Apr 1 2008

‘Sexed Up’ After All

Scant U.S. interest in proof of Blair's Iraq hype

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/World Economic Forum

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/World Economic Forum

A key document in making Britain’s case for attacking Iraq, the so-called “September Dossier” (9/02), was initially drafted by a press advisor in then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Foreign Office, according to stories in the British press.

Furthermore, the differences between the early draft and the published dossier indicate that caveats were removed and language strengthened (Independent, 2/19/08; Guardian, 2/18/08) to make a stronger argument for war—factors that give credence to claims, once dismissed, that the dossier had been “sexed up,” and that Tony Blair, in the words of former U.N. weapons inspections chief Hans Blix (Associated Press, 3/12/07), had a way of replacing “question marks with exclamation marks” in documents making the case for an Iraq attack.

But U.S. media, which once closely followed the debate over the dossier, have shown little interest in new information indicating the document was in fact embellished.

A flurry of British reports came after a three-year court battle won release of the early version, dubbed the “Williams draft” after the press flack who authored it. During that battle, the Foreign Office had by turns denied the document’s existence and claimed that it was not the basis for the published September Dossier (New Statesman, 3/5/07; Independent, 2/19/08).

But that argument would seem to have little legitimacy, as the author of the September Dossier, British intelligence official John Scarlett, admits to using the Williams draft in preparing the final. Several British media outlets have also pointed out that the two versions bear striking similarities.

The September Dossier included well-worn and later discredited claims that Iraq had WMD, a reconstituted nuclear weapons program, and, in a line familiar to Americans, had sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” But the part of the document that evoked the most controversy was a claim, highlighted by Tony Blair himself in the dossier’s forward, that Saddam Hussein’s “military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.” Alarming by any standard, the claim would play out in pro-war British media such as Rupert Murdoch’s Sun under headlines like “Brits 45 Mins From Doom” (9/25/02).

British papers, including the London Independent (2/19/08) and Guardian (2/19/08), carried remarks chiding the Blair government for allowing “spin doctors,” rather than intelligence analysts, to make the government’s case. Each also featured examples of how the language had been exaggerated from the first to the final drafts of the dossier.

The draft’s emergence also shed light on the 2003-04 battle between the Blair government and the BBC, whose defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan reported (7/9/03) that “a senior British official” told him the dossier had been “sexed up” to make a stronger argument for war.

As official pressure mounted for a retraction of the BBC story, Gilligan’s “senior British official,” later identified as British government scientist David Kelly, committed suicide, triggering an official inquiry. The so-called Hutton Inquiry cleared the Blair government, calling Gilligan’s “sexed-up” charges “unfounded.” Shortly thereafter, Gilligan and two of his superiors, the BBC’s chair and its director general, resigned.

The “45 minutes” claim has now passed into history as one of many falsehoods used to make the case for war with Iraq. The claim was not in the Williams draft of the dossier. That it appears in the final dossier fuels arguments by Blair critics that it was added to bolster, or “sex up,” an otherwise lackluster argument (Editor & Publisher, 2/18/08).

The original story, the Hutton Inquiry findings, and the departure of Gilligan and his colleagues from the BBC received lavish coverage in U.S. media. The Washington Post ran more than two dozen reports and columns on the affair, including a front-page story (1/29/04) about the Hutton Inquiry findings, “Inquiry Clears Blair of Altering Iraq Intelligence.”

The New York Times also published more than two dozen stories on the intrigue, including page-one stories on the Hutton Inquiry, “Report on Iraq Case Clears Blair and Faults BBC” (1/29/04), and on Blair’s defiant testimony before the inquiry, “Blair Says He Would Have Quit if BBC Iraq Report Had Been True” (8/29/03).

But apparently news that the September Dossier was indeed “sexed up,” a question that once commanded keen interest, is no longer deemed very newsworthy by the U.S. press. The Washington Post failed to mention the story at all, while the New York Times (2/19/08) ran an Associated Press wire report on page 11, behind the page 10 news of a British investigation into Mohamed Al Fayed’s charges that his son Dodi and Princess Diana were murdered.