Tony Blair's key claim that Saddam Hussein could develop a nuclear weapon in "between one and two years" was fabricated for public consumption. It was not based on a judgement of the intelligence community as the Prime Minister told parliament. How do I know this? Because I have received the answer to a Freedom of Information request from the Cabinet Office, which concedes that a search of paperwork reveals that officials can find no basis for the claim. This is devastating for the government case, as the Cabinet Office was responsible for drawing up the dossier that took Britain to war. It also houses the Joint Intelligence Committee, which filters raw intelligence for ministers. If there were documentary evidence for the nuclear claim it should have been here.
The parallels between the fabricated nuclear timescale and the notorious 45-minutes claim are clear. In both cases, an alarming time-frame was added to the dossier after the intervention of government spin-doctors. Both claims proved untrue. But the nuclear claims may be more damaging. The government defused the row over the 45 minutes by pointing to a genuine, if differently worded, JIC assessment. It cannot do this for its nuclear claims, where all the evidence is on the record.
As the Butler inquiry showed, the JIC's last assessment of Iraq's suspected nuclear programme made clear that it was not expected to get far: "While sanctions remain effective, Iraq cannot indigenously develop and produce nuclear weapons. If sanctions were removed or became ineffective, it would take at least five years to produce a nuclear weapon. This timescale would shorten if fissile material was acquired from abroad."
But as soon as the government began to put together what would become the September 2002 dossier, the timescale began to shrink. First, "shorten" was changed to "much quicker" than five years. There then followed a secret draft produced by a Foreign Office spin-doctor, John Williams, the existence of which was first revealed in the New Statesman. Shortly afterwards, on 10 September, the JIC chairman, John Scarlett, produced a draft that gave a timescale of "at least two years".
But the draft still caused consternation at No 10. On 11 September, Phil Bassett, Campbell's deputy, wrote: "Think we're in a lot of trouble with this as it stands now." Campbell called a meeting that evening, where Bassett and other spin-doctors put views like these to Scarlett directly. The following day, at lunchtime on 12 September, Julian Miller, Scarlett's deputy, contacted No 10 to inform them of "the latest thinking on the dossier". The draft Miller showed Campbell the next day set out the "between one and two years" timescale for the first time. Within three days, the worst-case timescale had been more than halved.
Many of these details were put into the public domain by the Hutton and Butler inquiries but not all the timescales could be correct. To establish this beyond doubt, I made a Freedom of Information Act request to the Cabinet Office, asking what the basis was for the ever-shrinking timescales. Initially, the Cabinet Office claimed that "reasonable searches" had not located the information and that "the cost of carrying out further searches . . . would exceed the appropriate limit". I persisted and finally it admitted "we do not hold the information".
So, the government department responsible for the dossier has seemingly admitted it cannot find any basis for a claim that the Prime Minister put before parliament. It has in effect conceded that the timescales were created for the dossier. In response to my questions as to how they were reached, it referred me to Scarlett's evidence to Hutton on "the process by which the judgements in the Iraq dossier were reached". Scarlett did not, of course, tell Hutton that spin-doctors helped draft the dossier but said the process used "the same people who would draft normal JIC assessments".
Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, told Hutton that there had been a "debate over the amount of time it might take the Iraqis to develop a nuclear weapon", but claimed that there was "a rigorous response to questions in terms of sticking with the original intelligence in recording those issues in the dossier".
Presenting the dossier to parliament on 24 September 2002, Blair made no mention of the JIC assessment that Iraq could not produce a nuclear weapon if sanctions remained effective. His words were: "There will be [people] who say rightly that, for example, on present going, it could be several years before Saddam acquires a usable nuclear weapon - though if he were able to purchase fissile material illegally, it would be only a year or two" - a claim it is now clear is backed by no intelligence whatsoever.