24 September 2002
At 8 am on 24 September 2002, only thirty minutes prior to the deadline for the headline in the Evening Standard‘s first edition, Charles Reiss, the paper’s political editor, was allowed to see the government’s intelligence dossier on Iraq’s supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). After reading about Iraq’s ‘strategic missile systems’ and its alleged ability to deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes, he assumed that this meant a strike on British troops in Cyprus could occur at any moment. Accordingly, the newspaper carried the scarehead ’45 Minutes to Attack,’ above a map showing how the imagined chemical rocket’s range stretched across the Gulf states, Jordan, Israel and as far as Cyprus.1
The dossier was a flagrant attempt to mislead the public. John Scarlett, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, omitted to mention that he himself had declared the evidence for WMD to be ‘sporadic and patchy,’ and instead maintained that Saddam ‘continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.’2 He also asserted that Iraq possessed chemical weapons that could be ‘deployed within 45 minutes of a decision to do so,’ based on uncorroborated information from a single Iraqi informant.3 Readers were left to assume that Iraq could use such warheads on their strategic al-Hussein rocket, but the information was based purely on what an Iraqi brigadier claimed to have overheard regarding a short-range artillery shell.
The government made no approach to the newspaper to correct the obvious misunderstanding nor did Tony Blair do anything to correct it, when later that day he informed parliament that Saddam’s ‘weapons of mass destruction programme is active, detailed and growing. The policy of containment is not working,’ adding that ‘documents show that some of Iraq’s WMD could be ready for use within forty-five minutes.’4 Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, must have also been aware that the media had seriously misrepresented a short-range artillery shell as a long-range rocket, but he also said nothing.5 When the following March, American and British troops invaded Iraq, they found absolutely no evidence of WMD. It wasn’t until 29 May that a report on the BBC Today Programme by Andrew Gilligan finally revealed that Downing Street had ordered that the dossier ‘be sexed up’ and that the government knew the central assertion that Iraq could deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes was ‘questionable.’6
- Tony Bower, Broken Vows: Tony Blair: The Tragedy of Power, Faber and Faber, London, 2016, p. 292.
- Ibid., p. 286.
- Ibid., p. 287.
- Ibid., p. 292.
- Ibid., p. 293.
- Ibid., pp. 377-378.
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