Under-fire Blair given CIA lifeline
TONY Blair is to be thrown a lifeline by the CIA in his attempt to quash accusations that he doctored the Downing Street dossier on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
George Tenet, the head of the CIA, has agreed to hand intelligence reports to a United States Senate investigation into the files used by Washington - and shared with London - to make the case for war with Iraq.
The move will bolster the Prime Minister’s counter-attack on Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, and Clare Short, who resigned as international development secretary over the way Mr Blair conducted the war.
They have accused him of taking Britain to war on a false premise by exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
Meanwhile, Hans Blix, the United Nation’s chief weapons inspector, said he still had "many questions and leads" to pursue on chemical and biological weapons in Iraq.
In his final submission to the UN Security Council, Mr Blix said inspectors did not have time to follow up on "late information" provided by the Iraqi government - including interviewing a list of Iraqis who helped destroy anthrax after the 1991 Gulf war.
However, he added: "We did not find evidence of the continuation or resumption of programs of weapons of mass destruction or significant quantities of proscribed items."
Mr Blair’s talks at the G8 summit in the French spa town of Evian - on economics, terrorism and Africa - were again overshadowed by the furore over the WMDs dossier.
Mr Blair demanded that Mr Cook and Ms Short produce evidence against him, denouncing their allegations as "completely untrue" and based on "so-called anonymous sources".
However, he rejected growing calls for an inquiry into the strength of his original evidence, asking for people to have "a little patience" until allied troops find WMDs in Iraq.
The Senate investigation will look at the report which Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, delivered to the United Nations in February. It could help Mr Blair by corroborating the pooled intelligence which produced both reports and also assist him in heading off Mr Cook’s calls for a UK inquiry.
The US investigation follows concern from a Republican senator about the military’s failure to find any WMDs in Iraq after seven weeks of occupation.
John Warner, the chairman of the Senate armed services committee, said the absence of hard evidence so far has led to "a situation where the credibility of the [Bush] administration and Congress is being challenged".
He confirmed both his committee and the intelligence committee are "going to look at this situation" and that he has been promised full co-operation by Mr Tenet.
Mr Warner said. "He [Tenet] assured me that he’s going to supply the Congress first and foremost with all the statements made by the administration on weapons of mass destruction and the underlying intelligence that supported those statements."
The CIA’s investigation will provide evidence of facts delivered by Mr Powell to the UN, overlapping almost entirely with evidence laid down by Mr Blair’s dossier last September.
This includes details of Saddam’s mobile weapons laboratories, stockpiles of precursor chemicals needed to make VX nerve gas and an arsenal of missiles which violated UN guidelines.
The Scotsman understands that almost all of Mr Blair’s document can be validated by evidence from the CIA and the UN itself. The crucial exception is the claim, repeated three times in Mr Blair’s dossier, that Saddam’s "military planning allows for some of the weapons of mass destruction to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them".
This is what Ms Short has accused Mr Blair of introducing into the dossier, against the wishes of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee. It was not repeated by Mr Powell in his presentation to the UN Security Council.
Mr Warner said the two Senate committees will convene a joint public hearing, probably this month, to look into "the intelligence methodology, how it was gathered and assessed".
Mr Blair stands a better chance of being backed up by the CIA than MI6, as US intelligence shares declassified information with Congress, but MI6 has no such relationship with the House of Commons.
Some progress on weapons of mass destruction was made at the G8 yesterday as France and Britain agreed a plan to crack down on Russian scientists and toughen the G8’s language to North Korea and Iran.
A summit communique said the world should use existing inspection and control regimes, and "if necessary other measures" to deal with the threats.
It went on: "We strongly urge North Korea to visibly, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle any nuclear weapons programmes," and added: "We will not ignore the proliferation implications of Iran’s advanced nuclear programme."
Jacques Chirac, the president of France and host of the summit, spent 25 minutes talking to Mr Bush in what was understood to have been a frosty encounter. Mr Bush left for Egypt at lunchtime, after spending just over 24 hours at Evian.
Mr Blair, who will leave for London before Mr Chirac delivers his concluding address today, spent 90 minutes in talks with Mr Bush, where they are understood to have discussed the hunt for WMDs.
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