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Judge Clears Blair of Wrongdoing  in Handling Pre-War Intelligence - 2004-01-28

A British judge has cleared Prime Minister Tony Blair of wrongdoing in the handling of intelligence before the war in Iraq. The senior judge also concluded that Mr. Blair's team did nothing seriously wrong in dealing with a government weapons scientist who had spoken to the media and later committed suicide. But the judge said the British Broadcasting Corporation made errors in reporting on intelligence issues and fielding complaints about its coverage.

Judge Brian Hutton has ended his five-month investigation into the death of weapons scientist David Kelly with a conclusion that exonerates Prime Minister Blair and his officials of any serious misconduct.

Mr. Kelly was a veteran inspector of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs. He was found dead with his wrist slashed in July after being exposed as the source of a controversial BBC report that said Mr. Blair's government had exaggerated Iraq's weapons threat before the war.

Judge Hutton told a hushed London courtroom Wednesday that the government had not exaggerated the threat as it was then understood by intelligence agencies. He also said the BBC had not done enough to check the accuracy of the report before and after it was broadcast, and that there was no foul play in Dr. Kelly's death or any grounds to accuse officials of pushing him to commit suicide.

In a key conclusion, the judge criticized BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan, who reported in May that when Mr. Blair's office produced a document that said Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons in 45 minutes, officials knew it was probably false.

"The 45 minutes claim was based on a report received by the Secret Intelligence Service from a source which that service regarded as reliable," said Judge Hutton. "Therefore, whether or not at some time in the future the report on which the 45 minutes claim was based was shown to be unreliable, the allegation reported by Mr. Gilligan on the 29th of May, 2003, that the government probably knew that the 45-minutes claim was wrong before the government decided to put it in the dossier was an allegation which was unfounded."

A short time later, Mr. Blair appeared in parliament, where he had said earlier he would resign if the judge concluded he had lied to the nation. This time, the prime minister demanded an apology from those who had called him a liar.

"The allegation that I or anyone else lied to this House or deliberately misled the country by falsifying intelligence on weapons of mass destruction is itself the real lie," insisted Mr. Blair. "And I simply ask those that have made it and repeated it over all these months now withdraw it fully, openly and clearly."

In other findings, Judge Hutton said BBC's editorial and management system were defective in supervising Mr. Gilligan, and the corporation's board of governors also failed in its duty to provide effective oversight of the corporation.

The judge also faulted Mr. Kelly for holding unauthorized conversations with Mr. Gilligan and another BBC reporter.

British defense secretary Geoff Hoon escaped any serious criticism, although it had been widely expected. But Judge Hutton did say Mr. Hoon's press office should have told Mr. Kelly it would confirm his identity as the BBC source if journalists asked. Mr. Blair accepted that criticism, but told parliament Mr. Hoon's critics should now keep quiet.