Friday, March 13, 2009

Sexed up

Six years ago, the British government went to war on the basis of a lie - Tony Blair's "dodgy dossier" which infamously claimed that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction against Britain "within 45 minutes". By presenting the threat as imminent, Blair was able to convince Parliament - but not the British people - that war was necessary. The problem for Blair was that it was spin.

In the intervening six years, people have spent a lot of effort digging into the history of the dossier in an effort to find out where the lies came from. They've learned, for example, that it was written by a Foreign office spindoctor, rather than the intelligence officials Blair sought to hide behind. And now they've uncovered secret emails from those same intelligence officials showing that the dossier was "sexed up", and that their concerns about overstating the case were being ignored:

The 45-minute claim – presented to MPs in a notorious dossier on 24 September 2002, six months before military action began – was central to the Blair government's justification for war.

But a memo sent 13 days earlier by Desmond Bowen, head of the Cabinet Office defence secretariat, to John Scarlett, who was head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, suggested he had grave reservations over the threat. His comments were copied to Mr Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell and to his chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell.

Mr Bowen wrote: "The question we have to have in the back of our mind is: 'Why now?' I think we have moved away from promoting the ideas that we are in imminent danger of attack and ... intend to act in pre-emptive self-defence."

He argued instead that the Government should stress Saddam's disregard for international law and his continuing drive to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

Another memo, dated 16 September 2002, from an unnamed official, also suggests exaggerated claims were being included in the about-to-be-published report. It said: "I note that the paper suggests that Saddam's biotech efforts have gone much further than we ever feared. Page 4 Bullet 4: '[Iraq] has assembled specialists to work on its nuclear programme' – Dr Frankenstein I presume? Sorry. It's getting late."

A further email released yesterday, arguing for amendments to the report, says: "We have suggested moderating the same language in much the same way on drafts from the dim and distant past without success. Feel free to try again!"

Despite Blair's efforts to "draw a line" under his crime, there needs to be accountability for this. And as it involves initiating a war of aggression - the "supreme international crime" - then the best place for that accountability is in The Hague.