Britain's prime minister on Thursday defended his government’s role in the naming of the source behind the BBC’s story accusing Downing Street of “sexing up” its September Iraq weapons dossier.
Protesters waited for Tony Blair in front of London's Royal Court of Justice.
It would be no exaggeration to call Thursday one of the toughest day in Tony Blair's political career. Called to London's Royal Court of Justice, he became only the second British prime minister in history to appear before a judicial inquiry.
Speaking before the so-called Hutton Inquiry, Tony Blair said he would have resigned if his government’s Iraq dossier had been "sexed up," as an explosive BBC report alleged.
"This was an absolutely fundamental charge," the prime minister said, "This was an allegation that we had behaved in a way which, if true, would have merited my resignation."
Investigators had called on Blair to answer questions in the probe into the suicide death of former government scientist David Kelly. Just days after the Defense Ministry leaked his name to reporters and he was ordered to testify before two parliamentary foreign affairs committees, Kelly’s body was found in the woods near his home, his left wrist slashed.
Public trust plummets
The ensuing scandal has led public trust in Blair to plummet and has pitted 10 Downing Street in a fierce political battle against the British Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s independent public broadcaster. For weeks now Blair has demanded the BBC retract its report.
After alleging in his BBC report that Blair had exaggerated the threat of Iraqi weapons, reporter Andrew Gilligan charged in another newspaper that Downing Street communications chief Alastair Campbell had personally "sexed up" what was supposed to be an independent intelligence dossier.
But on Thursday, Blair vigorously denied the charge, saying the claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes had come from British intelligence. Throughout its drafting, he said, he knew it "had to be a document that was owned by the Joint Intelligence Committee and its chairman." In the end, he said, "We described the intelligence in a way that was perfectly justified."
"The best case we could have"
Blair also defended the September Iraq weapons dossier – and said his government did the best it could under difficult circumstances.
"The clamor for us to produce evidence was very strong," he said. "We had to disclose what we knew because there was an enormous clamor ... it was important it made the best case we could have."
When Kelly came forward to his boss at the defense ministry and confirmed he had been the source, Blair said he and his aides were in a "quandary" as to what they should next do.
Blair told the inquiry’s chief, Lord Hutton, there was "no way" the government could keep Kelly’s name confidential after he came forward. The government then wrote to the two parliamentary committees and disclosed that Kelly had been the source.
"I was really not sure what the right way to handle this issue was but I knew that we should not be in a situation where we could be accused of misleading the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee," Blair told the inquiry.
He acknowledged the troubles that posed for Kelly, describing as "deeply unpleasant," his sudden thrust into the media spotlight. "It was one of the reasons why we agreed that the press statement should be agreed with Dr. Kelly, but there was in my view no way of keeping this information private."
In the end, Blair said he was prepared to accept his own responsibility in the scandal: "The responsibility is mine at the end of the day. I take the decision as prime minister, but I wanted to be able to say that we had played by the book."
But that judgement will only come after Lord Hutton and the other members of his inquiry have listened to testimony and sifted through evidence provided by dozens of witnesses from the Blair government and Kelly's work and social circles.