When British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to support America’s invasion of Iraq he was on shaky ground – under international law there was no casus belli. But in September 2002 the government published a dossier based on British intelligence reports. It claimed that Saddam Hussein was armed to the teeth with biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which could be deployed within 45 minutes. Blair argued that ‘the stability of the world’ was at stake and ‘unless we face up to the threat… we place at risk the lives and prosperity of our own people’. The next day The Sun newspaper’s headline trumpeted: ‘Brits 45 Mins from Doom’.
In May 2003, a few weeks into the Iraq war, Radio 4’s Today program broadcast an interview with journalist Andrew Gilligan in which he declared he had it on good authority that the September dossier had been ‘sexed-up’ by government spin doctors and, more specifically, the 45-minute claim (the government’s main grounds for declaring war) was fictitious.
A massive row broke out between Downing Street press secretary Alastair Campbell and the BBC which led to the first of many parliamentary inquiries. Gilligan’s information source was ‘outed’ as Dr David Kelly, a Ministry of Defence weapons expert. Kelly was hauled before the inquiry and, a few days later on July 18, was found dead in the woods near his home. Instead of an inquest, the investigation into Kelly’s death came within the remit of the postwar Hutton Inquiry where, without further ado, it was declared an open-and-shut suicide case.
The ‘sexed-up’ dossier led to a complete breakdown of trust between the New Labour government and the British people. It became clear that the government was tailoring facts to suit its policy and that Blair had misled parliament and the nation.
When: September 24 2002 to July 18 2003
Where: House of Commons, London, UK
Death toll: The death of Dr. David Kelly was directly attributable to his exposure as Gilligan’s informant. During the actual invasion of Iraq 33 British soldiers died. Another 146 died in its immediate aftermath and 790 were seriously wounded. The invasion cost over 7,000 Iraqi civilian lives and there have been at least another 110,000 (possibly as many as 600,000) violent deaths in the subsequent years of insurgency.
You should know: The September dossier scandal may not be over yet. On December 5 2009 six doctors started a legal action demanding an inquest into Dr. Kelly’s death on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to prove that he killed himself.