Page last updated at 17:48 GMT, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Alastair Campbell at Iraq inquiry: Je ne regrette rien

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website

There were no regrets or apologies from Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former "director of communications and strategy" when he appeared in front of the Iraq Inquiry.

Alastair Campbell
Alastair Campbell gave a typically combative performance

It was as if Edith Piaf was singing in the background - "Je ne regrette rien".

His line, expressed with typical vigour, was that nothing he or the then prime minister did during the lead-up to the war in 2003 was at fault.

Mr Blair's policy had only ever been one of seeking Iraq's disarmament, by diplomacy if possible, by force if necessary, he said.

"He really believed in it," Mr Campbell said. "Britain as a country should feel incredibly proud."

What Mr Campbell did was to prepare the ground for his former leader's appearance. Like a forceful reconnaissance unit, he was not afraid to identify and try to despatch targets, in the hope that the main force would have an easier time.

The inquiry panel was only intermittently tough in its questioning, though an underlying scepticism was often evident.

French 'pulled plug'

This was much more combative stuff than the evidence given up until now by officials, who are trained to express any disagreement in the least disagreeable way. Not so Alastair Campbell.

At no time did I ever ask him [Scarlett] to beef up, to override, any of the judgments that he had
Alastair Campbell

Instead, he took swipes at others. He blamed the former British ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, for suggesting that Tony Blair had hardened his policy into one of regime-change in any event. Meyer was "not accurate" and "churlish" and "glib," he said.

He blamed the French (several times) for blocking another UN resolution which would have authorised force. "They pulled the plug," he stated.

He fell back time and time again on stressing that it was John Scarlett, the then head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, who had "ownership" of the intelligence document published in September 2003. John Scarlett "did not fall under any pressure", he declared.

He himself had not "sexed-up" that document, he announced, though he would have preferred not to use that "ghastly" phrase. "At no time did I ever ask him [Scarlett] to beef up, to override, any of the judgments that he had," was how he put it. "I will defend it to the end of my days," he declared. "I defend every single word."

If it was regarded as "negative", then that was only because the media had refused to accept Lord Hutton's judgment, which they had simply dismissed as "whitewash" from a piece of "Ulster granite."

Andrew Gilligan

As for the famous warning that Saddam's weapons could be deployed within "45 minutes", the prominence given to this was the fault of "the reporter who provoked" the controversy. He could not bring himself to name the reporter, who was Andrew Gilligan, then at the BBC. It had been no part of the government's plan to promote 45 minutes, Mr Campbell claimed, and said the government could even have called it a 20 minute warning, as intelligence had indicated that was a possible time-frame as well.

We did learn about letters sent by Tony Blair to President Bush but these have not been published. Mr Campbell said they affirmed that, if there was to be war to disarm Saddam Hussein, "Britain will be there."

Against this, the panel was unable to break through easily.

At one stage, Sir Lawrence Freedman, who had tried to trip Mr Campbell up over the September dossier, almost gave up and said he "wasn't sure" if further questions he was about to put were "really" for Mr Campbell, and then put them anyway.

The strongest line of questioning came from Sir Roderic Lyne, a former ambassador to Moscow. He was "puzzled" why caveats about the limited nature of the intelligence had been turned into the phrase "beyond doubt" used by Tony Blair in the dossier and in front of Parliament.

"Was Parliament misled?" wondered Sir Roderic. The answer was simple and typical: "No."

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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