British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon says he did not consider it important to clarify before the Iraq war that the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein was believed to have were short-range weapons for battlefield use. Mr. Hoon spoke under sometimes intense questioning from a parliamentary committee.
The members of parliament are pressing the government on whether it misled the nation on Iraq's weapons program, in order to make its case for war. Some members of the committee seized on the government's claim, made in a dossier published in September of 2002, that Iraq could unleash weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday he did not know at the time that the claim referred only to battlefield weapons. But Defense Secretary Hoon said he did know that.
One member of the committee wanted to know why Mr. Hoon did not explain the difference to the prime minister.
"I, obviously, briefed the prime minister on a regular basis, and had this been a significant issue, in terms of the decision to take the country to war, then I am sure that this issue would have arisen in conversation between us," he said. "But as I emphasize, it was not a significant issue."
Members of the committee also criticized the defense secretary for not clarifying the issue in public, after newspaper reports indicated the 45-minute claim referred to longer-range weapons. At the time, many media reports indicated that Saddam Hussein posed an immediate threat, not only within his own country, but to the region and beyond.
Defense Secretary Hoon disclosed Thursday that he found out that was wrong shortly after the dossier was published.
"I, shortly after the publication of the dossier, asked within the Ministry of Defense what kinds of weapons were, in effect, being referred to as part of the so-called 45-minute claim," Mr. Hoon said. "And the answer within the Ministry of Defense, an assessment in effect of the intelligence, was to the effect that they were of a battlefield kind."
Mr. Hoon said he was told that the range of such weapons was no more than 40 kilometers.
Opposition Conservative Party leader Michael Howard says Mr. Blair should have known that information, and called for him to consider resigning.
"If I were prime minister, and I had not asked that basic question, I would be considering my position," he said.
Questions about the British government's handling of intelligence information in the run-up to the Iraq war continue to be asked, as a newly-formed inquiry committee prepares to begin a formal investigation of Britain's pre-war intelligence. A similar commission has also been formed in the United States.
The U.S. and British governments say they based their decisions on the best information available at the time, and that Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations was ample grounds for war, even if he had no weapons of mass destruction ready for deployment.