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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 June, 2003, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
Six Forum: Iraq weapons row
Foreign Office Minister, Bill Rammell and the editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest, Alex Standish answered your questions in the Six Forum presented by Manisha Tank.



Tony Blair has again denied that intelligence documents on Iraq's weapons programmes were changed on the orders of Downing Street to strengthen the case for war against Saddam Hussein.

Announcing that Parliament's all-party Intelligence and Security Committee would be conducting an inquiry into the row, the prime minister said the allegations were "completely and totally untrue".

He said there had been "no attempt at all" by the government to change the intelligence service's briefings.

Were there weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Were intelligence reports misleading? Did the government exaggerate the case for war?


Transcript:


Manisha Tank:

Hello and welcome to the Six Forum, I'm Manisha Tank. Prime Minister, Tony Blair, denies that intelligence reports on Iraq's weapons programmes were altered to strengthen the case for war in Iraq. Now he says Parliament's all-party intelligence and security committee will conduct an inquiry into the row.

So, were there weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or was the case the conflict exaggerated? Joining me now the editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest, Alex Standish and later we'll be joined by Bill Rammell, Foreign Office Minister.

Alex, first of all we've received an e-mail from Stan Cooper here in the UK: Intelligence is very rarely gathered black and white and Blair mixed black and white to get exactly the shade of grey he wanted.

More of a comment there but just throwing it out to you.


Alex Standish:

The way that intelligence reports are put together - and we know this from those which have been de-classified and there isn't a great deal of change over the years in how a standard intelligence report is compiled - is that you put sides of an argument and where you actually have some form of intelligence which is perhaps not corroborated or is questionable, then you do your best to put an alternative interpretation or an alternative source of information.

So you give a range of opinions, because at the end of the day, an intelligence briefing is precisely that. It's a briefing to enable politicians and others who make decisions to inform their actions. And so I think that where we have difficulties here, in this particular question, is to what extent politicians may have interpreted or edited the intelligence briefings that they were given.


Manisha Tank:

Yes I think what's been pointed out in this case is, is how old some of this information actually was. Jansher in Birmingham has picked up on that and says: The original "evidence" included a spruced up, unauthorised copy of a ten year-old thesis. Saddam didn't use any of these weapons during the war. Why should we believe anything that the Prime Minister says?


Alex Standish:

Well, I think we have to accept there are two reports in question. The first was the report on the weapons of mass destruction which is really the focus of the debate at the moment and that was produced in September of last year. And then in February of this year, there was a second report into Saddam's security apparatus and the comment there relates specifically to the second report and we know that that was lifted, without attribution, from a number of other reports, including two reports from Jane's Intelligence Review, our sister publication.

Now those reports were a number of years old - I think between four and six years old and certainly there was no attempt by the people that used those sources to contact our people - the editors or the authors of these reports - to get any kind of update. So they were certainly dated reports. We stand by what they said at the time, but of course things have moved on, inspectors have been in Iraq since then. So they couldn't really be an accurate reflection of exactly what the situation was when that report was written.


Manisha Tank:

Now of course, like you say, there are inspectors crawling all over Iraq but still we had various kinds of information coming from very different sources. Adrian Hacken has written in saying: Doesn't the discovery of mobile biological weapons factories, which featured in Colin Powell's speech at the UN, prove that the intelligence used to justify the war was of a good quality.
This is where you have this problem - with sources.


Alex Standish:

Yes. In relation to the specific issue of these mobile laboratories, one has to say that at the moment the analysis that's been carried so far - and one has to say those tests are not fully completed, as I understand it - have demonstrated or suggested that these have not been used. There haven't been traces of agents, biological or chemical, found in those vehicles. Now what they are used for, what they were intended for use - I think is a more difficult question and that no doubt will be a focus of the interrogations that will be going on with Iraqi scientists.

But clearly somebody had some information about those sorts of vehicles which was passed on and that appeared in the report. So we're not saying that all the information in the intelligence briefings by any means were erroneous. I think it's a question of what the sources were - how good the sources information were and how much reliance could be put upon them.


Manisha Tank:

Now just getting back to the intelligence services and the people who were generating information here in the UK. It seemed very clear that the Prime Minister was trying to distance himself from something. There have been various politicians who've had a lot to say. We have an e-mail from Pamela Whitstock in Dover, UK who asks: What are the "rogue elements" in the security service that John Reid was speaking of?


Alex Standish:

I think it seems that what we're dealing with is perhaps a rogue element in the singular and that seems to be someone, senior official, we're told, who suggested that the report had been - and I think the term was - "sexed up". Now to what extent the intelligence service as a whole would want to distance itself from those comments or indeed distance itself from some of the other things which have been said concerning intelligence matters, I don't know. The intelligence service, of course, by its very nature is not a terribly public body. It has to work in, shall we say, covert or a non-public forum in order to be effective.

I think the specific difficulty at the moment is really around the 45 minute claim - that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction could be ready in 45 minutes - and in that respect, it does seem that the Prime Minister has passed that back to the joint intelligence committee which briefs Ministers. So I think that it remains to be seen obviously what happens with the inquiry. But I think there is, on both sides, perhaps an element of distancing going on.


Manisha Tank:

We're going to go now to Bill Rammell, Foreign Office Minister, who joins us from our Millbank studio. First of all, we've had viewers writing in to us - Martyn Smith wants to know: Did the Government emphasise information that they know was dubious or suspect to further their cause over Iraq?


Bill Rammell:

Absolutely, 100% not. The dossiers that we put into the public domain were entirely the work of the intelligence services - cleared by the joint intelligence committee and not one word was changed by the Government.


Manisha Tank:

Hidde Wallaart, Ely, Cambridgeshire, UK asks: Has there been any proof then, since you say this, that Iraq has already given weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups operating in other countries?

And something that was pointed out - that I've talked about with Alex Standish - was that certain sentences and documents were replaced, that Saddam had given funding to having people eliminated outside the country - it never said terrorist groups in the original document but it seemed to in a subsequent dossier.


Bill Rammell:

Sorry, can you substantiate that - I mean that bears no resemblance to the dossiers that I saw put forward. And there were certainly no changes whatsoever between the dossiers that were approved by the joint intelligence committee and that which was put into the public domain.

I think what we're experiencing at the moment is a whole series of wild, unsubstantiated allegations that have got no basis in fact. And then, with respect, news programmes like your own are just repeating those as though they were fact.


Manisha Tank:

What we obviously try to do is get a series of opinions and let the viewers make their judgment. Alex, what was your take on that?


Alex Standish:

Well I think the key issue was that we know the basis of the dossier that was prepared in - or released in February of this year. This is the dossier on Saddam's security services. That consisted primarily of material that had been lifted from other reports, two of which were publications published by my own publishers Jane's, written by people known to me. Now there were, in those passages that were lifted, a number of issues which were not covered in the report. They were certainly, in some respects, edited. I can give you one specific example, which related to the work of Dr. al-Marashi, which was heavily used in this report and was not acknowledged in any way, shape or form. And that was that Saddam had - this was according to the Marashi report - attacked or authorised attacks on opposition figures abroad. Now that was changed in the context of the same paragraph which was lifted, including the spelling mistakes, from the original, to suggest that Saddam was supporting foreign terrorist organisations.


Manisha Tank:

Alex, let's just hold it there. Mr Rammall I saw you shaking head, obviously this is a forum in which you can put your opinion forward. What's your response to that?


Bill Rammell:

It wasn't changed by the Government - the words weren't changed by the Government. These were dossiers that were approved by the joint intelligence committee and then put to Government. I think that's the important point to make. The suggestions that have been out and about for the last few days are that somebody at 10 Downing Street, or the Prime Minister or Alistair Campbell, intervened, having received a report from the joint intelligence committee and changed it. And that is quite simply untrue.


Manisha Tank:

Mark Denton, has sent us an e-mail, Mr Rammell, from London: Does the Government not trust its own intelligence services on the briefings it produces. It seems that there's a distance being created now?


Bill Rammell:

No, I don't think that's the case at all. Anybody who watched Prime Minister's Question Time today will have seen the Prime Minister making it abundantly clear that he and the whole of the Government have absolute confidence in the security services, based on six years experience in government - we have a very strong relationship and there's no suggestion that we don't have confidence in the intelligence services.


Manisha Tank:

Now we're hearing that calls for an inquiry into the row has been defeated. What's your response to that result?


Bill Rammell:

Well, what the Government has made clear - and again what the Prime Minister made clear today is - that the intelligence and security committee of the House of Commons will conduct a through investigation. They will be given all the intelligence material that the Government based its decisions on and the intelligence committee will then be able to produce a report that will go into the public domain. And I think when that happens, we will conclude very rapidly that a lot of what has been in the press and the media for the last couple of days, is stuff and nonsense.


Manisha Tank:

Well we look forward to seeing the inquiry and properly reporting it. Bill Rammell and Alex Standish thank you for joining us. Goodbye.




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