British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon says he did not consider it important to
clarify before the Iraq war that the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein
was believed to have were short-range weapons for battlefield use. Mr. Hoon spoke
under sometimes intense questioning from a parliamentary committee.
The members of parliament are pressing the government on whether it misled
the nation on Iraq's weapons program, in order to make its case for war. Some
members of the committee seized on the government's claim, made in a dossier
published in September of 2002, that Iraq could unleash weapons of mass destruction
within 45 minutes.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday he did not know at the time that
the claim referred only to battlefield weapons. But Defense Secretary Hoon
said he did know that.
One member of the committee wanted to know why Mr. Hoon did not explain the
difference to the prime minister.
"I, obviously, briefed the prime minister on a regular basis, and had this
been a significant issue, in terms of the decision to take the country to war,
then I am sure that this issue would have arisen in conversation between us," he
said. "But as I emphasize, it was not a significant issue."
Members of the committee also criticized the defense secretary for not clarifying
the issue in public, after newspaper reports indicated the 45-minute claim
referred to longer-range weapons. At the time, many media reports indicated
that Saddam Hussein posed an immediate threat, not only within his own country,
but to the region and beyond.
Defense Secretary Hoon disclosed Thursday that he found out that was wrong
shortly after the dossier was published.
"I, shortly after the publication of the dossier, asked within the Ministry
of Defense what kinds of weapons were, in effect, being referred to as part
of the so-called 45-minute claim," Mr. Hoon said. "And the answer within the
Ministry of Defense, an assessment in effect of the intelligence, was to the
effect that they were of a battlefield kind."
Mr. Hoon said he was told that the range of such weapons was no more than
Opposition Conservative Party leader Michael Howard says Mr. Blair should
have known that information, and called for him to consider resigning.
"If I were prime minister, and I had not asked that basic question, I would
be considering my position," he said.
Questions about the British government's handling of intelligence information
in the run-up to the Iraq war continue to be asked, as a newly-formed inquiry
committee prepares to begin a formal investigation of Britain's pre-war intelligence.
A similar commission has also been formed in the United States.
The U.S. and British governments say they based their decisions on the best
information available at the time, and that Saddam Hussein's defiance of the
United Nations was ample grounds for war, even if he had no weapons of mass
destruction ready for deployment.