The 45 minute claim:
The incredible ignorance of Blair
When he took Britain to war last March, the Prime Minister didn’t know that the 45-minute claim in the dossier he published six months earlier applied to battlefield weapons. That’s what he told the House of Commons during its debate on the Hutton report on 4 February 2004.
The Prime Minister didn’t volunteer this information. He was put on the spot by Conservative MP, Richard Ottaway, who intervened in his speech to ask when he became aware that the claim applied to battlefield weapons and, in particular, if he knew when the House voted for war on 18 March 2003. He replied:
“No. I have already indicated exactly when this came to my attention. It was not before the debate on 18 March last year.”
This revelation came as a complete surprise to everybody, including Robin Cook, who said later in the debate:
“I find it difficult to reconcile with what I knew, and what I am sure my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister knew when we had the vote in March.”
He suggested that the Prime Minister might like to qualify what he had said. The specific statement: “I have already indicated exactly when this came to my attention”, is surely wrong, since this is the first time he brought his extraordinary ignorance to public attention.
The 45-minute claim was the only really new, and striking, feature of the Government’s dossier published on 24 September 2002.
We know from the Intelligence & Security Committee (ISC) report published a year later that the claim was based on an MI6 report of 30 August 2002, a few weeks before the dossier was published.
Charles Duelfer, deputy head of UNSCOM in its latter years and recently appointed as David Kay’s replacement as head of the Iraq Survey Group, wrote of it in The Times:
“The most striking intelligence is the statement that the Iraqi military has the capability to deploy and use chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of receiving an order. Until UNSCOM left Iraq in 1998, we strongly suspected that the regime had the ability to launch chemical and biological attack. This evidence suggests to me that concrete evidence has now been obtained.”
The claim appeared four times in the dossier. The Prime Minister wrote in his foreword that the dossier “discloses that his military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them”. He made that claim with an absolute confidence unwarranted by the intelligence (like most claims in his foreword) and he did so (he now says) without knowing that it referred to battlefield weapons.
Presumably, the Prime Minister believed it referred to missiles capable of delivering warheads to Cyprus, if not further afield. If he didn’t know that when he signed the dossier off, he would certainly have learnt it from the Sun on 25 September 2002. Downing Street’s obsessive interest in newspaper headlines, particularly tabloid headlines, is well known, and it can be guaranteed that he was made aware of the great success achieved in this regard on 25 September 2002.
The Sun screamed at its 10 million readers BRITS 45 mins FROM DOOM, saying:
“British servicemen and tourists in Cyprus could be annihilated by germ warfare missiles launched by Iraq, it was revealed yesterday. They could thud into the Mediterranean island within 45 MINUTES of tyrant Saddam Hussein ordering an attack. They could spread death and destruction through warheads carrying anthrax, mustard gas, sarin or ricin.”
(In reality, even if the claim did apply to missiles (which it didn’t), and even if the claim had been true (which it wasn’t), a missile could not reach its target in Cyprus within 45 minutes of an order being given, since, Sun journalists please note, it takes time for missiles to travel from launch point to target.)
So, if we are to believe the Prime Minister, from September 2002 until after the decision to go to war the following March, and beyond, he remained in ignorance of the fact that the 45-minute claim applied to battlefield weapons.
His Secretary of State, Geoff Hoon, did know that the claim applied to battlefield weapons. He gave evidence to that effect to the Hutton Inquiry on 20 September 2003.
(When asked by the BBC’s barrister why the Government had not issued a correction to the misreporting of the claim, he replied that his long experience had taught him that newspapers don’t print corrections, and that was probably the reason why no correction was issued. Who did he think he was going to kid with that pathetic excuse? He knows very well that the issuing of a correction would have been a sensation and would have made headlines world wide. One phone call to Andrew Gilligan, for example, would have made it the lead story on Today the next morning, and from there it would have raced round the world, like a certain story on 29 May 2003.)
On 4 February 2004 Hoon gave additional information to the House of Commons. He said that he had inquired within the Ministry of Defence about the delivery system “out of curiosity” – but not until after the dossier was published without any specific information about the delivery system.
Geoff Hoon did not inform the Prime Minister of the result of his inquiry, nor did the Prime Minister develop a curiosity about the claim like Geoff Hoon. Nor, if we are to believe him now, did any of the many people on his staff who knew that the 45-minute claim applied to battlefield weapons inform him that the Sun, and other newspapers, had got it wrong on 24/25 September 2002.
When on 18 March 2003, he rose to try to persuade the House of Commons to support military action he was still didn’t know that the claim applied to battlefield weapons. At least that’s what he says. Inexplicably, he didn’t mention the 45-minute claim – this “most striking intelligence”, in the words of Charles Duelfer – on 18 March 2003, despite being in the most difficult spot of his political life (nor did he mention his extravagant claims of the previous September that Iraq was currently producing proscribed agents and weapons). In fact, the claim was hardly mentioned at all by Ministers after 24 September 2002.
Jack Straw told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on 24 June 2003:
“I do not happen to regard the 45 minute statement having the significance which has been attached to it, neither does anybody else, indeed nobody round this table, if I say so with respect. It was scarcely mentioned in any of the very large number of debates that took place in the House, evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, all of the times I was questioned on the radio and television, scarcely mentioned at all.”
But that begs two very important questions:
(1) Why did such an insignificant claim appear, not once, but four times in the dossier?
(2) Why did ministers cease mentioning the claim shortly after the dossier was published?
There must have been a very good reason for the latter. Why would the Downing Street propaganda machine cease mentioning a claim that had produced such a bumper harvest of headlines on 24/25 September 2002?
Now, echoing Straw last year, the Government says that the claim was “not a significant issue”, to use Geoff Hoon’s words to the Defence Select Committee on 5 February 2004. That is true in a military sense (as this magazine has said more than once) but since when did Alistair Campbell become scrupulous about using insignificant issues to generate big headlines? After all, this insignificant issue had worked spectacularly well once. There must have been a very good reason why it wasn’t tried again, and again, and again.
My guess is that the reason was that Campbell supplied newspapers with the wrong information in the first place. I say this because there was a remarkable uniformity in the press reports of the dossier on 24/25 September 2002. In most reports, the following key points were identified:
(a) Iraq has the ability to hit British bases in Cyprus with chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of Saddam Hussein giving the order to do so, and
(b) that Iraq could have nuclear weapons in between one and two years.
Since the dossier did not say that the 45-minute claim applied to strategic missiles rather than battlefield weapons, either the newspapers all guessed the same way or they were all steered the same way by Campbell. (b) is not mentioned in the Prime Minister’s foreword to the dossier, nor in its Executive Summary; it is mentioned once, and only once, on page 27 - which makes it highly unlikely that so many newspapers would have picked it out as a key point without a steer from Campbell.
The wrong information about the 45-minute claim generated a marvelously frightening crop of headlines. Imagine the scene the next morning when Campbell was told (perhaps by his “mate” John Scarlett) that all those wonderful headlines were based on a false premise. It is very difficult to believe that he wasn’t told, and that Blair wasn’t told.
Scarlett knew the headlines were wrong at the time: he said as much to the Hutton inquiry on 23 September 2003. Would he not have told his “mate”? Would he not have told Blair, or Blair’s Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator, Sir David Omand, who would surely have told Blair? It’s very difficult to believe that Blair remained in ignorance until after 18 March 2003.
At that point, what could Campbell do? If he had supplied the wrong information in the first place, it was impossible to correct it without it becoming public knowledge that he had done so – which would have made him, and the dossier, a laughing stock.
Even if one assumes that the newspapers all got it wrong without his help, the issuing of a correction was impossible. It would have led to a ferocious public controversy, in which all the good work done by the frightening headlines would have been undone with interest. The public might even have got the politically inconvenient impression that if British forces stayed away from Iraq, they would most likely be safe from Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons. The drive for war against Iraq would have lost momentum – perhaps fatally.
In either case, there was no choice but to let the hare sit, and to continue to deceive the public about the claim. My guess is that at that point a decision was also taken to cease mentioning the claim. That way, controversy about the claim, and the risk of awkward questions being asked and the truth coming out, would be minimised. That certainly explains why this “most striking intelligence” which appeared four times in the dossier, and generated marvelous headlines immediately after the dossier was published, was barely heard of again until Andrew Gilligan’s broadcast on 29 May 2003.
Ignorance or deception?
Blair claims that he remained ignorant of the true meaning of the 45-minute claim until after 18 March 2003, when he took Britain to war. An alternative explanation, which seems much more likely, is that he knew, if not when he published the dossier, then after the issue was misreported the next day.
It is unbelievable that none of his staff drew his attention to the fact that the Sun’s banner headline was based on a false premise. In which case, he was part of the conspiracy to deceive the British public about the true meaning of the claim until after he took Britain to war.
Has he chosen to plead ignorance, because deception is a hanging offence?
In a military sense, the 45-minute claim was insignificant. If Iraq had retained chemical and biological weapons, then it would be very strange indeed if it hadn’t plans to deploy them, for example, to transport filled shells from a bunker to an artillery piece so that they could be fired, and to do so within a short period. The ISC report said of the claim:
“That the Iraqis could use chemical or biological battlefield weapons rapidly had already been established in previous conflicts and the reference to the 20–45 minutes in the JIC Assessment added nothing fundamentally new to the UK’s assessment of the Iraqi battlefield capability. “ (paragraph 56)
The ISC report reveals (paragraph 49) that the claim was derived from an MI6 report dated 30 August 2002, allegedly based on information from an Iraqi military officer, who was in a position to know, received by MI6 through a third party.
The information was that on average it took 20 minutes to move chemical and biological munitions into place for attack (the maximum response time was 45-minutes). But the information didn’t identify the munitions to which the 45-minute claim was supposed to apply, nor from where to where the munitions were supposed to be moved within 45 minutes (ibid, paragraph 52).
So, the intelligence was that unknown battlefield munitions could be moved from somewhere unknown to somewhere else unknown in 45 minutes. On this slim foundation, the 45-minute claim was included in the dossier four times and, as a result, the Sun’s 10 million readers were informed that missiles could hit Cyprus within 45 minutes of Saddam ordering an attack.
Of the claim, the ISC said:
“The fact that it was assessed to refer to battlefield chemical and biological munitions and their movement on the battlefield, not to any other form of chemical or biological attack, should have been highlighted in the dossier. The omission of the context and assessment allowed speculation as to its exact meaning. This was unhelpful to an understanding of this issue.” (ibid, paragraph 112)
Of course, the 45-minute claim would never have been included in the dossier with the caveats necessary to reflect the vagueness of the intelligence on which it was based. In what was meant to be a “convincing” dossier, as required by the Prime Minister (see e-mail from Campbell to Scarlett on 17 September 2002), there was no point in saying:
“We recently received a piece of intelligence that some chemical and biological munitions can be deployed within 45 minutes. Our intelligence is that the munitions in question are for battlefield weapons, but we have no information about which weapons, or from where to where the munitions can be moved in 45 minutes. Furthermore, it doesn’t add very much to what we know already know about Iraq’s plans to use chemical and biological weapons.”
That wouldn’t have produced frightening banner headlines in the Sun, no matter how hard Alistair Campbell tried. A properly caveated 45-minute claim would never have been published. And without the 45-minute claim, which was the only really new, and striking, feature of the dossier, it is doubtful if the dossier would have been published.
For completeness, it should be said that there was a vague possibility that Iraq could hit Cyprus with al Hussein missiles. About 20 of them were “unaccounted for” by UN inspectors. But, if they existed at all, they had been hidden away since 1991, and there was a question mark over their operability.
The possible existence of these missiles has allowed Downing Street to defend Blair’s ignorance in recent days by saying that he knew about these missiles, and the fact that he had the wrong impression that they could be launched in 45 minutes is “nitpicking”.
That is a clever excuse, but beside the point: what he was ignorant about was the meaning of the 45-minute claim, which appeared four times in his dossier, the dossier he (allegedly) published to inform the British public about the threat from Iraq. If he, with his army of advisers to keep him accurately informed, got a wrong impression from the dossier, how were the British public supposed to get the right impression?
Best current evidence
Dr Brian Jones was formerly head of the branch within the Defence Intelligence Staff in the MoD responsible for the analysis of intelligence on nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. He gave evidence to the Hutton Inquiry about the disquiet in his branch about aspects of the dossier. In an article in the Independent on 4 February 2004, he wrote:
“The problem was that the best available current evidence that Saddam actually had chemical and biological weapons (CW and BW) was the inference that this must be so from the claim of an apparently unproven original source that such weapons could be ‘deployed’ within 45 minutes.”
So, although the 45-minute claim was militarily insignificant, the intelligence itself was significant – because it was taken to be up to date confirmation that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons: if Iraq had plans to deploy these weapons, then it must have had these weapons to deploy. That’s what Duelfer was saying as well (see above).
On the reliability of the intelligence, Jones says;
“Although the information was relayed through a reliable second source, there was no indication the original or primary source had established a track record of reliability. Furthermore, the information reported by the source was vague in all aspects except, possibly, for the range of times quoted.”
Recently, other information has come into the public domain about the sources. According to the Guardian of 27 January 2004, the primary source was an Iraqi military officer, who never saw the alleged chemical weapons on which he based the claim. The secondary source, which passed it on to MI6, was the Iraqi exile group, the Iraqi National Accord, a spokesman for which was quoted as saying that the information now seemed to be “a crock of shit”.
(This group was founded in 1990 with the support of the CIA, and was made up of Ba’athists and former military officers, opposed to Saddam Hussein; it was responsible for an unsuccessful coup attempt against him in 1996. It’s leader in exile, Iyad Allawi, is now a member of the Iraqi Governing Council.)
Without that “crock of shit”, there’s a good chance that Britain would not have gone to war. And, without Britain, there’s a chance that the US would not have gone to war – and tens of thousands of people who are now dead would still be alive.
Labour & Trade Union Review