Tuesday, September 23, 2003

From Geoff Hoon's latest testimony to the Hutton Inquiry (here, sections 80 to 84; my italics and bold print):

"Q. Did you know that the 45 minute claim in the dossier was taken from a JIC assessment which does not in fact identify any particular weapon?

A. Well, I recall at the time having some discussion in the Ministry of Defence about the kinds of weapons that could be deployable within 45 minutes; and I think the assumption was made that they would be, for example, chemical shells, which were clearly capable of being deployed, as I think Mr Scarlett has indicated to the Inquiry, in a time even less than 45 minutes; I think he suggested 20 minutes.

Q. So you knew, did you, that the munitions referred to were only battlefield munitions?

A. I was certainly aware that that was one suggestion, yes.

Q. Was there any other suggestion that they were not battlefield munitions but strategic munitions?

A. I recall asking what kind of weapons would be deployable within 45 minutes; and the answer is the answer that I have just given to you.

Q. Which was shells, battlefield mortars, tactical weapons of that kind?

A. Yes.

Q. Would your Department be responsible for correcting any false impression given by the press on an issue of this importance?

A. I think on an issue of this importance it would not simply have been the Ministry of Defence that was solely responsible. There would have been an effort across Government.

Q. Are you aware that on 25th September a number of newspapers had banner headlines suggesting that this related to strategic missiles or bombs?

A. I can recall, yes.

Q. Why was no corrective statement issued for the benefit of the public in relation to those media reports?

A. I do not know.

Q. It must have been considered by someone, must it not?

A. I have spent many years trying to persuade newspapers and journalists to correct their stories. I have to say it is an extraordinarily time consuming and generally frustrating process.

Q. I am sorry, are you saying that the press would not report a corrective statement that the dossier was meant to refer, in this context, to battlefield munitions and not to strategic weapons?

A. What I am suggesting is that I was not aware of whether any consideration was given to such a correction. All that I do know from my experience is that, generally speaking, newspapers are resistant to corrections. That judgment may have been made by others as well.

Q. But, Mr Hoon, you must have been horrified that the dossier had been misrepresented in this way; it was a complete distortion of what it actually was intended to convey, was it not?

A. Well, I was not horrified. I recognised that journalists occasionally write things that are more dramatic than the material upon which it is based.

Q. Can we forget journalists for the moment and concentrate on the members of the public who are reading it? Will they not be entitled to be given the true picture of the intelligence, not a vastly inflated one?

A. I think that is a question you would have to put to the journalists and the editors responsible.

Q. But you had the means to correct it, not them. They could not correct it until they were told, could they?

A. Well, as I say, my experience of trying to persuade newspapers to correct false impressions is one that is not full of success.

Q. Do you accept that on this topic at least you had an absolute duty to try to correct it?

A. No, I do not.

Q. Do you accept that you had any duty to correct it?

A. Well, I apologise for repeating the same answer, but you are putting the question in another way. I have tried on many, many occasions to persuade journalists and newspapers to correct stories. They do not like to do so.

Q. Can I suggest to you a reason why this was not done? It would have been politically highly embarrassing because it would have revealed the dossier as published was at least highly capable of being misleading.

A. Well, I do not accept that.

Q. So your suggestion is that this was a disgraceful exaggeration by the press of what was clear in the dossier as a reference to battlefield munitions?

A. I am certainly suggesting that it was an exaggeration, but it is not unusual for newspapers to exaggerate.

Q. Can you tell me, if you happen to have it to hand, where in the dossier it is made clear that the CBW weapons which were the subject of the 45 minute claim were only battlefield munitions?

A. Well, I do not have it to hand; and I do not know whether it was made clear."

The dossier was prepared with the intention of justifying to the Labour caucus, the British people, and the world, that an unprovoked and very unpopular attack by Britain against Iraq was necessary, based largely on the weapons of mass destruction threat posed by the Saddam regime. The dossier contained a rather prominent claim about Saddam being ready to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, but failed to make it clear that it referred only to battlefield munitions, and not the kind of missiles that could possibly have posed a risk to British interests. In Blair's introduction to the dossier he stated:

"Saddam has used chemical weapons, not only against an enemy state, but against his own people. Intelligence reports make clear that he sees the building up of his WMD capability, and the belief overseas that he would use these weapons, as vital to his strategic interests, and in particular his goal of regional domination. And the document discloses that his military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them."

In Chapter 3 of the dossier itself, the 45-minute claim was made under a section headed by the following sentence: "This chapter sets out what we know of Saddam Hussein's chemical, biological, nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, drawing on all the available evidence." The 45-minute claim was buried within claims regarding chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and claims regarding extended-range SCUD missiles capable of reaching, amongst other places, Cyprus. The claim later appeared in a section headed 'Recent Intelligence', again buried in a discussion of WMD and missiles capable of delivering them. Hoon admits that he was aware of the distinction between battlefield munitions and missiles capable of threatening British interests, that he was aware that British papers had assumed that the 45-minute claim referred to missiles, and that he did absolutely nothing to correct the misapprehension. Then he has the audacity to complain that newspapers rarely make corrections, and blames the lack of a correction on the journalists and editors! He makes this amazing claim while acknowledging that the journalists and editors had no way of knowing that they had something that needed correcting, because neither he nor anyone in the Blair government had bothered to tell them! It is completely obvious that the 45-minute claim was inserted in the dossier with the intent to mislead, and the failure to correct the completely understandable misapprehension of the newspapers that the 45-minute claim referred to weapons that could actually pose a danger to British interests was part of the larger conspiracy involving the creation and (mis)use of the dossier.