The case for war looks flimsier than ever - and so does Mr Blair's defence

04 September 2003

Just as it looked as though the first stage of the Hutton inquiry was winding down, with no one except the Defence Secretary seriously wounded, the Government's case suffered a spectacular double missile-strike. Two senior intelligence analysts - one now in retirement, the other identified only as Mr A - shattered several of the pillars on which the Government's arguments had rested.

Deliberately or not, Lord Hutton left some of the most compelling evidence to last. The result is that the first stage of the inquiry looks set to end as it began: less with the personal tragedy of Dr David Kelly than with the September dossier on Iraq's weapons capability. And once the dossier is again in contention, so is the biggest question of all: did the Government lead this country into war on a false pretext?

The two analysts who gave evidence yesterday afternoon essentially believed just that. The first, Dr Brian Jones, said he believed that some elements of the dossier were "over-egged". He especially took issue with the 45-minute claim - that Saddam Hussein could deploy unspecified weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes - a claim that figured not only in the text of the dossier, but in the foreword signed by the Prime Minister.

As if this was not enough awkward truth for one day, he also challenged the credibility of the single Iraqi source on which the 45-minute claim was based. The source may have been reliable, he said, but he was citing someone else - and one of the two could not have had a clue what he was talking about. Dr Jones even hazarded that the information might have been deliberately planted, "to influence, not inform".

He was not invited to speculate about the reasons, but we can venture at least two. Parts of the Iraqi opposition in exile strongly supported a war. They were sponsored by factions in the US administration, notably the Pentagon, which feared that anti-war sentiment in Britain could scupper their plans. It is not necessary to weave conspiracy theories, however, to realise that Dr Jones's evidence was lethal.

As was Dr A's. He was so concerned about the accuracy of parts of the dossier and the gloss being placed on the intelligence - the "spinning" - that he wrote to the deputy head of the Defence Intelligence Staff to register his concern. So, quite separately, did Dr Jones - to zero effect.

The case for war, presented by the Prime Minister and based on that dossier, now looks flimsier than ever. So does some of the testimony of his closest advisers. John Scarlett, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee - who, at his own insistence, "owned" the dossier - testified that the single source was utterly reliable, implying that the 45-minute claim was also. This turns out simply not to be true. Mr Scarlett and others, including the chief civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, said they knew of no dissent in the ranks. Either they were practising extreme economy with the truth, or they were lamentably unattuned to the concerns of some of their best qualified staff.

To cap it all, the accusation to which Mr Blair took such offence - to the point where he called it a resigning matter - was this charge cited by the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan. Quoting the source we now know as Dr Kelly, Mr Gilligan said that Downing Street had "sexed up" the dossier by, for example, including the 45-minute claim, knowing it to be "questionable" or "wrong". On the basis of what we heard yesterday, that seems an eminently fair assessment. It is a charge that Mr Blair still needs to answer.