The difference a day made

The government was cleared of "sexing up" the September dossier. But did we all miss the obvious?

The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee - split along party lines - concluded that the government, and particularly its director of communications, Alastair Campbell, played no role in the inclusion of the notorious "45 minutes" claim in the dossier on Iraqi weapons that was published in September 2002. In other words, it had not been sexed up. But compelling evidence put before the committee suggests that Campbell's involvement may have been overlooked.

The committee's report concluded that the 45-minute claim was "discussed at a meeting on 9 September 2002" - indeed, appeared in a Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessment of the same date. Campbell's case was that, by the time the first draft of the dossier reached him the following day, the claim was already in it. But the report also records that on 9 September, Alastair Campbell "actually chaired" a meeting to plan publication of the dossier. The Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) attaches no significance to this.

Had the government thrown up a smokescreen? Certainly, its timing was clever. It allowed the FAC to wrestle with the question of whether the dossier had been rewritten to insert the 45-minute claim, something that the government repeatedly denied. Only late in the day did government witnesses reveal their hand, pulling out a JIC assessment with the 45-minute claim already there - ample justification, they said, for it appearing in the first draft, and proof that Campbell had not inserted it. But what about the meeting chaired by Campbell on 9 September?

When Campbell appeared before the FAC, he was vague about the sequence of events. "I think I'm right in saying . . ." he hesitated, before stating that the first draft was the first time he had seen the 45-minute claim. "It was not inserted at my request," he said.

On the last day of the hearing, Campbell revealed in a memo that he had chaired the 9 September planning meeting. The FAC's report, while stern about the apparent deception, appears to miss the point: "This was surprising, because we were told by a Foreign and Commonwealth Office official, albeit one who had not attended the drafting meetings, that they had been chaired by the chairman of the JIC. We are concerned that a meeting to discuss a document which ministers had asked the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee to prepare was chaired by the Prime Minister's special adviser."

In his memo, Campbell set out to distance himself from the 10 September draft, citing the JIC chairman as confirming that the 45-minute claim was already in that draft when it was sent to Campbell.

William Ehrman, director general of defence and intelligence at the Foreign Office, gave a different account of the production of this draft. There were "working-level" meetings and JIC meetings. All were chaired by the JIC chairman.

The Tory MP John Maples asked who had produced the first draft. Ehrman initially said "the chairman of the JIC". Maples suggested that No 10 staff, among others, had been involved in the drafting. Ehrman replied: "It then came to the JIC."

So the questions the FAC failed to ask are: Did the meeting chaired by Campbell produce the first draft of the dossier and send it to the JIC to approve? And did that already contain the 45-minute claim? If not, the only explanation is that the JIC inserted it, without referring the change to Campbell, in the version returned to him the following day. That seems unlikely.

When Jack Straw first appeared before the FAC, he promised to produce decisive evidence during the final day's private session to justify the dossier's treatment of the 45-minute claim. "The key evidence, which I shall be reading to the committee, is to compare what was said in the JIC assessment with what was in the final document." Comments made by the Labour FAC member Eric Illsley the following weekend suggest that Straw's private evidence convinced him and most Labour members to clear Campbell.

But if, as Straw implied, these sections closely matched statements already in the public domain, why did he have to read them in private session? We have learnt since that the 45-minute claim related not to a threat, but to an assessment of Saddam Hussein's chain of command.

Was the FAC's failure to follow obvious leads conspiracy or cock-up? Were Labour members too determined to clear Campbell? The stakes were high. Straw and Tony Blair had denied that the dossier had been "materially changed" by Campbell, and would be in contempt of parliament if it had. But all the denials leave open the possibility that Campbell chaired a meeting at which the 45-minute claim was inserted. If that happened, No 10's fingerprints will be all over the smoking gun.