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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 October, 2004, 22:31 GMT 23:31 UK
Analysis: Death of the 45-minute claim
By Gordon Corera
BBC security correspondent

On Tuesday, the claim that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes was finally laid to rest by Jack Straw in the House of Commons.

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A year and a half after the war actually took place, an innocent observer may have thought it was fairly obvious by now that Iraq was not able to launch such weapons at such short notice.

But it is only now that the long saga has been brought to its formal conclusion and that particular claim laid to rest.

Concerns first arose in mid-May regarding the validity of the intelligence reporting on which the 45-minute claim was based.

Government ministers were informed at the beginning of June about these concerns.

Officially false

The Butler report in mid-July, which investigated the WMD intelligence, stated that it had been told by the Secret Intelligence Service (often known as MI6) that one of the links in the reporting claim had been "thrown into doubt".

But in the weeks between mid-July and Straw's statement, SIS finished its investigation of the source and finally withdrew the report as "officially" false.

Another separate line of reporting on the existence of mobile biological facilities, which came from another foreign intelligence service, has also now been finally withdrawn after having been questioned in Butler.

The Butler inquiry found that British intelligence had five main sources reporting on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme.

Reports from one key source - reports which were crucial in the belief that there was active, current production of chemical and biological weapons and which played an important role in the famous September 2002 dossier - were withdrawn in July 2003.

Long, slow death

This happened when one of the links in the chain which brought the intelligence to SIS was interviewed after the war and denied having ever provided the information in the reports.

Jack Straw

The long, slow death of these claims is a product of the ongoing process of validating - or confirming - sources.

Validation has always been part of the work of any intelligence service as it checks that someone giving information is who they say they are, really does have access to the information they claim to be passing on, and is not providing false information for any reason.

In the case of Iraq, because of the closed nature of the regime, it was difficult to validate sources to the depth that would normally have been considered ideal.

Once the war finished, this began to change and the SIS continued to investigate its sources in more detail, leading ultimately to these final withdrawals.

Under pressure

The Butler report highlighted problems in terms of both resources and process when it came to validation.

To cite Lord Butler's delicate turn of phrase, "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear"

According to those appearing before Lord Butler, in the mid-1990s budgets were under pressure and, in order to make staff savings, more junior intelligence officers were given the job of checking the validity of sources.

The process was also subjected to the "operational imperative to produce results".

In the case of Iraq, Sir Richard Dearlove, the chief of SIS until this summer, also made clear there was a "pressure on the Service to produce" as it tried to ramp up its coverage of Iraq from mid-2002.

Supporters of the intelligence services point to these structural problems of validation as the cause of many of the problems over Iraqi WMD, rather than any caving in to political pressure to produce what the government wanted.

Validation review

However, what remains unclear - even after Butler - is the exact process by which the intelligence collected by SIS was transformed into the confident judgements of the September dossier when, to cite Lord Butler's delicate turn of phrase, "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear."

SIS has since launched a review into its validation procedures which is headed by a senior officer of the service.

This review is ongoing and has already led to changes in both process and resourcing with the aim of rectifying the problems identified.

What is interesting though, is that not every claim has yet been abandoned by British intelligence.

In London, the 45-minutes claim became the focus of attention, but in Washington it was the claim that Iraq had sought to procure uranium from Niger.

Fight another day

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush made much of this claim and credited it to British intelligence.

Since then, the US has backed off this assertion and the Iraq Survey Group report stated that it "has not found evidence to show that Iraq sought uranium from abroad after 1991".

However, even now British intelligence still stands by this claim, emphasising, as it has done all along, that it has access to information that it has not been able to share with the US government or the Iraq Survey Group.

As a result, it sees no reason to withdraw this piece of intelligence.

So, just as we finally bid a final farewell to some other controversial claims and sources, others live on to fight another day.

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