A report released on Monday by the British parliament dismisses claims a senior Blair aide tampered with intelligence information in an Iraq report. But it also accuses the government of relying on shaky intelligence.
Report: Blair not guilty
A committee of the British House of Commons on Monday cleared Prime Minister Tony Blair and senior ministers of accusations aired by the BBC that they misled the public over the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But the committee criticized the government for its handling of intelligence information, which led Blair to unwittingly misinform parliament about its reasons for going to war.
"We conclude that ministers did not mislead parliament," said Donald Anderson, the Labor Party chairman of the investigative committee.
The eagerly awaited 60-page report, released on Monday, was the result of an investigation into the government's decision to go to war against Iraq. The committee's probe covered two separate dossiers in which the government alleged Saddam Hussein was capable of deploying such weapons within 45 minutes. And though the report largely cleared Blair of the charges, it did find fault in the report and said that it could not corroborate the reliability of its contents.
"We conclude that the 45-minute claim did not warrant the prominence given to it in the dossier because it was based on intelligence from a single, uncorroborated source," the committee members wrote in their report. The committee recommended, but did not demand, an explanation from the government on why it relied on the information and placed such an emphasis on it.
"There were allegations that it was embellished or exaggerated in order to make a stronger case. The committee concludes on the basis of the evidence before it that this did not happen," he said.
The allegations damaged the reputation of Blair's government and also plunged it into an ugly battle against its own national broadcaster, the BBC. It also raised serious questions about the arguments made by both Britain and the United States to topple Saddam's government.
Aide cleared of misdoing
The committee also concluded that Downing Street communications director Alistair Campbell, did not play any role in the decision to include the 45-minute claim and that he "did not exert or seek to exert improper influence in its drafting. However, we do have some concerns about his role in chairing a meeting on an intelligence matter."
Anderson said that "in all probability," the September report accurately reflected the intelligence that was available at the time.
On Monday, senior British officials used the report's findings as an opportunity to again demand an apology from the BBC for its reports that senior Blair aids sought to "sex up" the report by including the 45-minute weapons of mass destruction claim. Ministers, including foreign secretary Jack Straw, said the report vindicated Campbell and the government and that the BBC should apologize for its "fundamental attack on the integrity of the prime minister and the government."
"I believe that the BBC should now apologize," he said. "And I note that even the BBC governors in their statement last night did not defend the accuracy of this claim. The BBC should now have the grace to acknowledge that they got it wrong."
BBC stands behind story
But BBC's director of news, Richard Sambrooke, said the report, issued by a committee "deeply divided" on whether to exonerate Campbell, vindicated the BBC's decision to cite an unnamed senior intelligence source who claimed the document had been altered at Campbell's request.
BBC Chairman Gavin Davies, meanwhile, described the broadcaster's coverage of the war as "entirely impartial" and called on Campbell to withdraw his allegations of bias against the BBC and its journalists.
But with the government position firmly entrenched, it's unlikely Campbell will do so. Addressing the controversy himself over the weekend, Prime Minister Blair dismissed reports Campbell had manipulated intelligence information as "absurd." On Monday, Campbell repeated his accusations against the BBC.
"The BBC has not provided a shred of evidence to substantiate the story," Campbell said. "I think when fair and reasonable people see the evidence, they will realized that the story isn't true and the BBC should admit that."
Nevertheless, the Foreign Affairs Committee's report doesn't entirely exonerate Blair's government. Some opposition parliamentarians from the Conservative Party claimed there wasn't enough evidence to clear the allegations against Campbell or to issue a definitive judgement about the BBC's report. The vote was split down party lines, showing just how deep the divisions were within the committee.
The committee also accused the government of plagiarism, saying it lifted the heart of a second dossier released in February – which Downing Street presented as new intelligence information – from a student's thesis and interwove it with intelligence data.
Though Monday's report largely absolves Blair, the prime minister must still face off against parliamentary inquisitors when he appears before the House of Commons on Tuesday.