The Prime Minister's ignorance is no defence

08 February 2004

For nearly a year The Independent on Sunday has argued that Tony Blair either made a calamitous misjudgement in the build-up to the war against Iraq or was highly economical with the truth about what he knew a year ago. If Mr Blair believed the most alarmist intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons he was being spectacularly naive. Like journalism, a profession that the Prime Minister views with a wary scepticism, intelligence can be unreliable. Sometimes the intelligence agencies are dependent on sources that are poorly placed to provide definitive information. The subsequent results of their investigations are often more speculative than precise. The possibility of prime ministerial naivety is alarming enough, but the alternative is even worse. Could the Prime Minister have known that some of the intelligence overstated the case for war in advance of the conflict? In today's Independent on Sunday we reveal that in the run-up to war Mr Blair was sent three intelligence reports, at least one of which warned him that information on whether Saddam still held any chemical or biological weapons was "inconsistent" and "sparse".

The question of what Mr Blair knew came into sharper focus last week. Mr Blair claimed that he did not know that the 45 minutes referred only to battlefield weapons when he published the dossier. As the former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, has pointed out, this was an extraordinary admission, one that almost defies belief. Mr Cook knew that the claim referred to battlefield weapons because he had checked with the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett. Apparently Mr Blair had made no such check. Or is it possible that he knew more about Iraq's limited capability than he conveyed at the time? There is no more serious decision a prime minister can make than sending British troops to war. Mr Blair appears to have done so without checking the facts, orwithholding vital information about the scale of the threat posed by Saddam's weapons.

The inquiry into the intelligence, established last week, is superfluous and unlikely to discover much. It has only been set up because President George W Bush got there first, another reminder that Mr Blair has no choice but to dance to America's tunes. As Charles Kennedy states in his article on the facing page, the key questions relate to Mr Blair's political judgements. To take one example, we still do not know for sure when the Prime Minister made clear to President Bush that Britain would support the war. Mr Blair's public statements suggest that he made a provisional commitment a year before the conflict took place, a reckless pledge that gave him little room for manoeuvre in the months that followed. Trapped by a military timetable determined by President Bush, Mr Blair relied increasingly on the intelligence that suggested Iraq posed an imminent threat. Almost a year later he faces the political repercussions. They are likely to be very serious. They deserve to be.