Blair didn't mislead on war, judge says

Inquiry slams the BBC for reporting government `sexed up' Iraq intelligence

January 29, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

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.

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