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Tony Blair - Story attacked integrity of Iraq position

Friday, August 29, 2003

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair, facing the biggest crisis of his six years in office, denied Thursday that the government "sexed up" a dossier on Iraq's weapons threat, and said he would have resigned if it had been true.

Blair was testifying at a judicial inquiry into the apparent suicide of David Kelly, a weapons expert named as the source of a BBC story that said the government knowingly exaggerated the Iraqi threat in the September dossier.

"This was an attack that went not just to the heart of the office of the prime minister but also the way our intelligence services operated," Blair said. "It went, in a sense, to the credibility, I felt, of the country."

Blair said the British Broadcasting Corp. story attacked his integrity and led Britons to believe that his government duped them about the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as the U.S.-led coalition built its case to invade Iraq.

Among other charges, the May 29 BBC report said Blair's aides had inserted a claim into the dossier on Iraq's biological and chemical weapons saying they could be deployed in 45 minutes. The BBC report, citing an unidentified source later revealed to be Kelly, said the government knew the claim was false and some intelligence agents had disputed it.

"This was an absolutely fundamental charge," Blair said. "This was an allegation, were it true, that would have merited my resignation."

Blair became only the second prime minister to ever testify at such a hearing. The first was his immediate predecessor, Prime Minister John Major, who appeared at a 1994 inquiry studying whether the government violated its own policy on weapons sales to Iraq under Margaret Thatcher.

The bitter public spat between the government and the BBC has focused the nation on a debate about the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction since Saddam Hussein was ousted.

The dispute over the report and the inquiry have knocked Blair's popularity to its lowest levels in his six years in office and left many Britons questioning his reliability, according to recent polls.

The dispute produced front-page headlines last month when Kelly, 59, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq and a government adviser, was identified as the possible source of the BBC report. Three days after he testified before a parliamentary committee, Kelly was found dead near his home, his wrist slashed.

The inquiry is trying to determine how the government came to expose Kelly -- a move that placed him under intense media pressure and led him to testify before the committees. Whatever the finding, few believe that Blair is likely to step down, even if his government is criticized for the way it treated Kelly.

Blair said he took responsibility for the decisions by government officials that led to Kelly being identified publicly after the scientist told his bosses at the Ministry of Defense that he might be the source for the BBC story.

Blair said the action was necessary to ensure all the facts were known.

"I take full responsibility for the decisions. I stand by them. I believe they were the right decisions," Blair said. "It was better just to be open."

The credibility of the BBC also has been hurt by the dispute.

Critics have questioned the accuracy of some elements in the radio piece by BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan and steps that he took to secretly provide background information on Kelly to legislators who were questioning him about the dossier.

On Thursday, Gavyn Davies, chairman of the BBC, told the inquiry that Gilligan appears to have accurately quoted Kelly's criticism of the dossier, but should not have sent e-mails to the House of Commons legislators about the scientist before they questioned him.

The BBC already has indicated that it is prepared to take steps to better define the rules that reporters like Gilligan must follow when they come up with stories containing serious allegations attributed to a single, unidentified source.

Dozens of anti-war protesters jeered Blair as he arrived Thursday at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London.

Blair, who appeared for nearly two hours at the inquiry, said the government dossier on Iraq's arsenal was based on intelligence sources and was not manipulated for political reasons.

"At that stage, the strategy was not to use the dossier as the immediate reason for going to conflict, but as the reason why we had to return to the issue of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Looking calm, Blair said a claim in the dossier that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes came from British intelligence and was not inserted at the insistence of his office.

"We could not produce this as evidence that came from anything other than an objective source" in Iraq.

Hundreds of people waited in line for hours to watch Blair's testimony at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London.

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On the Net:

Hutton Inquiry: http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/


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