Tony Blair often seemed keener to talk about Iran, or Afghanistan, or Libya, or almost anywhere other than Iraq this morning. But he did make some potentially important admissions.
He appeared to concede that the threat from Iraq had not changed in 2001/ 2 – only that his “perception” of that threat had changed, in the light of 9/11. This raises two difficulties.
First, of course, Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and no links with al-Qaeda; Mr Blair was forced into a series of hypotheticals – if Saddam had passed WMDs to terrorists, and so on? As one of the Chilcot panel, Sir Roderic Lyne, reminded him: “But it’s these ifs, isn’t it?”
Second, more importantly, it directly contradicts Mr Blair’s key claim to Parliament before the war, where he insisted that the Iraq threat – the actual threat, not just the perception – was “growing.”
Asked by Sir Roderic: “Was the intelligence telling you it was growing?” Mr Blair referred to a Joint Intelligence Committee assessment saying not that the threat was growing, but that it was “continuing.” His second piece of evidence of a “growing” threat was the alleged mobile biological weapons labs. But as the JIC assessment (quoted in full in Annex B of the Butler Report) says, this programme had been there since 1995.
It wasn’t the only time Mr Blair appeared to misrepresent intelligence. Asked for the intelligence to justify another dubious claim, that the “assessed intelligence” had established Saddam’s WMD “beyond doubt,” he cited a 15 March 2002 JIC assessment that said it was “clear.” In fact, as far as I can see, the word “clear” does not appear in the JIC assessment of that date.
Mr Blair was also taxed about his claim to Parliament, on 16 July 2002, that Britain was not planning for possible military action. By that point Britain had, in fact, been planning for possible military action for at least two months. He appeared to concede that he had misled MPs, saying: “In retrospect it’s maybe better just to say it.”
Mr Blair’s “sexing up” of the intelligence to make the case for war was, of course, a claim first made by me in May 2003. His answers today won’t have helped his case that he acted properly.