Blair, BBC Argue Over Iraqi Weapons

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

London ( - British Prime Minister Tony Blair's top press official has demanded an apology from the BBC over allegations that Downing Street manipulated intelligence information to bolster the case for war against Iraq.

The dispute stemmed from a May 29 broadcast by BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan, who cited a British intelligence source in reporting that a dossier of evidence on Iraq's weapons programs published by the prime minister's office last September had been "sexed up."

Specifically, the source was upset at the prominence given to a claim that Saddam Hussein had the capability to launch biological or chemical weapons within 45 minutes.

Gilligan reported that the British government "probably knew that the 45-minute figure was wrong" and that Alastair Campbell, Blair's director of communications, had a direct role in inserting the information into the dossier.

On Wednesday, Campbell blasted the BBC report when he told a House of Commons committee examining intelligence information on Iraq and the way it was presented.

"I find it incredible...based on one single anonymous, uncorroborated source...that the prime minister, the cabinet, the intelligence agencies, people like myself, connived to persuade Parliament to send British forces into action on a lie.

"Until the BBC acknowledges that is a lie, I will keep banging on...they better issue an apology pretty quick," he said.

Testifying in front of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on Friday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw seemed to undermine Campbell by saying the 45-minunte claim was not in the first draft of September's dossier.

But Straw later said that Campbell hadn't seen the first draft, and by the time the communications director gained access to intelligence material, the weapons claim had already been inserted.

Gilligan acknowledges his story relied on a single source, but BBC chiefs have stood by the reporter.

Speaking to BBC radio, the network's news director, Richard Sambrook, denied that his organization had ever accused Blair of outright lying or sending troops to war on false pretences.

"We have never suggested anything of that kind," he said. "We're not going to apologize for something we haven't said."

Sambrook said Gilligan's source was "senior, credible and reliable."

On Thursday afternoon, Campbell wrote to the BBC asking the corporation whether it stood by its reports and requesting more information about its intelligence sources. He demanded a reply by midnight.

In a later statement, Sambrook refused to relent and said: "We stand by our entire story.

"In my experience, this is an unprecedented level of pressure on the BBC from Downing Street," he said. "The BBC will respond properly to these matters, but not to a deadline dictated by Mr. Campbell."

On Friday, Sambrook issued a point-by-point rebuttal to Campbell's questions and accused him of waging a "personal vendetta."

"I do not accept the validity of your attacks on our journalism and on Andrew Gilligan in particular," Sambrook wrote.

Blair's and Campbell's involvement in compiling the intelligence dossier has also come under attack by the pro-war Conservative Party and the anti-war Liberal Democrats.

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