Thursday, August 28 2003 @ 07:38 PM MSD
|LONDON, August 28 - British Prime Minister Tony Blair put his personal credibility on the line Thursday, August 28, over charges that his government exaggerated the case for war against Iraq, saying he would have resigned if that had been true.|
He told a judicial inquiry into the death of government weapons expert David Kelly that a BBC story claiming his government deliberately "sexed up" a dossier on Iraq's weapons was "extraordinary".
"If it were true it would have meant that we had behaved in the most disgraceful way, and I would have had to resign as prime minister," Blair said during the hearing, headed by senior judge Lord Brian Hutton.
He used the near-unprecedented situation - a serving British prime minister being obliged to defend his government's honesty before a judge - to deliberately place himself at the center of the storm over Kelly's death, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Blair said a decision to release Kelly's name to two parliamentary committees looking into the charge - a process which led to Kelly being publicly identified as the source for the BBC story - was ultimately his.
"I take full responsibility for the decisions, I stand by them, I believe they were the right decisions," he told the hearing in a chamber of the Royal Courts of Justice in central London.
Kelly, whose body was found on July 17 near his home in Oxfordshire, was the source of the May 29 report, which was aired by reporter Andrew Gilligan on BBC radio's flagship public affairs show "Today" as the prime minister was visiting British troops in southern Iraq.
Gilligan's most potent charge was that a British government dossier published last September to help Blair convince a skeptical public of the necessity for war on Iraq, had been "sexed up" with a claim that Baghdad could deploy chemical or biological weapons in just 45 minutes.
Blair, who was visiting British troops in Iraq at the time of the BBC broadcast, said it "was an extraordinary allegation to make and an extremely serious one."
Dressed soberly in a dark suit, white shirt and plain tie, the prime minister was given a two hour-plus grilling by both Hutton and by the inquiry's senior counsel James Dingemans, who broke from usual judicial practice and refrained from asking Blair's name and profession.
"I do not think we need an introduction," Dingemans said.
Blair insisted that the September dossier on Iraq's armaments had been written with full backing of intelligence chiefs, while also being as persuasive as possible.
"We were concerned that we could produce, within the bounds of what was proper and right, the best case," he said.
On the issue of Kelly's eventual identification as the source of Gilligan's story, Blair said that given the intense media and parliamentary interest in the issue, it was "very difficult" to decide on the right approach.
He argued that "with an issue with so much political focus as this... I think I would have thought there was a fair possibility it (Kelly's name) would leak in any event."
The unusual way Kelly's identity was finally revealed by Ministry of Defense press officers - who confirmed his name to reporters who guessed it correctly - was seen as the best solution in the circumstances, if allegations of a cover-up were to be avoided.
"We were quite clear that the name was going to come out on one way or another... and Dr Kelly was aware of that too," he said.
‘Sense of Urgency’
The prime minister said an original dossier about Iraq weapons programs and three other countries was dropped in March last year because it would "enflame the situation too much to publish it at that stage".
By September, he had decided to announce the publication of a dossier because there was a renewed sense of urgency, he said.
"After September 11 there was a renewed sense of urgency on the question of rogue states and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and links to terrorism," he said.
The pressure on Blair is more intense after Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon gave evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday, August 27, suggesting he was not to blame for the release of Kelly's identity.
Hoon told the injury there was no "conspiracy" to name Kelly as the source of the BBC report.