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Blair Denies Exaggerating Iraqi Arms Threat

This was only the second time a British prime minister has appeared in public before a judicial inquiry and it was a suave and polished performance. The first was when John Major, Blair's immediate predecessor, testified before an inquiry in 1994 into the supplying of arms to Iraq.
Blair Denies Exaggerating Iraqi Arms Threat

Prime Minister Says Evidence Backed Claim Iraq Could Deploy Weapons Within 45 Minutes

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 28, 2003; 1:00 PM

LONDON, Aug. 28 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair today said he regarded a BBC report that his office had knowingly exaggerated estimates of Iraq's access to weapons of mass destruction as an "extremely serious" allegation that, if true, would have required him to resign.

Blair, who faces the worst political crisis in his six years in office, insisted to a public inquiry that the intelligence dossier his office published to justify Britain's participation in the U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq was accurate. But he said the BBC report on May 29, which alleged that Blair's aides had inserted into the dossier a dubious claim that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes, was continuing to damage the government's credibility.

"Frankly, since then, that's been the issue," Blair told the inquiry, which is examining the circumstances surrounding the apparent suicide of a government weapons expert caught up in the political storm over the dossier and the BBC report. "I mean, we're three months on and it's still the issue."

"It was an extraordinary allegation to make and an extremely serious one," said Blair, adding, "Had the allegation been true, it would have merited my resignation."

The inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Brian Hutton, is supposedly narrowly focused on the death last month of the expert, David Kelly, after he was identified as the confidential source for the BBC report. But it has inevitably widened into a look at how Blair's government operates, including how it used intelligence data to build the case for war, how it waged an intense public relations campaign against the BBC, and how it handled Kelly after he came forward to tell superiors he had spoken to the BBC.

This was only the second time a British prime minister has appeared in public before a judicial inquiry and it was a suave and polished performance. The first was when John Major, Blair's immediate predecessor, testified before an inquiry in 1994 into the supplying of arms to Iraq.

Unlike some of the previous government witnesses, Blair took responsibility for the major decisions in the Kelly affair, including the decision to disclose publicly that Kelly had likely been the BBC's source. Had the government failed to disclose the information, Blair testified, it could have been accused of concealing important facts from two parliamentary committees investigating the Iraq war.

Blair said he had insisted that senior civil servants, as well as political appointees, were involved in the process that led to Kelly's naming, because it was a difficult matter and he wanted it handled "by the book," adding, "Because of the sensitivity of this, it was better just to be open about it."

Nonetheless, he said, "I take full responsibility for the decisions. I stand by them. I believe they were the right decisions."

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon testified that Blair's aides, and not Hoon, were behind the government's decision to identify Kelly. The defense secretary sought to distance himself from the process by which Kelly, who worked for Hoon's ministry, was named publicly and compelled to testify before two parliamentary committees.

Two days after he finished testifying, Kelly was found dead near his rural home with his left wrist slashed. A colleague of Kelly's told the inquiry yesterday that Kelly felt "tired and stressed" after his committee appearances and had not anticipated the intense public attention he had received after coming forward to tell his superiors that he had met with the BBC's Andrew Gilligan, and might be a source for some of Gilligan's reports.

While the defense ministry was "the lead department" in dealing with Kelly "on a personnel basis," Hoon told the inquiry yesterday, the government as a whole -- including the Cabinet Office and the prime minister's aides -- had dealt with what he called the "wider implications."

Hoon acknowledged that he was aware of the strategy in which press officials in his ministry and the prime minister's office gave clues about Kelly's identity and then confirmed his name when it was put to them by journalists. But he insisted, "If you are suggesting that there was some deliberate effort here to identify Dr. Kelly, I say that is absolutely wrong."

Gilligan's radio report on May 29 that Blair's aides had inserted into a public intelligence dossier a dubious claim that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons on 45 minutes' notice triggered an intense campaign by the prime minister's Downing Street office to rebut the allegation and track down the confidential source, according to previous testimony.

The testimony over the past two weeks have shown how Blair's top aides worked closely with senior intelligence officials in compiling a dossier for public distribution, pressing for changes that sharpened the language and conclusions in the document.

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