Blair government cleared of altering data on Iraq

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LONDON - A parliamentary committee cleared Prime Minister Tony Blair's government yesterday of falsifying intelligence findings, but questioned its claim that Iraq could deploy unconventional weapons in 45 minutes and faulted its portrayal of Iraq as a threat to Britain.

The Intelligence and Security Committee said it was satisfied that Britain's intelligence services had not been subjected to political pressure and that their "independence and impartiality had not been compromised in any way."

But it found that the government failed to reflect the level of uncertainty among intelligence officials about Iraq's production of biological and chemical weapons. The committee said the government ended up overestimating Iraq's abilities by ignoring the inhibiting effect that the presence of United Nations inspectors would have had on building arsenals and getting them ready for use.

The committee said that intelligence chiefs had been unable to find any link between Baghdad and al-Qaida before the war but had warned that a collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime could make it easier for terrorists, including al-Qaida, to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction.

The committee also criticized Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon for being "unhelpful and potentially misleading" by failing to disclose in his closed-door testimony in July that some of his intelligence staff were troubled by overstated claims in a crucial intelligence dossier.

Britain published the dossier last September at a time when the government was seeking to overcome widespread public doubts about any military intervention in Iraq.

The subsequent questions about the validity of those arguments and the continuing failure to uncover unconventional weapons in Iraq - the issue that was at the heart of Britain's justification for joining the U.S.-led war - have caused Blair's popularity to slump to its lowest levels in the six years he has been in power.

A report by the British Broadcasting Corp. alleged that Blair's government had "sexed up" the intelligence dossier against the wishes of intelligence chiefs and knowing it to be untrue. The BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, later identified Blair's powerful director of communications and strategy, Alastair Campbell, as the person who forced the item into the document.

The intelligence committee bluntly dismissed the Gilligan report. "The dossier was not 'sexed up' by Alastair Campbell or anyone else," it said.

On the 45-minute claim, the committee said the matter was presented out of context in a way that "allowed speculation as to its exact meaning," adding: "It was unhelpful to an understanding of the issue."

The report did not say whether it thought the resultant exaggeration was intentional, but it noted that the claim appeared four separate times.

The committee said the document failed to make it clear that Baghdad was not considered a "current or imminent threat to mainland U.K." It said it was "unfortunate" that a sentence making clear that Hussein could not launch a nuclear attack on London or any other part of Britain was removed from the preface that Blair prepared for the dossier.

In its comments on Hoon, the committee said he had failed to mention in his July testimony the fact that two members of the defense intelligence service had expressed misgivings in writing about the dossier. Word of that surfaced in the Hutton inquiry last week when one of the officials, Brian Jones, testified that he had told superiors of his suspicions that the authors of the document were exaggerating assessments.

News reports have singled out Hoon in recent weeks as the government member likely to fall in the intelligence controversy, but Foreign Secretary Jack Straw emerged from a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing St. to say that Hoon had the confidence of the prime minister and his senior officials.

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