LONDON - A judicial inquiry cleared Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday of allegations he deliberately misled Parliament about his reasons for going to war against Iraq, pulling his government from the brink of collapse.
The same inquiry harshly criticized the British Broadcasting Corp., one of the world's most respected news organizations, for airing misleading reports claiming Blair's government had intentionally "sexed up" evidence against Iraq by exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, and its top management was criticized for refusing to correct its reporter's mistakes.
The BBC apologized after the judge's report, and its chairman, Gavyn Davies, resigned.
In their drama and importance, yesterday's events were akin to the president of the United States being hauled before a judge to answer questions about his honesty in making the case for war and then forced to appear before the House of Representatives, in front of a national television audience, to answer questions from his political enemies about the judge's findings.
But Blair found himself standing on the floor of the House of Commons vindicated by judge Lord Hutton, who summarized his report on national television, and the prime minister was strengthened enough to demand an apology for charges that he had lied to the country.
"The allegation that I or anyone else lied to this House or deliberately misled the country by falsifying intelligence on weapons of mass destruction is itself the real lie," Blair said, facing Conservative leader Michael Howard, who for months argued that the prime minister could not be trusted with the truth. "And I simply ask that those that made it and those who have repeated it over all these months now withdraw it, fully, openly and clearly."
The judge did not address whether the weapons existed, only whether Blair lied or misled the country in citing the intelligence agencies' warning of the threat in arguments to persuade Parliament to back the war with Iraq.
The Hutton inquiry was specifically held over the death of David Kelly, a government expert on Iraqi weapons who had secretly met with a BBC radio reporter, Andrew Gilligan.
Gilligan, without identifying Kelly, broadcast in May that a "high-ranking intelligence official" had told him that a dossier compiled by British intelligence agencies had been "sexed up" by the prime minister's office to include a questionable claim that Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of giving an order.
Blair's government, Gilligan reported, knew the claim was probably false and inserted it - after several drafts of the dossier had not mentioned it - at the behest of Blair's chief media officer.
Radio is much more influential at setting the public agenda in Britain than it is in the United States, and the report set off a media tidal wave that threatened to sweep Blair away.
Blair was battered in the polls, and his "trust me" approach to persuading the British public to adopt his policies - even those far detached from the war - was severely compromised. Kelly, who told superiors that he was the source of the radio report and was subsequently publicly identified, committed suicide in July, leading to the judge's inquiry, which grew to include Blair's integrity and the evolution of what became known as "the dodgy dossier."
Hutton - who retired this month as a senior appeals judge and whose independence was praised by both Blair and his political opponents - listened to two months of testimony over the summer and reviewed hundreds of documents in hearings that rarely failed to make the front page of Britain's newspapers. Television cameras were barred from the hearings, leading one news station to hire actors to read transcripts from each day's proceedings.
Hutton's conclusions revived Blair's political fortunes and seemingly left little or no ammunition for the prime minister's political opposition. The judge said that "the allegation reported by Mr. Gilligan on 29 May 2003 that the government probably knew that the 45 minutes claim was wrong before the government decided to put it in the dossier, was an allegation which was unfounded."
Hutton had a simple explanation for the insertion of the 45 minutes claim after its absence in earlier drafts of the dossier: The information was not received by British intelligence agents until after the last draft had been written.
Further, the judge said a second allegation that Blair was involved in leaking Kelly's name was untrue and that the government used all reasonable means to prevent his name from becoming public.
In virtually his only criticism of the government, Hutton said Kelly should have been given more notice that his name would be divulged if reporters discovered it - which they did -and asked for confirmation.
"Bottom line is this saved Blair's job," said David Baker, a professor of politics at the University of Warwick. "He would have resigned had he been faulted. What this does is effectively put this chapter of Iraq behind him and allows him to focus on his domestic agenda for the next election, and if the focus is on the domestic agenda, he wins."
Blair's second term expires in 2006, but under Britain's political conventions, he is expected to call for elections next year.
Howard refused yesterday to concede that the report left Blair blameless and told the House of Commons that another inquiry should be held because Hutton had said it was "conceivable" that intelligence officers could have been "subconsciously" led to strengthen the dossier because the prime minister was so bent on war - a war which Howard and most Conservatives supported.
Blair stood across the aisle from Howard after listening to his remarks and told him that reasonable people could take either side of the debate on going to war with Iraq but that the arguments should not be peppered with lies and questions of motive and integrity, especially after a judge has set the record straight.
"Today was a test of character, and he failed that," Blair said after the Conservative leader called for another inquiry and declined to apologize. "What the right gentleman should know is that being nasty is not the same as being effective and opportunism is not the same as leadership."
The judge's harshest criticism was reserved for Gilligan, the correspondent for the May 29 report, and for the BBC's board of governors, which failed to fully investigate criticism of the report.
"If they had done this, they would probably have discovered that the notes did not support the allegation that the government probably knew that the 45 minutes claim was probably wrong," Hutton said.
Hutton criticized the board "for failing to give proper and adequate consideration to whether the BBC should publicly acknowledge that this very grave allegation should not have been broadcast."
Testimony during the summer hearings revealed that even as the BBC was publicly backing its reporter, his editors had sent memos warning that Gilligan's reports were sometimes unreliable and raising questions about the precision of his language in the broadcast in question.
Kelly, in testimony before a parliamentary committee days before his suicide, denied making the 45 minutes claim, and Hutton, having reviewed the reporter's notes, found the weapons inspector did not tell Gilligan that the government inserted the claim knowing or suspecting that it was untrue.
Gilligan was in seclusion yesterday and not available for comment.
Shortly before Davies resigned as chairman, the news organization's chief executive, Greg Dyke, acknowledged the BBC's mistakes.
"We note Lord Hutton's criticisms of the BBC," he said in a taped statement aired on BBC news programs. "Many of these relate to mistakes which the BBC has already acknowledged in its submission to the inquiry and for which we have already expressed regret.
"The BBC does accept that certain key allegations reported by Andrew Gilligan on the Today program on May 29 last year were wrong and we apologize for them."
Dyke said he would have no further comment until after the BBC governors meet tonight.