Sun, Jun 01, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Straw, Powell had doubts over WMD claims

DAMAGE DONE The US secretary of state defended intelligence about Saddam's alleged possession of the weapons on Friday, but earlier he wasn't so confident


Jack Straw and his US counterpart, Colin Powell, privately expressed serious doubts about the quality of intelligence on Iraq's banned weapons program at the very time they were publicly trumpeting it to get UN support for a war on Iraq, the Guardian has learned.

Their deep concerns about the intelligence -- and about claims being made by their political bosses, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush -- emerged at a private meeting between the two men shortly before a crucial UN security council session on Feb. 5.

The meeting took place at the Waldorf hotel in New York, where they discussed the growing diplomatic crisis. The exchange about the validity of their respective governments' intelligence reports on Iraq lasted less than 10 minutes, according to a diplomatic source who has read a transcript of the conversation.

The foreign secretary reportedly expressed concern that claims being made by Blair and Bush could not be proved. The problem, explained Straw, was the lack of corroborative evidence to back up the claims.

Much of the intelligence were assumptions and assessments not supported by hard facts or other sources. Powell shared the concern about intelligence assessments, especially those being presented by the Pentagon's office of special plans set up by the US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Powell said he had all but "moved in" with US intelligence to prepare his briefings for the UN security council, according to the transcripts.

But he told Straw he had come away from the meetings "apprehensive" about what he called, at best, circumstantial evidence highly tilted in favor of assessments drawn from them, rather than any actual raw intelligence.

Powell told the foreign secretary he hoped the facts, when they came out, would not "explode in their faces."

What are called the "Waldorf transcripts" are being circulated in NATO diplomatic circles. It is not being revealed how the transcripts came to be made; however, they appear to have been leaked by diplomats who supported the war against Iraq even when the evidence about Saddam Hussein's program of weapons of mass destruction was fuzzy, and who now believe they were lied to.

People circulating the transcripts call themselves "allied sources supportive of US war aims in Iraq at the time."

The transcripts will fuel the controversy in Britain and the US over claims that London and Washington distorted and exaggerated the intelligence assessments about Saddam's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program.

An unnamed intelligence official told the BBC on Thursday that a key claim in the dossier on Iraq's weapons released by the British government last September -- that Iraq could launch a chemical or biological attack within 45 minutes of an order -- was inserted on the instructions of officials in 10 Downing Street.

Adam Ingram, the armed forces minister, admitted the claim was made by "a single source; it wasn't corroborated."

Speaking yesterday in Warsaw, the Polish capital, Blair said the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in the dossier was "evidence the truth of which I have absolutely no doubt about at all."

He said he had consulted the heads of the security and intelligence services before emphatically denying that Downing Street had leaned on them to strengthen their assessment of the WMD threat in Iraq. He insisted he had "absolutely no doubt" that proof of banned weapons would eventually be found in Iraq. Whitehall sources make it clear they do not share the prime minister's optimism.

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