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U.K.: Campbell Denies 'Sexing Up' Dossier, But Observers Have Doubts

  • Jan Jun

Alastair Campbell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's director of communications, yesterday defended his claim that he did not "sex up" the government dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Campbell spoke before the Hutton inquiry, set up to examine the apparent suicide of government weapons expert David Kelly. But many observers say they still have doubts about Campbell's involvement in the document that helped the British government justify its case for war -- and are looking ahead to Blair's own appearance before the panel.

London, 20 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Antiwar protesters joined journalists outside the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday to witness the arrival of Alastair Campbell, the press chief to Prime Minister Tony Blair and a key witness in the Hutton inquiry.

The inquiry headed by senior judge Brian Hutton is attempting to uncover details about the apparent suicide last month of David Kelly. Kelly was a Defense Ministry weapons expert and the alleged source of a BBC report claiming the government had exaggerated its case for war in Iraq by "sexing up" a crucial intelligence dossier. He was found dead, with a slashed wrist, shortly after being named in connection with the BBC report.

Campbell's five-hour testimony failed to confirm the BBC's claim the British government knowingly exaggerated its case for war. When asked whether he had any role in including allegations that Saddam Hussein needed just 45 minutes to launch a chemical or biological attack, Campbell replied: "None whatever.... I had no input, output, influence upon it whatever at any stage of the process."

Campbell argued that he, in fact, had attempted to tone down the controversial wording of the dossier, which he said was principally the work of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and its head, John Scarlett. Although he admitted to helping Scarlett with "details" of the dossier, Campbell said the JIC head wanted "to have ownership of it [to give] the report more credibility." He added that Scarlett did not inform him of any reservations junior intelligence staff may have had about the 45-minute claim.

But some observers remain unconvinced of Campbell's innocence in the matter. The Hutton inquiry heard testimony on 18 August from Blair Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell that proved, through documented e-mails, that numerous consultations had been conducted between Campbell's staff and the JIC in the drawing-up of the dossier.

Among the skeptics is William Rees-Mogg, former editor in chief of "The Times" daily and one of Britain's best-known journalists. "I think that what [Campbell] is doing is putting the blame on Mr. Scarlett," Rees-Mogg said. "Whether the documents will at the end of the day support that view -- that, basically, it was the intelligence side who produced the various drafts and that he, Alastair Campbell, basically stood back and allowed them to produce the drafts and only made comments on the quality of the material -- we shall not know until the end of the inquiry, I think. [We shall not know] whether that personal view stands up."

Rees-Mogg added that the government has been seriously damaged by the e-mails revealing the extent of "collaboration" between Blair's office and the intelligence committee. He also sees a deeper problem: never before, he said, has the prime minister's press office served so extensively as a "propagandist tool" for the ruling party.

"I think that the decision to appoint Alastair Campbell -- who is a very brilliant party propagandist, very good from the Labor Party's point of view at handling the press -- as the controller of communications for the government, with the right to give instructions to civil servants, has had the effect of politicizing the civil service information system," Rees-Mogg said.

Commentary in British dailies today saw few revelations in Campbell's testimony. But some papers used the issue to take aim at government critics. An editorial in "The Daily Telegraph" notes: "Although government spin is coming under justified scrutiny, spin is not the point that matters most. What matters most is that the Kelly affair is being used by opponents of the war in Iraq to discredit the whole enterprise, and that the chief anti-war party is the BBC, to which all citizens of this country pay a compulsory levy if they wish to watch television."

But as Rees-Mogg added, the Hutton inquiry is not yet over -- and Prime Minister Blair is still due to testify. His appearance, Rees-Mogg said, could do his already embattled premiership even further damage. "He's got to be called, I think. I do not think there can be any question about that, and he's got to explain himself. Both about the form of the dossier, which is obviously important, and about his role in the handling of Dr. Kelly -- the announcement revealing who he was, and encouraging him to appear or making him appear in front of the parliamentary committee."

But before Blair, a number of high-profile witnesses are due to testify before the Hutton inquiry. Two more Blair aides will appear before the Hutton inquiry within the next few days. Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon is due to testify next week.