Spinmaster Alastair Campbell told the Iraq Inquiry on Tuesday that former Prime Minister Tony Blair's team has nothing to apologize for even though the dossier it used to convince the British public to go to war with Iraq was riddled with faulty intelligence.
Britons should be proud, not apologetic, about what the country accomplished in Iraq, despite the years of bloodshed that followed the U.S.-led invasion, Campbell said in a stout defense of Blair's decision to invade Iraq, which remains deeply unpopular in Britain.
"Do I support that decision now?" he told the panel. "Yes. I think that Britain, far from beating ourselves up about this, should be really proud of the role we played in changing Iraq from what it was to what it is becoming, and the impact that is having on the region."
It was a spirited defense from the man who served as Blair's top communications strategist from 1997 until his resignation in August 2003.
Campbell conceded that planners did not properly forecast the internecine violence that gripped Iraq for years after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, or the growth of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups inside Iraq, but nonetheless felt Britain had performed a tremendous feat by removing Saddam.
From his vantage point as a chief strategist to Blair, and the architect of Blair's largely successful communications strategy, Campbell vehemently denied long-standing suspicions that he pressured intelligence chiefs to distort their findings to strengthen the case for war against Saddam in a dossier released in September 2002.
Blair presented the dossier to Parliament and the public as part of an orchestrated, Campbell-influenced public relations campaign meant to convince skeptics that Saddam posed a well-defined threat to Britain's national security.
In the dossier, Blair's government claimed that Saddam might have nuclear weapons within a year, which proved false, and possessed a chemical and biological arsenal that could be launched within 45 minutes, also false.
In addition, Blair claimed there was no doubt about his conclusion that Saddam posed a serious threat.
Campbell refused to give an inch on these points, denying that he had "sexed up" the dossier — as initially claimed by the British press — and saying the claims in the dossier were justified by intelligence claims made at the time.
"I defend every single word of the dossier, and I defend every single part of the process," Campbell said. "It was a genuine attempt by the prime minister and the government to engage the public properly."
He said the dossier was "a serious, solid piece of work" — even though much of the information it contained turned out to be wrong.
Campbell said Blair's assertion that the danger posed by Saddam was "beyond doubt" reflected the prime minister's personal conclusion, based on a series of intelligence briefings and conversations with his intelligence teams, and was not an attempt to mislead the public.
Campbell said he fully expected weapons to be found inside Iraq and conceded that it put the government "in a very difficult situation" when none were discovered.
Chris Ames, a journalist who maintains the Iraqi Inquiry Digest Web site, said the panel did not seem to accept many of Campbell's explanations.
"It seems clear that the panel were very skeptical," he said. "They seemed to have evidence that British participation in the war was about regime change rather than weapons of mass destruction, but Campbell denied this. They also put him on the spot over the claim that intelligence established 'beyond doubt' that Iraq had WMD — a claim Campbell insisted was justified."
The antagonism between Campbell, a former newspaper reporter, and the British press was plain throughout the proceedings.
He accused the Guardian newspaper of indulging in "conspiracy theories" and traced the controversy over the dossier to a piece of "dishonest journalism."
During the lunch break, Campbell tweeted that the "hacks" were producing a lot of drivel about the inquiry.
He told the panel that Blair was aware of the tremendous opposition he faced in his decision to go to war but firmly believed military action was needed.
The former prime minister, whose political position was gravely undermined by widespread unhappiness with the war, is expected to testify before the Iraq Inquiry in late January or early February.
Campbell was among the first major figures from Blair's inner circle to give his version of events to the Iraq Inquiry, the most wide-ranging investigation into the war thus far in Britain.
His testimony shed some light on occasionally testy relations between the British and American governments during the run-up to the war. He said American officials were sometime insensitive to the impact their remarks would have in Britain, citing former US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld as one example.
"You can't choose the leadership of another country," he said. "They didn't always understand that their statements and positions would have an impact beyond their shores."
He criticized the postwar communications strategy used by the American government and said he considered going to Iraq to play a major role in setting communications policy but reconsidered because of American opposition to a British takeover.
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