Bob Woodward of Watergate fame has just published an account of the background to the Iraq war called Plan of Attack. It has attracted a good deal of publicity in this country, particularly for its assertion, which has not been denied, that President George W. Bush told Tony Blair shortly before hostilities began that there would be no hard feelings if British troops were not involved. But there is an even more sensational claim which, so far as I can see, has been reported only by the Times. It has to do with the so-called weapons of mass destruction.
According to Mr Woodward, President Bush referred to the famous 45-minute claim in a conversation in the White House rose garden on 26 September 2002. The British government had published its dossier two days previously. Mr Bush reportedly said: ‘According to the British government, the Iraqi regime could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the orders were given.’ Mr Woodward notes at this point (the passage occurs on page 190): ‘[George] Tenet [the CIA director] and the CIA had warned the British not to make that allegation, which was based on a questionable source, and almost certainly referred to battlefield weapons — not ones that Iraq could launch at neighbouring countries, let alone American cities. Tenet referred privately to this as “they-can-attack-in-45-minutes-shit”.’
The implication is that Mr Tenet told British intelligence before the dossier was published by the British government that the CIA did not believe this particular source’s claim. Mr Tenet was a fervent believer in WMD, telling Mr Bush (according to Mr Woodward) on 21 December 2002 that their existence was ‘a slam dunk’ (i.e., a certainty). He simply did not believe in the 45-minute claim. He also — correctly as it turned out — warned Mr Bush against accepting the claim by British Intelligence that Iraq attempted to buy uranium oxide from Niger. The President nonetheless repeated this allegation in a speech.
How should we react to all this? One response would be to doubt Mr Woodward’s account. As one of the two Washington Post journalists who helped to bring down President Richard Nixon, he is disliked in some right-wing circles. But Plan of Attack is in no sense anti-war. Based on interviews with 75 participants, including three-and-a-half hours with Mr Bush, the book is an old-fashioned reporting job which is totally opinion-free. Of course, any journalist can make a mistake, but this seems to be a meticulous work. I suppose it is possible that Mr Tenet told Mr Woodward that he had passed on to the British government something he had not, though it is not easy to work out why he might do so. My instinct is certainly to trust Mr Woodward’s account.
We therefore have to ask why the British government, or No. 10, chose to ignore the CIA’s strong advice, and to repeat the 45-minute claim in the 24 September dossier. We now know from the Hutton inquiry that British Intelligence did indeed have only one source for the claim, and that there were weapons experts in the Ministry of Defence who expressed their misgivings. We also know that Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, and Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, believed that the WMD cited in the dossier were only battlefield weapons capable of being fired a very short distance, though the dossier did not make that clear. (Mr Blair said in the House of Commons on 4 February this year, perhaps a little implausibly, that he did not appreciate the distinction as late as 18 March 2003, two days before the invasion of Iraq.) The question is this: why, given the doubts of some of its officials, and its belief that the WMD were only short-range, did the British government choose to ignore the advice of the CIA, and go ahead and repeat the 45-minute claim several times as though it related to long-range ballistic missiles?
The central allegation in Andrew Gilligan’s various reports on 29 May 2003 was that No. 10 ‘sexed up’ the September dossier. He also briefly suggested that the government had done this knowingly — a suggestion he subsequently withdrew — and a few days later he implicated Alastair Campbell in the Mail on Sunday. Lord Hutton found Mr Gilligan’s central allegation ‘unfounded’. But he did not have the benefit of interviewing American politicians and officials. Might he have come to a different conclusion if he had spoken personally to George Tenet? When the head of the main intelligence service of our major ally, which was making the running in the preparations for war, strongly warns against relying on a particular piece of intelligence, is it prudent to make repeated use of that intelligence in a dossier which seeks to make the case for war? Of course it is not prudent. It was a piece of wilful, reckless exaggeration — or, if you prefer, of sexing up.
The official deadline of 10 May for bids for the Telegraph Group may be postponed for several days. Two names should emerge by the end of the month, and the victor could be declared by the end of June.
Here is a thought. Many people say — perhaps I have done so — that those parties who bid for all the Hollinger International titles stand a better chance than those who bid only for the Telegraph Group. The reasoning is that a buyer may face tax liabilities if the Telegraph Group is sold separately from the other titles. But might Hollinger not get a better price if it sells the titles individually, on the basis that the sum of the parts is more valuable than the whole?
There is certainly evidence that the value of the Telegraph Group is being talked up — whether by Lazard, which is handling the sale, or others, I do not know. Last Sunday’s Observer claimed excitedly that the prospect of the Telegraph Group making ‘pre-tax profits of between £45 and £50 million’ is fuelling a ‘bid fever’. In fact, Lazard predicted — in its investment memorandum as long ago as January — that the group would make £47.9 million this year.
Michael Parkinson announces that he is taking his chat show to ITV. The Times tabloid clears the whole of page three. So does the tabloid Independent. The Guardian devotes most of page three, as does the Daily Telegraph, for which Mr Parkinson writes a sports column. Note that Parky has not died, nor is his programme being axed. It is merely moving channels. Need I say more?
The Daily Express’s defection to the Tories has been taken seriously in some quarters. In fact, though the paper has supported New Labour since 1997, its readership has remained obstinately Tory. Analysis of YouGov’s three most recent monthly opinion polls suggests that the voting intentions of Daily Express readers break down as follows: Tory 42 per cent, Labour 34 per cent, LibDem 16 per cent. New Labour may not stand to lose very much by the Express’s defection.
Melanie Phillips, a fellow columnist on the Daily Mail, has her own website, which I recommend to those who wish to keep abreast of British neocon thinking. Find it at melaniephillips.com. This week she mentions ‘the newly politically correct, appeasenik and imbecilic Spectator magazine’.