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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 September, 2003, 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK
Report goes to heart of war doubts

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

In some senses, Geoff Hoon's career is a diversion.

The defence secretary has been found guilty of deliberately choosing not to give the Commons intelligence committee the full picture about the level of dissent over the Iraq dossier.

It is also suggested that, had it not been for the Hutton inquiry, the full picture may never have emerged,

Hoon's position further undermined
And for Iain Duncan Smith, at least, that is a resignation issue.

It is pretty clear, however, that Mr Hoon is not about to fall now as a result of this report.

But it is also obvious that his future is on hold pending the outcome of the Hutton inquiry.

Any significant criticism of him from Lord Hutton would almost certainly be fatal.

Public misled

The prime minister's critics believe he wants Mr Hoon to stay in post until then in case he needs to sacrifice somebody at that point.

The prime minister will also welcome the conclusion that, contrary to the BBC Today programme report, neither Alastair Campbell nor anybody else "sexed up" the Iraq dossier.

But there was a far more serious conclusion to be drawn from the intelligence committee's report.

And that, quite simply, is that ordinary members of the public - and presumably backbench MPs - may very likely have been misled about the case against Saddam Hussein

Time and again committee chairman Ann Taylor accepted that the way the intelligence was presented in the dossier would have made it difficult for members of the public to understand.

Arresting detail

The committee was particularly critical of the way intelligence was presented about claims Saddam could deploy weapons within 45 minutes.

It pointed out that the dossier was for public consumption, not experienced readers of intelligence material.

Kelly inquiry is now central

The fact that the claim was included four times in the dossier was bound to attract attention because it was "arresting detail".

But, in fact, it was not new to the intelligence community and referred only to battlefield chemical and biological weapons not wider attacks.

"The omission of the context and assessment allowed speculation as to its exact meaning. This was unhelpful to an understanding of this issue," the committee found.

Similarly, the MPs said the dossier's claim Iraq continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, without providing detail, "could give the impression that Saddam was actively producing both chemical and biological weapons and significant amounts of agents".

In fact, the Joint Intelligence Committee which drew up the report, did not know what had been produced or in what quantities.

"This uncertainty should have been highlighted," it found.

Core question

The committee also found that the prime minister's accurate statement that Saddam could not launch a nuclear attack on London or any other part of the UK should not have been removed from the foreword of the final dossier.

Finally, the report revealed that intelligence chiefs had warned the prime minister that toppling Saddam could increase the chance of terror groups like al-Qaeda obtaining his chemical or biological weapons.

But the prime minister told the committee there was just such a risk, but judged the risk of inaction was greater.

So, while the criticisms of Mr Hoon may have long term consequences for him, it is these concerns that may yet prove more damaging for the government.

They go to the very heart of the core question of whether or not Britain was taken into war on Iraq on false premises.

It was that allegation which kicked off the entire crisis and it is the question that, when all the other issues have died away, will still need to be answered.


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