Tony Blair was warned on the eve of war by his intelligence chiefs that an invasion of Iraq would increase the danger of terrorist attacks, which they considered by far the greatest threat to western interests. The warning is disclosed in a report by parliament's intelligence committee which contains fresh criticism of the dossier on Iraq's banned weapons programme which the government used to make its case for action against Iraq.
It says that last September intelligence chiefs distorted the threat posed by Saddam Hussein - mainly by the sin of omission - but clears Downing Street of "sexing up" the dossier and concludes that ministers did not mislead parliament.
Yesterday's report discloses that in February this year, a month before the invasion of Iraq, Whitehall's joint intelligence committee (JIC) warned that "al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest threat to western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq".
The intelligence chiefs added: "Any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, including al-Qaida."
The MPs' committee reveals that it discussed the risk with Mr Blair. He agreed there was "obviously a danger that in attacking Iraq you ended up provoking the very thing you were trying to avoid".
However, he added: "You had to ask the question, 'Could you really, as a result of that fear, leave the possibility that in time this developed into a nexus between terrorism and WMD in any event?'"
The prime minister continued: "This is where you've just got to make your judgment about this. But this is my judgment and it remains my judgment and I suppose time will tell whether it's true or it's not true."
The committee's report criticises the September dossier for failing to admit the paucity of hard information about Iraq's banned weapons programme and for making claims out of context.
It says the use of the phrase "continued to produce chemical and biological weapons" in the dossier and its foreword, signed by Mr Blair, could give a misleading impression.
The JIC "did not know what had been produced and in what quantities", the report says. It did not know "precisely which munitions could be deployed from where to where".
Saddam was not considered a current or imminent threat to Britain - the most likely chemical and biological munitions to be used against western forces were battlefield weapons and not strategic, longer-range, ones. "This should have been highlighted in the dossier," the parliamentary committee says.
It says the dossier should also have highlighted the point that the claim that Iraqi forces could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order also referred only to short-range, battlefield, weapons. "The omission of the context and assessment allowed speculation as to its exact meaning. This was unhelpful to an understanding of this issue."
The 45-minute claim - mentioned four times in the dossier, including, in the strongest language, in the foreword - is at the heart of the row between the government and the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan.
In its overall judgment on the credibility of the September dossier, the committee said: "The jury is still out on the accuracy of the intelligence, the assessments, and therefore the dossier."
Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, and senior defence officials also come under criticism for their "unhelpful and potentially misleading" lack of candour about dissent within the defence intelligence service. Though Mr Hoon never denied there had been dissent among his intelligence staff, the committee was "disturbed" to discover that he had ordered his officials not to tell the committee about written complaints from two intelligence officials. The committee got to know about them only after they were disclosed to the Hutton inquiry.
The Tories instantly called for Mr Hoon's resignation. "It is absolutely clear that Geoff Hoon's position is quite untenable," said Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.
However, Ann Taylor, chair of the committee, said that "at no point in this document do we call for his resignation".
"He did not tell us lies, he told us there had been a dispute," Tory MP James Arbuthnot said.
Later in the Commons Mr Hoon said he had "no intention whatsoever other than to be open and straightforward" with the MPs' committee over the Iraqi dossier. "I regret any misunderstanding that might have arisen."
Downing Street will be comforted by other key findings in the ISC report. "The dossier was not 'sexed up' by Alastair Campbell or anyone else," it says, rebutting a central allegation of the initial BBC broadcast that prompted the row. The committee "accepts" that there was no political pressure placed on John Scarlett, chairman of the JIC, who produced the dossier.
One of five Labour members on the nine-member committee, Kevin Baron, said: "Do not look for any deep conspiracy theory because we could not find it and we did look."
Mr Campbell may be in the clear, but Mr Hoon, Mr Blair and John Scarlett are not.
The MPs' report did not pass a verdict on whether or not it was right to invade Iraq. Five of its members voted for war, four - including Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith - voted against, and they sidestepped that issue to ensure a unanimous report.
The unanimous report appears to conflict with evidence to the Hutton inquiry, notably over the claim that no one "sexed up" the dossier. The inquiry has heard how the language was strengthened, albeit with Mr Scarlett's blessing.
So, Hoon will not be in his post for much longer from the sounds of it. With this report and his embarrasing Hutton Inquiry appearance, he has no credibility left.
(edited by CRZ on 12.9.03 0300) ...full of energy. Multi-orgasmic, if you will, in a cosmic sort of way."