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Last Updated: Friday, 27 June, 2003, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
Straw 'shifting story' over Iraq
Jack Straw
Sensitive security issues will be discussed in private
The government has been accused of shifting its story over its claims that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.

Conservative Richard Ottaway made the accusation after MPs questioned Foreign Secretary Jack Straw for a second time over the weapons row.

Downing Street has demanded the BBC apologise for reporting that a senior official had said the prominence given to the 45 minutes claim was part of the "sexing up" of a dossier on Iraq.

The committee met in public for around 90 minutes on Friday going into a private session during which Mr Straw was said to have been "very forthcoming".

During the public grilling, Mr Straw acknowledged the 45 minutes intelligence was not in the original draft of the dossier.

But he insisted that this was because the information did not come to light until later.

His words appeared to contradict Downing Street press chief Alastair Campbell's evidence that the 45 minutes claim was in the "very first draft" of the dossier.

Later Mr Straw said he had received a note saying Mr Campbell would be writing to the committee explaining that the claim was included in the first draft of the dossier he had seen.

Mr Campbell was writing to the MPs with details of how he suggested changes to the dossier to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), he said.

Alastair Campbell

Mr Straw robustly denied that the dossier - released last September - had been "sexed up" by anyone, including the Number 10 spin doctor.

The dossier was one of two issued by the government on Iraq - the second was the so-called "dodgy dossier" released earlier this year which plagiarised an academic work.

The foreign secretary suggested BBC bosses were now showing doubts about their story over the "sexing up" of the first Iraq dossier.

But Mr Ottaway, a member of the Commons foreign affairs select committee which cross-examined Mr Straw on Friday, said: "The story seems to be shifting as time goes by and who can tell exactly where the truth lies."

Those doubts come despite Mr Straw promising "decisive evidence" in the committee's private session, in which Mr Ottaway said the minister had been "very forthcoming".

Turf battles?

During heated public exchanges on Friday, committee chairman Donald Anderson suggested the government was denying the committee "decisive evidence" for its inquiry.

Mr Anderson demanded the Commons foreign affairs committee be allowed to question the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).

But Mr Straw accused Mr Anderson of trying to involve the government in a "turf war" with another Commons committee investigating the weapons row.

We stand by our entire story.... this is an unprecedented level of pressure on the BBC from Downing Street
Richard Sambrook
BBC director of news

The Commons intelligence and security committee, which meets only in private and which is investigating the case for war against Iraq, was the right place for the JIC chairman to be questioned, said Mr Straw.

That prompted Mr Anderson to complain: "What you are saying in effect is that you using this jurisdictional point to stop the committee having what could be absolutely decisive evidence."

Mr Straw countered: "I will be producing decisive evidence in any event and unless you are saying I have come here not to tell the truth and to tell other than the truth, I ought to be believed."

Diversion?

The BBC refused on Thursday to meet a deadline set by Mr Campbell to answer a series of questions about its report on the government's first dossier on Iraq's weapons programme by the end of Thursday.

Mr Campbell continued to insist on an apology but the BBC's director of news, Richard Sambrook, said he was satisfied the claim came from a "senior and credible" intelligence services source.

In turn he accused Downing Street of putting "unprecedented pressure" on the corporation.

On Friday, the prime minister's official spokesman said it was "the biggest load of codswallop" to suggest the attack on the BBC was a "diversionary tactic".

He again demanded the BBC apologise for a story which was "100% wrong".

Cook's warning

Mr Sambrook said in a statement on Thursday the BBC stood by its entire story.

"The BBC will respond properly to these matters and not to a deadline dictated by Mr Campbell," he said.

The row over the dossiers has prompted figures like former cabinet minister Robin Cook to warn against losing sight of the key questions.

"It's very important that we don't get distracted into the argument about deception and sexing up or whatever - these are not allegations that I have personally ever made," Mr Cook told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"For me, the real issue is that we were told things as a justification for war which have plainly turned out to be wrong since the war was over."

Mr Straw insisted there was already enough public evidence to justify the war.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"The central problem remains, no weapons of mass destruction have yet been found in Iraq"



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