45 minutes from doom


“The weakness, obviously, is our inability to say he [Saddam Hussein] could pull the nuclear trigger any time soon.”  (Tom Kelly to Alistair Campbell, 18 Sept 2002)


At the time of writing, the Hutton inquiry is into its third week.  Countless, mostly irrelevant, documents have been submitted to the inquiry, and are available on the inquiry website.  Witnesses have been examined in great detail about the merest trivia.  And there is much more to come.


Who said/wrote what to whom in Downing Street during the drawing up the September dossier has been examined at great length and in minute detail.  All this forensic effort has been expended on the minutiae of how the document was drawn up, and none at all on how the document turned out to be comprehensively wrong.


Not marginally wrong about the inclusion of the 45-minute warning, which is the subject of the wrangle between the BBC and Downing Street, but comprehensively wrong about the existence, not just of proscribed weapons and weapons-related material left over from before the first Gulf War, but in its assertions that Iraq had reconstituted its chemical and biological weapons programmes since 1998 and was now manufacturing more chemical and biological agents, and, furthermore, was actively engaged in reconstituting its nuclear programme.


The contents of this document played a major part in the Government’s justification for invading Iraq and killing thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Iraqis.  Unlike Dr David Kelly, they didn’t die by their own hand, and neither did the British military personnel who were killed during the invasion, and are still being killed.


The Government’s assessment

In the midst of this detail about what was in the various drafts of the September dossier, and who suggested what amendments when, and which amendments were included and which weren’t and why, it is worth recalling the dossier’s title.  It is: Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government.


It is not Alistair Campbell’s assessment, nor the Joint Intelligence Committee’s assessment, nor even Tony Blair’s assessment, though, since he is the head of the Government and put his name to the dossier’s foreword, the responsibility for it falls more heavily on him than anybody else.


So, it doesn’t matter who was responsible for what phrase here, and what nuance there.  It was the Government’s assessment, and the Government is responsible.  Otherwise, the Prime Minister’s speechwriters, rather than the Prime Minister himself, will have to be held responsible for the words that come out of his mouth from now on.


The Government has forced the Chairman of JIC, John Scarlett, out of the closet to claim responsibility for the dossier, and to assert that it was all based on properly assessed intelligence information.  That is an attempt to shift responsibility for it away from Downing Street and on to the intelligence services, but it doesn’t alter the fact that it was The Assessment of the British Government on 24 September 2002.


A convincing dossier?

There may be a few people in Britain, who still believe that the dossier was an honest attempt on the Government’s part to put before the British people an objective assessment of Iraq’s proscribed weapons.  If so, they should read the e-mails that were flying around the Downing Street machine in the weeks leading up to the dossier’s publication, and which have now been submitted to the Hutton inquiry, and are available on its website.


For example, a memo from Campbell to Scarlett on 17 September 2002 reported on the Prime Minister’s opinion of the latest draft.  It said:


“He [the Prime Minister] said he thought you’d done a very good job and it was convincing (though I pointed out that he is not exactly a ‘don’t know’ on the issue) …


“He, like me, was worried about the way you have expressed the nuclear issue particularly in paragraph 18.  Can we not go back, on timings to ‘radiological device’ in months; nuclear bomb in 1-2 years with help; 5 years with no sanctions.


“He wondered if there were any more pictures that we could use” (CAB/11/0066-0068)


Could it possibly be that the Prime Minister wanted a document that would “convince” the world that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, and would soon have nuclear weapons, so he had to be dealt with, a conclusion that the Prime Minister himself had already reached?  And could it possibly be that his good and faithful servants provided him with such a document?


Another example of Downing Street’s desire to make the case as “convincing” as possible is the following.  On 18 September 2002, one of the Prime Minister’s official spokesmen, Tom Kelly, e-mailed Campbell, expressing regret that there was insufficient intelligence to justify including in the dossier that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent nuclear threat.  He wrote:


“The weakness, obviously, is our inability to say he could pull the nuclear trigger any time soon.” (CAB/11/0092)


That would have made the dossier really “convincing” (but, had that been the case, Saddam Hussein would have been left strictly alone).


Kelly also worried that the dossier did not make the case that Saddam Hussein would use his deadly weapons.  He wrote to Campbell on 11 September 2002 (CAB/11/0027):


“This does have some new elements to play with, but there is one central weakness – we do not differentiate enough between capacity and intent.  We know that he [Saddam] is a bad man and has done bad things in the past. We know he is trying to get WMD – and this shows those attempts are intensifying. But can we show why we think he intends to use them aggressively, rather than in self-defence?  We need that to counter the argument that Saddam is bad, but not mad.”


And there is much, much more, all concerned about finding ways to make a case that Iraq must be dealt with, not about arriving at an objective assessment of Iraq’s weapons.


An imminent threat?

There was also a realisation at the highest level in the Downing Street machine that, although the dossier might be said to prove that Saddam Hussein had proscribed weapons, and even that he was continuing to develop them, it did not prove that Iraq was an imminent threat to Britain.


Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff (and brother of Thatcher’s foreign affairs advisor, Charles Powell), e-mailed John Scarlett on 17 September 2002 (CAB/11/0077-0078):


“ … the document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein.  In other words, it shows he has the means but it does not demonstrate he has the motive to attack his neighbours, let alone the west. We will need to be clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he is an imminent threat. The case we are making is that he has continued to develop WMD since 1998, and is in breach of UN resolutions. The international community has to enforce those resolutions if the UN is to be taken seriously.”


Asked at the Hutton inquiry how he responded to Powell’s e-mail, Scarlett said he didn’t regard it as a request for the dossier to be changed and in any event, he didn’t think that Powell’s point that Saddam Hussein was not a threat, “would have fitted easily into the way that the dossier was construct[ed]”.  Indeed it wouldn’t: it would have made it much less “convincing”.


In an e-mail to Campbell on 17 September 2002, Powell wrote:


"In the penultimate para [of the foreword] you need to make it clear that Saddam could not attack us at the moment.  The thesis is he would be a threat to the UK in the future if we do not check him." (CAB/11/0053)


A week later the dossier was published a foreword by Blair saying:


I believe this issue to be a current and serious threat to the UK national interest.”


(After the event, Jack Straw has said on several occasions that neither he nor Blair described Iraq as an “imminent” threat, while admitting that they used the words “current and serious” threat.  He made a big point of this in giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on 24 June 2003.  He seems to have a cockeyed notion that a “current” threat doesn’t require as urgent attention as an “imminent” one.  But doesn’t a “current” threat, which already exists, require a more urgent response than an “imminent” one, which is merely expected to exist?)


The 45-minute claim

The September dossier claimed that Iraq had:


“military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, including against its own Shia population. Some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them” (Executive Summary, p5)


This claim was allegedly based on intelligence received a few weeks before the dossier’s publication, and included in it at the last moment.  In evidence to the Hutton inquiry, Scarlett denied that the Downing Street machine were responsible for including this claim in the dossier, or for embellishing this or any other claim included in the dossier.   So, on this charge reported by the BBC and others, based mostly on conversations with Dr Kelly, the government is off the hook.


Since Andrew Gilligan’s Today broadcast on 29 May, the 45-minute claim, and the allegation that Downing Street forced its inclusion in the dossier, has dominated discussion about the Government’s case for military action.  Yet, objectively, it is a matter of little or no significance.


If the dossier was to have been believed, Iraq had an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and a variety of means of delivering them: the dossier claims:


Iraq remains able … to use bombs, shells, artillery rockets and ballistic missiles to deliver them.” (Executive Summary, p5)


If all that were true, it would be amazing if Iraq had no plans for their use by the variety of means supposedly available to them.   As Dr Gary Samore of the International institute for Strategic Studies told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on 17 June 2003:


“ … the idea that Iraq would have in place military plans to use their weapons seems to me to be the kind of obvious thing that you would expect and certainly was the case in 1991 when they actually deployed chemical and biological weapons in the field.”


So, the dossier’s “revelation” that, allegedly, Iraq had plans to use these weapons is hardly earth shattering.  Nor is the apparently short time period between an order being given to use them and their being ready for use.  If the period was 45 hours rather than 45 minutes, and if Saddam Hussein had been mad enough to use them, then all he had to do was give the order 44 hours 15 minutes earlier – or keep them ready for use on a permanent basis.


Nevertheless, this rather unimportant claim has dominated debate for the past three months.  Andrew Gilligan has done the Government a big favour by raising it, and even bigger favour by accusing Downing Street of forcing its inclusion in the dossier.  It has been a wonderful distraction from focussing on Blair’s bogus case for war.  And now it looks as if Hutton will find that Gilligan’s source, Dr Kelly, got the story wrong – which means that on this Blair will come up smelling of roses.


Valuable to Downing Street

In military terms, the 45-minute claim wasn’t of any great significance.  But it was very valuable to Downing Street when the dossier was launched.  First and foremost, because it was new.  Blair’s original plan to produce a dossier in the spring of last year was abandoned in part because there was nothing new to put in it to grab the headlines.


Journalists with contacts in the intelligence services have said that, throughout the summer, there was pressure from Downing Street to come up with something new to put in a dossier.  This duly appeared in the form of the 45-minute claim.  So perhaps there is an underlying truth in what Kelly told Gilligan and other journalists – because the 45-minute claim was a product of Downing Street’s known desire to have something new to make headlines with.


Also, the 45-minute claim was ideal for generating headlines proclaiming Iraq to be an imminent threat, and the Downing Street machine made sure it appeared in them.  Looking at the Evening Standard on the day the dossier was published, and the morning papers the next day (see documents BBC/4/90-116 on the inquiry website), it is easy work out what Downing Street fed them about the dossier:


1.       The 45-minute claim

2.       That Iraq had managed to retain SCUD missiles with a range of 650km and therefore capable of hitting Cyprus

3.       That Iraq could have a nuclear weapon in a year or two.


To find any reference to the last point in the dossier, you have to reach page 27 (a sure sign that the media were told about it by Downing Street), where it says:


“We therefore judge that if Iraq obtained fissile material and other essential components from foreign sources the timeline for production of a nuclear weapon would be shortened and Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon in between one and two years.”


The rather important qualification that Iraq would have to obtain fissile material, and other essential components, in order to produce a nuclear weapon, did not appear in the reports – presumably because it wasn’t part of the Downing Street briefing.


Convincing headlines

The Evening Standard of 24 September had the front page headline 45 MINUTES FROM ATTACK and on pages 4 and 5 Iraqis could have N-bomb in a year.  The next day, the Sun screamed BRITS 45 mins FROM DOOM and the Daily Star’s headline was 45 MINUTES FROM A CHEMICAL WAR.  All of them carried points (1) to (3) in the opening paragraphs of their stories.  The Sun’s began:


“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.  And they could spread death and destruction through warheads carrying anthrax, mustard gas, sarin or ricin.


“This terrifying prospect was raised in Downing Street’s dossier on Saddam’s arsenal, which also raised the prospect that he could be just 12 months away from nuclear weapons.”


The broadsheets carried the same points, albeit in more moderate tones.


The 45-minute claim produced a plethora of “convincing” headlines and stories.  Never mind that they were gross exaggerations prompted by Downing Street, in which judgements based on (apparently faulty) intelligence were expressed as hard facts.  Never mind that the intelligence (so-called) on which 45-minute claim was based referred to the deployment of battlefield weapons, not to missiles.  The dossier was (deliberately?) vague on this, but in evidence to the Hutton inquiry on 26 August 2003, John Scarlett said:


“It related to munitions, which we had interpreted to mean battlefield mortar shells or small calibre weaponry, quite different from missiles.”


Downing Street didn’t rush to correct the Sun’s assertion on 25 September 2002 that Brits in Cyprus could be annihilated by Saddam within 45 minutes of him deciding to do so, nor did John Scarlett resign because Downing Street manipulated his intelligence judgements to get “convincing” stories in the papers.


*  *  *  *


The 45-minute claim was an exceedingly “convincing” weapon for Downing Street in September 2002.  It served its purpose then, and was barely mentioned in the succeeding 6 months before military action began.


Thanks to Andrew Gilligan, it has enjoyed a second coming and done another useful job for Downing Street, this time as a distraction from their bogus case for war.



Labour & Trade Union Review

September 2003