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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 July, 2003, 18:47 GMT 19:47 UK
Have the real issues got lost?
Shaun Ley
By Shaun Ley
BBC political correspondent

Monday is decision day in the bitter row between the BBC and the government over the use of intelligence in the run up to the war in Iraq. Right?

Well, no, actually it's not. But you'd be forgiven for thinking this will be the issue at the heart of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report being published at 10am.

Certainly it's what the government and the media - including the BBC - have concentrated on.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Tony Blair says the BBC has attacked his "integrity"

But remember what the committee said when it announced its investigation, entitled The Decision to go to War in Iraq.

The MPs said: "The inquiry will consider whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, within the government as a whole, presented accurate and complete information to Parliament in the period leading up to military action in Iraq, particularly in relation to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."

That's why the MPs have questioned a wide range of witnesses: the ex-chairwoman of the Joint Intelligence Committee; a scientist who used to be a senior figure at Porton Down; and a former intelligence adviser to the Australian Government, as well as Jack Straw, Alastair Campbell, and witnesses from the BBC.

The BBC became involved because the committee decided to take evidence on the two dossiers which the government released in the run up to war, in order to support its case.

The first was published in September.

Entitled Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction - The Assessment of the British Government, it included the now infamous claim that: "Iraq's military forces are able to use chemical and biological weapons, with command, control and logistical arrangements in place.

"The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of a decision to do so."

Propaganda war

The Today programme on BBC Radio Four reported that an unnamed intelligence source had accused Downing Street of "sexing up" the dossier, by insisting that the 45-minute claim be included, despite doubts within the intelligence community over its veracity.

In the propaganda war which has followed, both sides have clouded the issue.

Monday's report is likely to offer something to both the government and the BBC

Asked by the government whether it believes the story to be true, the BBC says instead that it's defending its right to broadcast what sources have told it.

The government has performed an equally neat sidestep.

In an interview with The Observer newspaper, the prime minister says: "You could not make a more serious charge against a prime minister, that I ordered our troops into conflict on the basis of intelligence evidence that I falsified. The charge happens to be wrong."

Except the BBC never accused Mr Blair or anyone else in Downing Street of falsifying the evidence in the dossier.

Charge

Rather, the charge was that Number 10 exaggerated the threat in order to strengthen the case for war.

That charge becomes more serious for the government when attention shifts to the second dossier released in February.

It's now become known as the "dodgy dossier", or in the foreign secretary's colourful vernacular, "a right horlicks".

Although the prime minister commended it to the House of Commons as fresh intelligence, a third of it turned out to be an old doctoral thesis, downloaded from the internet.

The government has already conceded that publishing it was a mistake.

The prime minister's director of communications, Alastair Campbell, has apologised too.

Alastair Campbell
MPs have questioned Alastair Campbell

He's likely to be criticised over this document in the committee's report.

Number 10 will hope that by conceding its error, attention will focus instead on the September dossier.

But the MPs may also express an opinion on the way words were altered in the February document.

For example, the thesis on the internet had talked about "opposition groups".

By the time it appeared as part of the dossier, that had changed to "terrorist".

The question is whether the government has given a satisfactory explanation for that alteration.

Critics

If not, critics will see it as evidence that the government was seeking to exaggerate the case against Iraq in the weeks before the war.

But Monday's report does not amount to decision day, for two reasons.

First, it's unlikely that the committee will reach a clear conclusion on the BBC's story.

Conservative members have been arguing that the refusal by the government to give them access to all the documents on which the September dossier was based, limits their ability to exonerate Number 10.

Second, there is another inquiry still to take place.

What does the report tell us about the quality of intelligence Britain possessed about Iraq and how that intelligence was used ?

The Security and Intelligence Committee is made up of senior MPs from all parties, appointed by the government.

Because its members have security clearance, they can gain access to documents and interview witnesses not available to the select committee.

However, while their conclusions will be made public, much of that evidence may not be.

Even then, we may not have a definitive answer. In the meantime, Monday's report is likely to offer something to both the government and the BBC.

But look past the headlines news. What does the report tell us about the quality of intelligence Britain possessed about Iraq and how that intelligence was used ?

Long after the BBC-Downing Street row has faded from memory, those questions will still matter.

And they'll probably still be argued about when the current crop of top politicians and BBC executives are in retirement, writing their memoirs.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Clarence Mitchell
"There is no suggestion of the BBC apologising at this stage"



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