Sir George cross examines the Prime Minister on Hutton
3 Feb 2004
This is the uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Liaison Committee

Tuesday 3 February 2004
RT HON MR TONY BLAIR MP
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 153


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Oral Evidence
Taken before the Liaison Committee
on Tuesday 3 February 2004
________________
Witness: Rt Hon Mr Tony Blair, a Member of the House, Prime Minister, examined.

Q1 Chairman: Welcome Prime Minister, may I welcome you to the Committee on your fourth visit to the Liaison Committee. I will remind the public and the press that we have told you of the three themes that we intend to cover during the course of two and a half hours, but you have no knowledge of the questions, nor do I, which are going to be asked. We inevitably will start with Hutton, then we hope to move on to domestic issues and we hope to finish with an examination of the present direction of the road to democracy in Iraq, but before I throw it open to the Committee for questioning, can I raise one point that is important in House of Commons and in parliamentary accountability terms which has arisen as a result of Hutton. I think all the chairmen here will confirm that they were genuinely astonished, but also delighted, at the volume of information and the level of witnesses that were provided to Hutton and then immediately put on the website. They were also deeply envious because none of them could have hoped to get a fraction of that information. I do not know whether you are aware that the rules that currently govern the access to information for committees were laid down 20 years ago, not in consultation, but laid down by the Government of the day, and they have never been revised, so could I ask you one business question at the start. In view of the clear disparity in the treatment between Hutton and the select committees, would you be willing now to initiate on the Government's side, and we are trying to start on our own side, a review of the rules relating to the availability of witnesses and evidence to select committees?
Mr Blair: Yes, I am very happy indeed to do that and to look at what lessons we can learn from how the Hutton Inquiry was conducted. It was a remarkable operation in terms of the openness and the amount of information given. I certainly think it is worth looking, in the light of that, though I cannot make any promise as to what the conclusion will be, but it is certainly worth looking, in the light of that, at what information we can make available to select committees in the future.
Chairman: That would be very helpful and my officials will liaise with your officials and hopefully we will be able to look at these rules considerably. Thank you very much for that. We are operating slightly differently. We have broken it down into small groups who are going to lead on particular subjects and on the Hutton questioning, George Young will lead that with his colleagues alongside him. Can I ask of Members questioning and even you, Prime Minister, for brevity in questions and brevity in answers.
Q2 Sir George Young: Well, we have some machinery of government issues which we think arise out of the Hutton Report, but before I go on to those, can I ask whether you have been surprised by the rather negative public and press reaction to the Hutton Report?
Mr Blair: No, not greatly. Certainly so far as that part of the media that was against the decision to go to war was concerned, I do not think they were ever really going to accept it.
Q3 Sir George Young: But you did not hope that it might raise your reputation in the public's opinion, whereas all the surveys I have seen show that your reputation has deteriorated since publication of the Report?
Mr Blair: I think we should wait and see, George, what view the public comes to after a more settled period, but there obviously was also, and we will be debating this in the House of Commons tomorrow, a very large disparity frankly between the evidence as presented to the Hutton Inquiry and the evidence as reported at the time and I think that inevitably coloured some of the public perception because some of the evidence as actually given to the Inquiry bore little or no relationship to some of the evidence actually reported at least in part to the media.
Q4 Sir George Young: Can we go on to the machinery of government. The Hutton Inquiry shone a torch into the inner wiring of your administration and much of it could be described as a rather informal style. How do people know what is decided at the key meetings which you attend if, in the words of Lord Hutton, the records of some key meetings are often "very sparse" and "of no relevance"? Have you tightened up the audit trail in Number 10 since Hutton?
Mr Blair: No, we of course take minutes of meetings where they are either formal or official meetings or there are action points that need to be minuted out of them, but I do not think our practice is any different in circumstances where, for example, there is an agreement that someone will go out and do something from the meeting and then go out and do it.
Q5 Sir George Young: But we have discovered that there were only three written records for up to seven meetings a day over a two-week period during Hutton. Is that really right?
Mr Blair: Well, it depends what sort of meetings they are, and if they are informal meetings where someone is tasked then to go and do something and they go and do it, there is no need to have a minute of it. The purpose of the minute is obviously to make sure not just that there is a record of the meeting, but if there is action to be taken that needs to be minuted out, then that action is minuted out. However, I can assure you, for example, because we have roughly, I think, twice the number of Cabinet committees operating under this Government than under the previous administration when you were in government and actually of those Cabinet meetings, of course all of them are minuted and minuted very formally.
Q6 Sir George Young: Will you implement the recommendations of the Hammond Report?
Mr Blair: In what regard?
Q7 Sir George Young: That was after the Hinduja Inquiry which recommended that records should be taken of important discussions involving ministers.
Mr Blair: Well, of course it is important that we do that where it is necessary to do so and we do and, as I say, if you actually look at the amount of work that is carried on by the Government through Cabinet committees or Cabinet sub-committees, it is actually probably more considerable and more extensive than it has ever been. I may have got this figure slightly wrong, but I think there are something in the region of more than double the number of Cabinet committees and each one of these of course is extensively minuted and that is because there will be action points that people have to be told about following the course of that meeting, but if you have an informal meeting, as we did on the 7th or 8th July in relation to the Hutton Report, and people know exactly what it is they are supposed to do, there is no need to have a minute.
Q8 Sir George Young: So Hutton was unfair when he said that the records were often very sparse and of no relevance?
Mr Blair: No, he was simply making a statement of fact, I think, in response to a letter from the Conservative spokesman.
Q9 Sir George Young: Can we go on to last July. As this row escalated and two great institutions,, the Government and the BBC, were seen to be at war, did no one at Number 10 say, "This is just getting absurd. It is getting out of control"? Where was Lord Goodman or William Whitelaw? Where was the calming influence which tried to damp it down instead of Alastair Campbell going around the television studios and ramping it up?
Mr Blair: First of all, I think it is important that we understand that Lord Hutton went into all of these issues in very, very, very great detail. Now, I do, with a certain amount of wry amusement, draw attention to the difference between Lord Hutton, as he was perceived prior to last Wednesday, as the exemplar of impartiality, good judgment and wisdom, and Lord Hutton, as he has subsequently become in certain parts, and I stress when I say "certain" parts", of the media. The fact is that Lord Hutton went into all of these issues in great detail and what he found was what he was bound to find, which was that there was an allegation made against the Government not of passing seriousness, but a fundamental question about the integrity, not just of the Prime Minister, but of the intelligence, that that allegation was not withdrawn, indeed it was repeated, and that it should have been withdrawn. What he finds quite rightly is that it was not unreasonable for the Government to say, when an allegation is made of such seriousness that turns out to be utterly false, as it was, that it is right that the BBC or whoever else it is that makes such an accusation withdraws it, and that really was all we ever wanted to have happen. If you track the correspondence right through this, that is the issue that was at stake and I think it is not unreasonable in circumstances where you are the Prime Minister and you are accused on an issue of war or peace of falsifying intelligence and that accusation is totally without foundation, that the people making the accusation either stand it up or stand it down.
Q10 Sir George Young: On intelligence, which you mentioned, I want to ask one more question on that and then bring in colleagues. On this issue of intelligence, are there not some crucial issues that need resolving at the interface between intelligence on the one hand and presentation on the other where the world of the spinner meets the world of the spook, and are there not real difficulties when political advisers get involved in intelligence matters and when intelligence personnel start becoming advocates for a course of action instead of just dispassionate analysts? I wonder whether you think that Lord Hutton had the last word on this crucial interface between the two worlds?
Mr Blair: Lord Hutton made a very specific finding that the allegation that the dossier was so-called "sexed up" or that intelligence was falsified, that that allegation was wrong. I may just point this out because I think it is important for the public to understand this. Lord Hutton came to that view, but so did the Intelligence and Security Committee come to that view and actually the Foreign Affairs Committee came to the same view about the essential allegation that was made by Mr Gilligan. I think there are issues which is why Jack Straw will make a statement on this later today and I hope we can secure an agreement about this amongst all the political parties. I think there are issues to do with intelligence, to do with intelligence-gathering, evaluation and use by government, which we can look at, but the issue of good faith was determined by the Hutton Inquiry and I really think it is incumbent on people to accept the verdict of that Inquiry. It was an immensely thorough piece of work. If people, as I say, actually read the judgment, it goes through in painstaking detail all the allegations made and each one of them it knocks down, and it knocks them down for the very good reason that there never was anything to sustain this idea that the Joint Intelligence Committee was put under improper pressure; they never were.
Q11 Mr Beith: I do not think the issue of good faith is an issue between us at all, so let's have a look at some of the things which the Intelligence and Security Committee said. One of them rather relates to what George was asking about a moment ago which is where pieces of paper go to and whether they are seen by people who need to see them. Scientists in defence intelligence entered some specific reservations. As you pointed out in the House, those reservations were not seen by the Chairman of the JIC. Have you made arrangements now such that a civil servant in this area, particularly someone in so sensitive a field, if he wishes to minute dissent, can be sure that that minute will be seen by the appropriate person, such as the Chairman of the JIC?
Mr Blair: Well, what I would say about that, Alan, is that the minute, as I understand it, and I am thinking back to the evidence that was given to the Hutton Inquiry, the minute was actually seen by the Head of Defence Intelligence and he took the view, because he had seen the actual intelligence, and I think the individuals concerned had not, that he overruled their concern. Now, I think he is entitled to do that. That is the normal way that it proceeds, so it is not correct that the concern was not registered at all; it was registered, it was examined by the Head of Defence Intelligence and he considered that the concern, which was not incidentally that the 45-minute claim should not be in the dossier, it was about how it was phrased in the dossier, he took the view that that concern was unjustified. Now, I think that is a perfectly proper process and we can have an argument about whether he made the right decision or not, but I think the process should surely be one in which those within the particular units make their concerns known within the unit and the unit then resolves the matter one way or another. It would have been open obviously to the Chief of Defence Intelligence to have taken it to the Joint Intelligence Committee, but he chose not to do so.
Q12 Mr Beith: So, contrary to the impression that the Committee was given where it considered this matter, there is no procedure for the expert to go beyond his line manager and say to the person who is presenting the intelligence to you, "There is something not quite right about this"?
Mr Blair: Well, I think it obviously depends what the nature of the concern is. I suppose that must be correct.
Q13 Mr Beith: Well, is there a procedure or is there not?
Mr Blair: Well, there is a procedure in the sense that the defence intelligence people run their own unit and they will then decide whether something is sufficiently serious to be brought to the Joint Intelligence Committee or not, but I think it would be odd if we went beyond that and said that the Defence Intelligence Unit should not decide themselves whether they think something is sufficiently serious to be brought to the Joint Intelligence Committee.
Q14 Mr Beith: Well, I think we will have to return at some point in another forum to the fact that a procedure we thought existed and we were told merely had not operated satisfactorily just does not in fact exist. There is no way past your line manager even when you have a fairly serious concern?
Mr Blair: Let me not correct anything that was given to the Intelligence and Security Committee. If you were told about the procedures there by the Defence Intelligence people, I am sure those are the proper procedures. All I am saying is that in this particular instance, my understanding was that the Chief of Defence Intelligence looked into this matter, decided that the concern was not justified and, therefore, did not bring it to the Joint Intelligence Committee. I simply emphasise two things about this because this is very important actually and it is the very first question that George put to me a moment or two ago. The first is that none of this was ever brought to the Joint Intelligence Committee, let alone Downing Street, and, secondly, their concern was not that the dossier as a whole was not a reasonable and accurate piece of work. When people talk about the difference between the way this matter was reported in parts of the media and the actual evidence to Lord Hutton, you would have thought the day after their evidence to the Hutton Inquiry, that actually they had said that the whole of the dossier was an inaccurate and bad piece of work. They did not say that at all.
Q15 Mr Beith: No, but it was five paragraphs long, and I am not going to read it to the Committee now because I want to turn to another subject in the ISC Report which is what intelligence said, and we now know it said, about the risks of al-Qaeda getting access to weapons of mass destruction. There was intelligence which has been reported in the ISC Report that such an eventuality was most likely if the regime was about to collapse or if invasion took place. Was there any particular reason why that strand of intelligence did not feature in the dossier or in the public statements?
Mr Blair: Well, this, I think, came in certainly after the September dossier. I am not exactly sure of where it was in relation to what was published in February. I think all the way through we were saying, "Well, of course we accept that there was a risk that as the regime came under attack, it was possible with the regime disintegrating that some of the weapons might fall into the wrong hands", and it was precisely for that reason that we were taking contingency plans against it, but I would have to say that that, in my view, did not bear at all on whether it was right to take the military action. It would be a most odd thing if we said that we are not going to take military action with a regime that constitutes this threat because of the possibility that when we took the action the weapons may fall into the wrong hands. That would be a very odd way of proceeding, I think.
Q16 Mr Beith: When you explained your view on that to the Intelligence and Security Committee, you are quoted in the published document and you said that this is a judgment call and time will tell whether it is true or not true. Looking at it now, is it not surely the case that al-Qaeda's opportunities to make trouble in Iraq are much greater following the collapse of the regime than they were before?
Mr Blair: Well, I think that I would have to disagree because it is correct that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are in Iraq now and trying to kill as many innocent people as they possibly can, but I think that if we were to have let Saddam remain in office, in power, if he was in power today, with what we know incidentally, that irrespective of the issue to do with weapons being found, the evidence is absolutely clear from the Iraq Survey Group that he was developing programmes certainly for weapons of mass destruction and had every intention of making sure that those programmes were developed still further if he was given the chance to do so, I think that would constitute a far greater threat in terms of al-Qaeda than the threat to cause terrorism at the moment in Iraq, terrible though that is, because we know what they are up to and we can get after them and defeat them. The whole reason why we took this action in Iraq was because the risk posed by an unstable state with weapons of mass destruction capability and the risk that at some point, not necessarily immediately, but at some point in the future, that then gets into the hands of those who are terrorists with terrorist intent ----
Q17 Donald Anderson: Prime Minister, that is some way ahead surely, but it was clear on the evidence of David Kay to the Senate Committee that the inspection process of the UN inspectors had been remarkably successful. In short, the containment policy of President Clinton, which you had rejected, was working. Do you admit you were wrong?
Mr Blair: I do not accept that is, Donald, if I can say this with respect, a proper description of what David Kay actually said.
Q18 Donald Anderson: Let me quote what he says. He says in effect that all the consensus of those who were the weapons inspectors was that they had achieved a great deal. I think somewhere I have the quote.
Mr Blair: I think what he actually says is that he pays tribute to their work and he says that they did achieve a great deal, but I actually have his quotes here and I thought I would bring them in because I thought you ----
Q19 Donald Anderson: Let me give you the quote. "It turned out that we were better than we thought we were in terms of the Iraqis feared that we had capabilities. The UN inspection process achieved quite a bit".
Mr Blair: Yes, I do not dispute that, but that is not to say ----
Q20 Donald Anderson: That is, they had contained the weapons programme of Saddam Hussein and you were saying that the containment process had failed.
Mr Blair: With respect, it is a different thing to say that they had achieved quite a bit than for him to say that the containment programme was working. If I could actually quote to you, he says this in fact in respect of the question put to him by Senator Warner: "Senator Warner, I think the world is far safer with the disappearance and removal of Saddam Hussein. I have said I actually think this may be one of these cases where it was even more dangerous than we thought. I think when we have the complete record, you are going to discover that after 1988 it became a regime that was totally corrupt, individuals were out for their own protection and in a world where we know others are seeking WMD, the likelihood at some point in the future of a seller and a buyer meeting up would have made that a far more dangerous country than even we anticipated".
Q21 Donald Anderson: But that was surely some time in the future. He was saying that you had said consistently that the containment policy of your friend President Clinton had failed and, therefore, there needed to be a change of policy.
Mr Blair: Exactly and if I can then read what he also says, and incidentally this may be of help to the Committee and I hope it will be of help to Parliament tomorrow, that I have asked the permission of Senator Warner to put in the Library of the House of Commons the full evidence of David Kay to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and I really ask people and I ask our media particularly to read the whole of that evidence because the idea that this is a man saying that weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein were a load of boloney and nothing really existed, he is saying precisely the opposite of that. If I could just read this because it is important, and he says this ----
Q22 Donald Anderson: But briefly.
Mr Blair: Well, I just think it is important that we deal with the point. "In my judgment, based on the work that has been done to this point of the Iraq Survey Group, Iraq was in clear violation of the terms of Resolution 1441. Resolution 1441 requires that Iraq report all its activities, one last chance to come clean about what it had. We have discovered hundreds of cases based both on documents, physical evidence and the testimony of Iraqis" ----
Q23 Donald Anderson: But it is not concluding that he was an imminent threat.
Mr Blair: Well, I have not got this exact quote, and I will look it up, but he does in fact go on to say that he does perceive it as a threat. The point I am telling you, and, with respect, I think this is clear, what is true about David Kay's evidence, and this is something I have to accept and it is one of the reasons why I think we now need a further inquiry, it is true, David Kay is saying, that we have not found large stockpiles of actual weapons. What is untrue is to say that he is saying that there was no weapons of mass destruction programme or capability and that Saddam was not a threat.
Q24 Donald Anderson: Let's turn on to weapons of mass destruction. Wolfovitz said, "We settled on one issue of weapons of mass destruction". Do you regret now in that respect that you placed your case wholly on that one issue of weapons of mass destruction?
Mr Blair: No, I do not regret it and neither do I regret the action that we took ----
Q25 Donald Anderson: It is a pretty flimsy foundation, is it not?
Mr Blair: I am afraid I really do not agree with that, Donald, and I think that people who want to see what the true situation is should look at the whole of what David Kay has said to the Senate Intelligence Committee. What he details are breach upon breach of the United Nations Resolutions. It is true, as I say, I have just accepted the fact, I have to accept, that David Kay has said that he has not found large stockpiles of weapons ----
Q26 Donald Anderson: Nor the prospects of.
Mr Blair: ---- and he says that in his view he does not believe that that will happen, but what he goes on to say, however, is that he has found ample evidence both of breaches of UN resolutions, of weapons of mass destruction programmes and capability, and he goes on to say that he actually believes that Iraq was possibly a more dangerous place than we had thought, that the conflict was justified and that if we had refused to go to conflict, then the security of the world would be put at risk. I think it is as well that all of his evidence is taken, not simply one part of it.
Q27 Donald Anderson: The intelligence community are effectively technicians in that they provide you with the technical assessments and it is for the politicians to make the judgments on that raw material. Are you confident that you asked the right questions?
Mr Blair: Yes, I am confident I asked the right questions. Perhaps I can just say this: that after the announcement that will be made to Parliament later today by Jack Straw, we will then have what is effectively the fourth inquiry into this. We have had the Foreign Affairs Committee, which you chaired obviously, we have had the Intelligence and Security Committee, we have had Lord Hutton's inquiry, and I think it is right, as a result of what David Kay has said and the fact that the Iraq Survey Group now probably will not report in the very near term its final report, that we have a look at the intelligence that we received and whether it was accurate or not. I think that is important. Of course the political judgments that are in the end made by the politicians, that is right, but I do simply say that whatever is discovered as a result of that inquiry, I do not accept that it was wrong to remove Saddam Hussein or the world is not a better and safer place without him.
Q28 Donald Anderson: That is a different argument. Can I finally, Prime Minister, put this to you: when Dame Pauline Neville Jones appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee, she said that there are no groundrules regarding links between the press and the intelligence agencies. We, as a Committee, recommended that this should be reviewed. In the light of what has happened, are you prepared to review the rules of engagement, the contact rules, between the intelligence agencies and journalists?
Mr Blair: Well, I certainly think that we need to look at issues to do with presentation and I think ----
Q29 Donald Anderson: Not presentation, contacts.
Mr Blair: I do not quite know what is the difference between us. You mean contacts in what sense?
Q30 Donald Anderson: Contacts between journalists and the members of the intelligence services.
Mr Blair: Well, it depends what those contacts are obviously. What should not happen in any set of circumstances is that members of the intelligence services give classified information that they should not give to people. That must be right.
Q31 Donald Anderson: But even informal contacts you are prepared to countenance?
Mr Blair: I think it depends on the situation. There are rules already. People are given authorisation to speak to journalists in certain circumstances, but I think it is important that we remember we are talking about intelligence for the country and I do not think we should do anything that puts the basic security of the intelligence work that we do at risk. Is that not what you mean?
Q32 Donald Anderson: The lesson to be learned from the contact between Mr Gilligan and in this case a member of the Ministry of Defence, but surely there must be some case for groundrules, as Dame Pauline Neville Jones suggested?
Mr Blair: Well, I think there is. Again I am sure that what the Ministry of Defence or any of the security people would say is that there are groundrules. You do not have contact unless it is authorised.
Q33 Donald Anderson: And the former Chairman of the JIC said there were none.
Mr Blair: As I say, I do not know whether you have a set of formal guidelines. I am not sure that that exists, but what should surely not happen is that somebody makes an unauthorised contact with a journalist and starts talking about intelligence. That cannot be right. The one thing I want to say about this which I feel very, very strongly about is that I think our intelligence services in this country do a fantastic job for this country. I think they are good people, I think they are dedicated public servants and they do an immensely difficult job. Intelligence is not some absolute science, as we all know, but let's be under no doubt about this at all, that we cannot have a situation where we simply treat intelligence or security advice that is given in a way where we just throw it open to whoever wants to pick it up. You have got to have some very, very clear boundaries on this and the basic rule, as far as I am aware, and I am sure people are going to look into the issue of whether you need some more formal guidelines, but the basic rule surely has got to be this: that you do not make contact with a journalist unless it is properly authorised and when you are dealing with intelligence, that must be surely the right thing in the interests of the country.
Q34 Tony Wright: On the question of journalists, Prime Minister, the world of journalism has been shocked and outraged at Lord Hutton's suggestion that they should endeavour to tell the truth and that they should not gratuitously impugn the integrity of individuals. Do you agree with the editor of The Financial Times who wrote on Saturday, "Let this dreadful misadventure serve as a wake-up call for journalists"?
Mr Blair: Let me choose my words diplomatically. I hope that people read Lord Hutton's Report and realise that there is a world of difference between the freedom of the press and its independence and broadcasting something that is completely untrue and refusing to retract it. Those are two totally different things and, to be fair to parts of our media, I think that they are concerned about some of the issues to do with the Hutton Report and you can see that there is a healthy debate at least in one part of journalism about that. Incidentally, I have no doubt at all that government itself has got all sorts of lessons to learn as well, but that is another matter.
Q35 Tony Wright: But if the offending BBC report had simply said that there were people inside the intelligence and defence community who had concerns about aspects of the dossier, or that Number 10 was seeking to play a role in the construction of the dossier, both of which we now know to be true, presumably there would be nothing at all for the Government to object to?
Mr Blair: Of course if what had been broadcast was true. Incidentally, we never made any secret of the fact that we were involved in how the dossier was presented. Of course it was a statement to Parliament. I was making the statement to Parliament, so it would be, in my view, rather biza
 
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