Blair's Communication Director Defends Dossier

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

London ( - One of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's closest advisers defended his role in preparing a dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) during testimony Tuesday in front of an inquiry looking into the death of a government weapons expert.

Alastair Campbell, Blair's director of communications, said that Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) compiled the information in the dossier released last September, although he did have a hand in issues of "presentation."

Campbell said that earlier in 2002, the government had tried to compile a document on the weapons programs of four countries, including Iraq.

That project was eventually shelved, but as media attention began to pick up in the fall, the idea of a dossier on Iraq was conceived.

"By September, the prime minister took the view that this exclusively Iraq document should be put into the public domain," Campbell testified.

"I emphasised that the credibility of this document depended fundamentally on it being the work of the JIC," he said. "That was the touchstone of our approach from the very first moment."

BBC gives 'moral equivalence'

The inquiry hinges on the September document, and specifically, on one claim contained within it that became the subject of a report by BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan.

The dossier claimed that Saddam Hussein had WMD available for launch within 45 minutes. But Gilligan consulted David Kelly, a scientist and Ministry of Defense adviser on weapons of mass destruction, and then reported that the government - and specifically, Campbell - had included the 45-minute claim despite doubts about its veracity.

Kelly was the sole anonymous source in Gilligan's report, but his name was later released to the press.

The scientist was the subject of intense media interest and apparently committed suicide shortly after testifying in front of a House of Commons committee.

On Tuesday, Campbell testified that he had no say whatsoever on the material used in the dossier, although the prime minister was "very hands on" in compiling a foreword to the document.

"I had no input, output or influence upon them (the dossier's authors) whatsoever at any stage in the process," Campbell said.

He was also quizzed about a number of complaints Downing Street has made about BBC coverage of the Iraq war. Campbell rejected a suggestion made by inquiry lawyers that the complaints were largely unwarranted.

"Our perception was that BBC viewers and listeners were at times being given a sense of moral equivalence between the democratically elected governments that were involved on one side and the Iraqi regime on the other," he said.

Campbell said it had not "crossed anyone's mind" that being in the middle of the tug-of-war between the government and the BBC would cause Kelly distress.

He described the scientist as "a very strong, resolute character, clearly of deep conviction and who had been in many difficult stressful circumstances."

Focus on Blair administration

On Monday, the inquiry, headed by senior judge Lord Hutton, heard that another top Blair aide, Downing Street Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell, believed that the dossier had shortcomings.

In an e-mail written a week before the dossier was released to the public, Powell wrote: "The dossier is good and convincing for those who are prepared to be convinced."

But he also said that it "does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam. In other words, it shows he has the means, but it does not demonstrate he has the motive to attack his neighbors, let alone the West."

The first week of the Hutton inquiry focused on the BBC and its reporting and revealed differences between the views and reports of Gilligan and other corporation journalists who talked to Kelly.

The second week has focused on the government's role in the affair, with several key Blair advisers scheduled to testify before the prime minister and Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon are expected to take the stand later this month.

An opinion poll published in The Guardian newspaper Tuesday found that 6 percent of voters trust the government more than the BBC. Thirty-four percent said they trusted the BBC more, while a majority - 52 percent - said they trusted neither institution.

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