By Chris McLaughlin
The military escort was apologetic as we climbed the steps from the basement room at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. “You don’t seem to have got what you came for,” she said. I had. I’d got the truth.
In the space of an hour, a short time before the US-UK invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s senior analyst had demolished his claim that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction – the main reason given for British involvement in the war.
The testimony showed that Blair knew the claim was false even as he took the country into a conflict widely seen as illegal and which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, 4,487 American and 179 British soldiers. It was the catalyst behind the rise of ISIS and its successor organisations.
In spite of accumulated evidence that he acted in thrall to the US President George W. Bush, dismissing the truth and misleading Parliament, Blair has never faced up to the lie, saying only: “I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong.” It wasn’t. It was ignored.
The first version of this article by Chris McLaughlin first appeared shortly after the Iraq war. The following, updated, appeared in Tribune, 13 June 2014:
I know Tony Blair knew there was no stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before Britain and the United States launched the invasion. I know because I was told on the authority of his press secretary Alastair Campbell. The revelation came in a bizarre encounter in a spartan, windowless room in the basement of the Ministry of Defence headquarters in Whitehall. The meeting with the government’s expert on Iraq’s WMD capacity was arranged by Campbell.
What followed in that hour was chilling. If what I was told was correct, it can have only one unavoidable conclusion: the Prime Minister lied his way into war; and now that the non-existence of WMD is officially accepted, Blair is attempting to lie his way out.
The facts as set out to me, then a political correspondent for a national newspaper, make a mockery of the PM’s attempt to hide behind an apology for the “wrong intelligence”. It means that Blair was never told by the intelligence services that Saddam Hussein was sitting on stockpiles of WMDs ready to be used in minutes.
The PM’s claim that Iraq was within 45 minutes of launching WMDs – a central plank of his case for war and a clinching factor in the House of Commons vote approving military action – fell apart earlier this week with a formal withdrawal by the Foreign Office of the infamous claim.
At Labour’s conference in Brighton Blair told delegates: "…the problem is, I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can’t, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam”.
But it was not the intelligence that was wrong. What was wrong, constitutionally, politically and morally, was what was done to the evidence and how it was used.
Time after time in the run-up to war, Blair asserted Saddam’s imminent threat through WMD. In his own introduction to the “sexed-up” dossier in September 2002, which first made the case for war, Blair said: “…the document discloses that his military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them. I am quite clear that Saddam will go to extreme lengths, indeed has already done so, to hide these weapons and avoid giving them up.”
That’s not the version Alastair Campbell’s chosen messenger gave me. The meeting at the MoD followed a chat with Blair on a Prime Ministerial flight from South Africa during which he sounded less than convincing on Iraq’s WMDs. I informed Campbell that I did not believe the PM and he informed Blair.
After a telephone discussion at the “highest level” my then editor agreed that he shared my doubts. Campbell then organised a briefing by what he called the country’s “foremost” intelligence analyst working on weapons of mass destruction.
The MoD was expecting me when I turned up at the appointed time – Campbell had made sure of that. I was accompanied by a military press officer in full uniform to the subterranean room where the expert was waiting. The bearded, scruffily-dressed expert was introduced as the leading authority on WMD in Iraq. It was made clear that, while No 10 and Campbell had authorised the briefing, the identity of the expert must remain a secret.
I was astonished at what I was told, and from what I could tell, so was the army press officer listening in.
After an hour of detailed questioning I said, incredulous: “You seem to be telling me that Saddam has no capacity in any of the categories of WMD.” We had gone through all of them: nuclear, biological, chemical. I asked for a further five minutes to check through my notes in case I had missed anything.
“There’s no need,” said the anonymous expert. “That’s what I’m telling you...” He said nuclear capacity, if Saddam got started, was 25 years away, biological and chemical non-existent, if Saddam had components for a WMD programme, they were not in any state to be transformed into weapons.
The army press officer seemed as stunned as I was as we eventually left the room. “You don’t seem to have got what you came for,” she said, assuming, as I had, that Campbell’s purpose was to bury my doubts under a deluge of intelligence evidence which proved the Saddam threat.
“No, but I think I may have been given the truth, “ I replied, not knowing then the portent of my own words. There were, according to the best intelligence and expert advice Number 10 could muster, no WMD.
That MoD meeting took place 18 months before the 'sexed-up' dossier appeared. Could the MoD have changed its mind? Perhaps the information given to me was wrong and corrected later when it was found that Saddam did in fact have stockpiles of WMD?
Unlikely too that in the intervening months between that briefing and Blair’s WMD claim that Saddam could have built up an arsenal of the type the PM was busy alarming MPs and the country about. Even more risible is the possibility that he could have made them all disappear in time again for the US/British invasion. Nor is it possible that the PM, as head of the security services, would have been denied the same intelligence as that given to me. Which part of “there are no WMDs” did he not understand? And how did that translate into: Saddam definitely has WMDs with which he is threatening British security?
Instead, he ducks and dives and gives other reasons for the war, which were not the stated ones at the time.
I do not know what the constitutional rules are on impeachment. Nor do I feel comfortable with the concept of dragging a Prime Minister – and a Labour Prime Minister at that – into a legal quagmire of a process which implies guilt before it starts and therefore taints the office and its holder whatever the outcome. But Blair has lost the nation’s trust over the reasons for going to war in Iraq, and we have not had the truth.
In the face of brazen effrontery, impeachment may be the only way to get it.
The case against Blair
On April 8 2012 a pair of democratically-elected leaders talked behind closed doors on a ranch in Texas, without advisers or witnesses. We do not know exactly what they said to each other. But the meeting between the 43rd president of the United States and the 51st Prime Minister of the United Kingdom led to the deaths of at least 189,000 people, mostly civilians, according to the American Costs of War Project. The Lancet Iraq inquiry puts the toll, including related causes, at 654,965 by 2009.
What they agreed to that day at Bush’s Crawford Ranch homestead, amounted to a series of crimes against peace, a conspiracy in a category made illegal since 1950 under the Principles of International Law recognised in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and described as ‘the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole’.
Crimes Against Peace are listed in Nuremberg Principle VI (i) planning, preparation, intimidation or waging a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances; (ii) participating in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).
Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations requires that: The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.
On February 15, 2003, in the largest anti-war demonstration in world history, at least 600 million people protested in six hundred cities – an estimated million in London alone – against the forthcoming invasion of Iraq. It did not stop the war. Tony Blair and George W Bush were already long set on the path to war.
Much has emerged since, and since the original Tribune article, to support the fact that Blair lied to Parliament and people about the reason for war on Iraq, not least in the “dodgy dossier” which claimed Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction against “British interests” within 45 minutes.
A recent Tweet described concern about this as “whataboutery”, an irrelevance the author explained. Like prosecuting war crimes is no longer relevant? As if Blair, unlike other war criminals who have been tried well into elderly age, should somehow immune. And making a comeback in mainstream British politics.