Tony Blair’s former spin doctor-in-chief delivered a typically defiant performance at a key session of Britain’s inquiry into the Iraq war on Tuesday, defending his role in preparing an infamous document that was used to justify the invasion.
Alastair Campbell – whose rottweiler-like approach to media critics of the government became the stuff of journalistic lore – denied that he “sexed up” a 2002 intelligence document claiming Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes in order to exaggerate the case for war.
The independent probe into the decisions that led up to the 2003 invasion is now in its third month of hearings. The many commentators who have doubted the backbone of the committee have said they are vindicated by what they see as the limp questioning of witnesses.
The six-person panel's supposed impotence was also contrasted Tuesday with the findings of a high-powered inquiry in the Netherlands, which found that the Dutch government’s support for an invasion of Iraq had no legal backing.
The Dutch inquiry also found that the then-government did not fully inform Parliament about its plans in the run-up to the conflict. Expectations that the British inquiry will be quite as excoriating of the Blair government are low.
“Through no particular fault of the individuals involved, this inquisition lacks the ability to really cut through the fog,” said John Kampfner, a veteran British journalist and author of "Blair's Wars," a study on Tony Blair's interventionist foreign policy. "They will end up with a report that will contain some interesting new material for the historians, but what it will not do is deliver the reckoning that large swaths of the British public still demand.”
Blair scheduled to appear in late January
Blair’s appearance before the inquiry is slated for the fortnight from Jan. 25, which is easily the most eagerly awaited session of the hearings, which are chaired by Sir John Chilcot, a former civil servant.
Campbell’s appearance Tuesday was regarded as one of the most important to date.
The former Labour Party media adviser testified that while Mr. Blair had been determined to disarm the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, his former boss had never been in a "rush to war," and regarded military action as a last resort.
Campbell described the 2002 dossier, used to gain parliamentary support for war, as "a serious, solid piece of work," even though much of the information it contained turned out to be wrong with regard to Saddam's military capabilities.
In 2003, BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan wrote that the dossier included exaggerated and false claims at the direction of Campbell. One of his anonymous sources for reports that the dossier was inaccurate, who a government inquiry later identified as UK government weapons scientist David Kelly, went on to commit suicide.
"I defend every single word of the dossier, and I defend every single part of the process," added Campbell, who also denied that Blair had given George W. Bush his prior assent for the war.
Those observing Tuesday’s hearings were not without some sympathy for the inquiry panel members.
“Today may be remembered as the day that the Iraq inquiry got publicly fed up with being strung a line,” wrote Chris Ames, editor of the Iraq Inquiry Digest, an independent website aimed at monitoring the work of the investigation.
“The inquiry panel members were not having any of it and very publicly agreed to differ. But they still let Campbell off the hook on many points, because they are unable or unwilling to refer to the documents that contradict him.”
Professor Mark Phythian of the University of Leicester, who has written on the relationship between intelligence and decisionmaking in relation to the US and British decisions to go to war with Iraq, said that the inquiry to date had not revealed very much that was not in the public domain already.
“The important thing to keep in mind is that this inquiry was only conceded by the British government because they were unable to withstand calls for it,” he added.
“It is a sign of their weakness.”
One thing that the British government has been able to do, however, is minimize its potential political impact on their already poor levels of public support.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who voted for the invasion of Iraq while serving in Blair's cabinet, will not be giving evidence until after the general election, expected to take place in May. By then, though, he is expected to be out of the job.