's report, he had asked for the claims to be checked with John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Scarlett earlier this week insisted he had been in control of the dossier - a point underlined by Blair yesterday.

Blair added that he had held "no doubt" that Number 10 press chief Alastair Campbell would help with the presentation of the document.

He described the "raging storm" which erupted in the wake of the BBC story and argued the inclusion of Campbell's name later in the story meant it was "no longer a small item".

He had thought Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, rather than the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, would need to investigate the row.

Inquiry counsel James Dingemans asked if Campbell's live appearance on Channel 4 had helped escalate the row between Downing Street and the BBC.

Blair said the dispute was there already, but continued: "For us... the dispute was in a sense not what was important. What was important was to correct the story."

During his two hours and twenty minutes of questioning he was asked to explain how the scientist's name came to be made public after Dr Kelly admitted to his bosses at the Ministry of Defence that he had met Gilligan.

Blair admitted he had been in a "quandary" about what to tell the MPs' committees, and at times had been unsure about the right approach to take.

But he said: "We handled this by the book, in the sense of with the advice of senior civil servants.

"Not as I say in order to pass responsibility to them but in order to make sure that this was not as it were the politicians driving the system, but us taking a consensus view about what was the right way to proceed."

By the time he met senior officials on July 8, Blair said he had felt likely that Dr Kelly was the source.

It was decided to tell MPs' committees the suspected source had come forward - as it would have been improper to keep it from them - before making the news public without naming Dr Kelly.

The prime minister said he took full responsibility for those decisions and said any statement which was made was to be put to Dr Kelly first.

He had not seen the "question and answer" sheet which told Ministry of Defence press officers they could confirm Dr Kelly's name if it was put to them by journalists.

But he said: "I think the basic view would have been not to offer the name but on the other hand not to mislead people."

Blair also said he did not know why his official spokesman had given further details about Dr Kelly at a Lobby briefing.

Earlier, Blair said it was "absolutely wrong" for BBC witnesses to have suggested the reason he had not mentioned the 45 minute claim again was because the government had doubts about it.

The prime minister was greeted by a noisy protest from about 100 anti-war protesters as he arrived to become only the second ever British prime minister to go before a judicial inquiry.

He was followed into the witness box by the BBC chairman Gavyn Davies, who accused Campbell of escalating the row over the Today story in an "unprecedented attack" on the corporation.

Photo: AFP