The Kamel that broke Straw’s back
As MPs debate the Chilcot report in Parliament, David Lowry reveals a significant cover-up and distortion by Tony Blair over Iraq’s mystery WMD
It included the following revelation: “The transcript of the interrogation of Hussein Kamel, the former head of Iraq’s weapons programmes and Saddam’s son-in-law … leaked this week to Newsweek magazine … reveals that Kamel told UN inspectors that Iraq had destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons and abandoned its nuclear programme after the Gulf war.”
Borger said: “The emergence of the classified statements weakens the case the US and Britain has tried to build against Saddam Hussein, in which Kamel’s defection has been used to bolster claims that Iraq still has thousands of tonnes of chemical and biological weapons for which it has not accounted.”
Despite its obvious and urgent importance, this story almost entirely disappeared from political discourse and scrutiny, and was not followed up anywhere in the media. Why was this?
Remember this was just a few weeks before Parliament was to make its fateful vote to invade Iraq, based substantially on the belief Iraq had WMD and was threatening to use them.
Here is part of the extraordinary article in Newsweek on March 3 2003 by British reporter John Barry that first broke the claims that Saddam had already destroyed his WMD several years before 2003.
“Nobody gives much guidance on how much of what we think about the programs is based on Kamel. Much of what he said was backed up by documents, so it can’t be all wrong.
“Hussein Kamel, the highest-ranking Iraqi official ever to defect from Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, told CIA and British intelligence officers and UN inspectors in the summer of 1995 that after the Gulf war, Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them. Kamel was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and had direct knowledge of what he claimed: for 10 years he had run Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs.”
Two decades later, in 2015, this murky story was taken up in Parliament by Labour MP Paul Flynn in a debate on the Iraq inquiry.
Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary the time of the Iraq invasion but at this point a back-bench MP, interjected during the debate: “For the avoidance of doubt, however, the whole [UN] security council judged in November 2002 that there was a threat to international peace and security from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.”
Respect MP George Galloway bellowed back: “Because they believed you and Colin Powell.”
Flynn retorted: “Because they were fooled.”
Flynn had been about to reveal, when Straw intervened, that Straw and Tony Blair had already known that Saddam no longer had WMD in the autumn of 2002, when the UN was hoodwinked.
He was in full flow, pointing out: “We are being denied the truth. I find it astonishing that [Straw] does not agree there were no weapons of mass destruction. It is amazing if he still believes there was an imminent threat to British territory. I have a document — I have no time to go into its detail — referenced by Tony Blair as evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the threat posed. It concerns a meeting on 22 August 1995 at which the principal person giving evidence was a General Hussein Kamel. For goodness sake, read the document!”
The full 15-page text of the document Flynn flourished in the House of Commons is now available on the internet (www.casi.org.uk/info/unscom950822.pdf)
In light of this, how did Tony Blair report to Parliament — in the debate and fateful vote that finally took us to war — what the government, including Straw, knew of the Kamel claims?
On the eve of the invasion, Blair told Parliament that in 1995, after Kamel defected to Jordan, “he disclosed a far more extensive biological weapons programme and, for the first time, said that Iraq had weaponised the programme — something that Saddam had always strenuously denied. All this had been happening while the inspectors were in Iraq.
“Kamel also revealed Iraq’s crash programme to produce a nuclear weapon in the 1990s. Iraq was then forced to release documents that showed just how extensive those programmes were.
“In November 1996, Jordan intercepted prohibited components for missiles that could be used for weapons of mass destruction. Then a further ‘full and final declaration’ was made. That, too, turned out to be false.”
A week later, Labour backbencher Llew Smith MP asked Blair whether he would place in the House of Commons library the text of the information provided by Kamel on Iraq’s WMD.
Blair claimed that the details concerning the interviews were “made available to us on a confidential basis,” and that Britain had not been provided with transcripts of the interviews.
On December 8 2009, the star witness at the Chilcot inquiry hearings was Sir John McLeod Scarlett — friend and confidant of Blair’s spinmaster-in-chief Alastair Campbell, and collaborator in the writing of the notoriously misleading dossier on WMD issued in 2002.
Scarlett was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 2001 to 2004, and was promoted by Blair to be the head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), a job from which he had recently retired before the hearing.
Scarlett told Chilcot: “We had through the 1990s been quite reliant on information coming from the UN inspectors from UNSCOM [the inspection regime created to oversee Iraq’s compliance with the destruction of WMD] and, indeed, from the occasional very high level and valuable defector, such as Hussein Kamel in the mid 1990s.”
The Chilcot report also reveals that Scarlett “assured [Blair’s then chief foreign policy adviser] Sir David Manning [in January 2003] that the intelligence reporting was ‘consistent and convincing,’ and there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein was considering the renunciation of WMD.”
Blair, for his part, despite making a very long speech to MPs justifying war days after the bloody invasion, inexplicably did not find time to share with Parliament — and hence the public — the extraordinary revelation made by Kamel: “All weapons — biological, chemical, missile, nuclear — were destroyed.”
Much attention has been given to the apparent revelation in the hitherto private message from Blair to George W Bush in July 2002, published by Chilcot, in which Blair wrote: “I will be with you, whatever,” which many commentators have suggested was the moment Blair recklessly committed British forces to back Bush’s illegal and catastrophic Iraq adventure.
In fact, Blair conveyed his military backing for Bush much earlier — in a statement to the Labour Party national executive committee just three days after Bush was inaugurated for his first term as the US president on January 20 2001.
The contemporaneous personal minute of the NEC meeting on January 23 2001 by NEC member Ann Black records:
“Tony Blair said that the issue must be handled with care. Instead of rushing to judgment, we should bring all sides together to seek a way through. We need good working links with the new president because the Tories will exploit any cooling in the ‘special relationship.’ William Hague has already promised the Americans everything they want before they ask, a curious way to defend British sovereignty.”
Blair’s lies to Parliament, press and public over Iraqi fantasy WMD were a disgraceful deception of Parliament and the nation.
But other MPs, aside from Llew Smith, Paul Flynn, Jeremy Corbyn and the great, late Robin Cook, should have been less gullible, more inquisitive and have scrutinised government assertions with greater commitment by demanding evidence.
It is a huge pity they didn’t: if they had, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and 179 brave British soldiers may still be alive today. And many more would not have been maimed for life.
- Dr David Lowry is senior research fellow at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts.