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E-mails show UK officials' concern on Iraq dossier

LONDON (Reuters) - British intelligence officials were worried about a 2002 dossier the government used to justify invading Iraq and did not believe Britain was in imminent danger of attack, confidential e-mails released on Thursday showed.

The dossier, intended to bolster then Prime Minister Tony Blair against critics of his pro-American stance, said President Saddam Hussein was building up stocks of chemical and biological weapons and was “ready to use them.”

It said Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes -- a claim later discredited.

Six months after its release in September 2002, British troops joined U.S. and other forces in invading Iraq to topple Saddam. No weapons of mass destruction were found.

“Together these documents reveal a systematic and deliberate attempt to paint the worst possible case,” said Edward Davey, foreign policy spokesman of the anti-war Liberal Democrats.

Opposition parties renewed their calls for an inquiry into the Iraq war, saying the documents showed the public had been duped into supporting the invasion.

The dossier has always been intensely controversial because many Britons opposed the invasion of Iraq and believed the dossier exaggerated the Iraqi weapons threat. The government opposed the release of the e-mails but was overruled by an ombudsman who said some documents could be published.

British weapons expert David Kelly committed suicide in July 2003 after being identified as the source of a BBC report alleging the government had “sexed-up” intelligence on banned Iraqi weapons.

An inquiry exonerated Blair’s government of deliberately distorting intelligence to justify the war, but a separate inquiry into British intelligence before the war concluded in July 2004 that the dossier went to the “outer limits of intelligence available.”

One document showed British officials did not believe in 2002 that Britain was in imminent danger of attack by Iraq.

“I note that the paper suggests that Saddam’s biotech efforts have gone much further than we ever feared,” one official said in a September 16, 2002 e-mail.

Commenting on a section about “dirty bombs,” he said: “This is ancient history.”

He said he agreed with another official’s proposed changes to the text, but added “we have suggested moderating the same language in much the same way on drafts from the dim and distant past without success. Feel free to try again!”

The e-mails, released after a journalist requested them under the Freedom of Information Act, were exchanged in 2002 by officials in “sensitive posts” discussing drafts of the dossier, an official said. Most of their names and jobs were kept secret.

A note from senior civil servant Desmond Bowen advised John Scarlett, then chief of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the man responsible for the dossier, to be “as firm and authoritative” as possible on weapons of mass destruction as opponents of war would seize on uncertainty.

Editing by Tim Pearce