Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness(Questions 1-19)

RT HON TONY BLAIR MP

TUESDAY 21 JANUARY 2003

  Chairman: Welcome again, Prime Minister, to the second extended session of questioning of the Liaison Committee. It is inevitable that the prime interest is going to be in relation to Iraq, the war on terror and, indeed, the defence of our own people and our own country. We will start on that and we may spend an extended period on it. Our first questioner will be Donald Anderson.

Donald Anderson

  1. Prime Minister, to open the bowling, the temperature is rising in the Gulf region, increasing mobilisation of our troops, the intensification of the work of the weapons inspectors and, indeed, at home with the raid on the mosque, the death of the detective constable in Manchester, and so on, and yet public opinion is stubbornly unconvinced. Indeed, according to the Guardian, the support is shrinking. Given the fact that clearly you want to get public opinion on your side, how do you prove to our public that there is a direct link between what is happening in the Gulf and our interests at home? For example, do you believe that an al-Qaeda attack on the United Kingdom is inevitable?

  (Mr Blair) I believe it is inevitable that they will try in some form or other. Indeed, I think we can see evidence from the recent arrests that the terrorist network is here as it is around the rest of Europe, around the rest of the world. I think it is important that we do everything we can to try to show people the link between the issue of weapons of mass destruction and these international terrorist groups, mainly linked to al-Qaeda, who will do literally anything they possibly can in order to destroy and disrupt the lives of ordinary people.

  2. But, again, to try to show that linkage between what is happening in Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, al-Qaeda and what is happening here, you probably saw in our Sunday newspapers, presumably from Pentagon hawks, there was an intense briefing of our UK journalists that Zarqawi, the senior al-Qaeda operative who had received medical treatment in Iraq, apparently working in the enclave in Northern Iraq, had linkage with terrorists in the United Kingdom, maybe perhaps because those Pentagon hawks were desperate to find some sort of linkage which may or may not exist. Do you buy into this? Do you ascribe the same sort of importance to Zarqawi as those Pentagon hawks clearly did?
  (Mr Blair) Zarqawi is an important operative. Whenever I am asked about the linkage between al-Qaeda and Iraq, the truth is there is no information I have that directly links Iraq to September 11. If I can just be absolutely frank with you, there is some intelligence evidence about loose links between al-Qaeda and various people in Iraq, but I think that the justification for what we are doing in respect of Iraq has got to be made separately from any potential link with al-Qaeda. I am not suggesting, in other words, that there is not a potential linkage there, all I am saying is in my view the case that we make for disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction has got to be made on its own terms. Incidentally, I totally understand why public opinion is sceptical about Iraq. People will say "What is the need? For ten years we have been containing Saddam, is North Korea not a greater threat?", all these arguments which are familiar to us and are perfectly reasonable arguments, but the points that I would make, however are these: first of all, that the policy of containment I think only worked up to a point and was beginning to fracture very badly; secondly, Saddam has actually used weapons of mass destruction and that puts it in a unique category vis a vis other countries; thirdly, this has come to a focal point around Iraq and, therefore, my point to people is not only is Iraq a threat in its own terms but if having taken a stand on Iraq and said they must disarm the weapons of mass destruction we fail to make them disarm then the consequences for the whole of the world in respect of weapons of mass destruction, in respect of terrorism, is adversely impacted. As I say, I understand what the difficulties of public opinion are, and it is my job to explain to people why it is necessary. It is also the case, incidentally, that we are not in conflict yet so we have not reached the context or the circumstances in which I am saying to the British people, "We are now going to be in conflict with Iraq". I believe that the circumstances in which we will opt for conflict will be circumstances that people find acceptable and satisfactory because there is no other route available to us. The whole reason for going down the UN route was to try and give us an alternative.

  3. Other colleagues will deal with the raft of UN Resolutions, the UN route. My task at the moment is to ask you whether there is any direct linkage between al-Qaeda, Iraq and Islamicist groups in the UK.
  (Mr Blair) There is none that I know of that directly links al-Qaeda, Iraq, terrorist activity in the UK but, and forgive me if I am just choosing my words very carefully, there is some intelligence evidence about linkages between members of al-Qaeda and people in Iraq. It does not go further than that and, as I say, I am not using it as a justification for anything that we are doing but it would not be correct to say there is no evidence whatever of linkages between al-Qaeda and Iraq. What is true to say is that I know of nothing linking Iraq to the September 11 attack and I know of nothing either that directly links al-Qaeda and Iraq to recent events in the UK.

Chairman

  4. Can we take it then that, if you are saying that you are aware of no links, that the American Government also is aware of no links because surely they would have told you if there were?
  (Mr Blair) Yes, that is true. Actually I have not seen the newspaper reports that Donald was talking about. It is the case that there is evidence about al-Qaeda people in parts of Iraq. There is evidence to that effect. In my view what there is not evidence of is the Iraqi Government and al-Qaeda co-operating in respect of anything in this country. There are points at which unless you choose your words very, very carefully you can either suggest there is nothing to link al-Qaeda and Iraq at all, which would not be correct, or alternatively that somehow we are suggesting that Saddam Hussein is responsible for recent events in the UK, and I am not suggesting that.

Mr Mates

  5. One of the problems of an increasingly sceptical British public, Prime Minister, is the fact that it is very difficult to tell them some of the information you have about why we are doing what we are doing. Those who know about the intelligence that is available are much more comfortable with what is going on, naturally, than those who do not. Is there not going to come a moment when you are going to have to share more of the intelligence with the British people and perhaps accept some risk in doing that? You published a dossier two months ago which went a long way to reassure people then but we have moved on a long way since then and I think we are approaching another point where if we want to bring public opinion with us, and it is not just British public opinion, it is American public opinion as well, both sides are going to have to share some of the information which is leading you to take the decisions you are taking.
  (Mr Blair) I think that is true. We did share a certain amount of information in the dossier. What we are finding now is that a lot more information is coming out of Iraq. There is no doubt at all that as a result of the pressure there is evidence that the regime in Iraq and Saddam's immediate entourage are weakening, that they are rattled about the build up of forces, there is more intelligence coming out. I think it is important if we get into the circumstances of conflict that we share as much as possible with people. As I say, at the moment we are not in conflict. When we get to the point of taking the decision, the circumstances will not be the circumstances we have got today, they will be changed by what the inspectors find, by what we are able to tell people, by the circumstances that will exist at that time. I agree with you, I think it is important that we try and share as much information as possible, understanding that there will always be people who are sceptical about it because it is intelligence evidence.

  6. Did you discuss this with President Bush over the weekend because American legislators to whom I spoke last week were finding the same problem of a sceptical public and them not being able to pass on what they know which, as I say, makes everybody much more comfortable with the preparations that we taking because there is some pretty compelling and unpleasant evidence about what is going on?
  (Mr Blair) That is true. I did not discuss it over the weekend with President Bush but I have discussed this with him before and how we make the case, obviously. The other thing that is happening is that we have to be careful each time we do disclose any intelligence exactly how we are disclosing it because obviously there are sources of intelligence that we do not want to compromise.

Chairman

  7. Can I press you a little further because it is very important on this question of links that we understand exactly what you are saying. You say there are links with people in Iraq but al-Qaeda has links with people in this country, in the United States, in Germany, in France. Are you suggesting that the people with whom they have links are people of particular significance in Iraq, particularly within the regime?
  (Mr Blair) I am not suggesting there is evidence directly linking members of the regime with al-Qaeda. I am simply saying to you that there is some intelligence evidence about linkages between people in Iraq and al-Qaeda and I do not think that is in quite the same sense, if you like, as links between al-Qaeda and, say, people in this country. I have said what I have said and I do not think I can really add to it at all. What I am trying to do is to steer a fairly careful path between saying to you there is a direct link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime, because I do not know there is, and on the other side saying there is no linkage at all between al-Qaeda and Iraq of any significance, which I do not think is true either. The actual position is that we cannot be sure of what the exact nature of that linkage is but I would justify whatever we are doing here or in respect of Iraq separate from that. Does that help?

  Chairman: Yes.

Donald Anderson

  8. Prime Minister, North Korea. The evidence, as you have said, in respect of Iraq, al-Qaeda, proliferation, is at best sketchy, yet the evidence in respect of North Korea is crystal clear for anyone to see because North Korea is the arch proliferator in the world, causing a great deal of unrest in vulnerable areas. Do you accept this?
  (Mr Blair) I accept North Korea is a real problem and potential threat, yes. I would not accept, however, that Iraq is not a potential problem or threat. The evidence about al-Qaeda and Iraq may be open to question but the evidence about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction is absolutely clear because this is a regime that has used them.

  9. You used the words "potential threat". The evidence against North Korea is absolutely clear. Is there any evidence that Iraq is proliferating weapons of mass destruction?
  (Mr Blair) Yes, there most certainly is, which is the evidence we published in the dossier a couple of months ago.

  10. Evidence that they are passing that weaponry to third countries?
  (Mr Blair) Evidence that they are building a capability of weapons of mass destruction.

  11. I said proliferating.
  (Mr Blair) In respect of North Korea the problem is either they use it all or they have proliferated. The problem in respect of Iraq is not the problem necessarily of proliferating the weapons of mass destruction, it is actually that they may use the weapons of mass destruction. In respect of Iraq we have the clearest possible evidence, both because of what they have done before and what is left over from the previous inspections when the inspectors were kicked out in 1998 and, what is more, the evidence that we published a couple of months ago. The position is this: the British security services, and I believe in their integrity, I believe that they are not giving me information that they believe to be false, their information about the activities of the Iraqi regime in respect of weapons of mass destruction is overwhelming and, indeed, the intelligence has grown over the last couple of months, not diminished. I could, as British Prime Minister, say "Well, I just do not believe the security services are telling me the truth", but I do not think that is a very responsible position and I think that I am bound to take account of that. I think we are in this slightly curious position at the moment: most people believe Saddam has weapons of mass destruction but what they want is for the international community to prove it in order to justify taking international action.

  12. But are you not also in this curious position: there is clear evidence that North Korea is proliferating weapons of mass destruction; there is evidence, you say, that Iraq is producing such weapons but that it may proliferate—no evidence. You can understand the puzzlement of public opinion. Why is the focus totally on Iraq?
  (Mr Blair) First of all, I do not think the focus should be totally on Iraq. That is why the Security Council will shortly have a discussion on North Korea, and so we should. If the point you are making to me is that it does not end at Iraq, I agree totally, Iraq is not the only problem in relation to weapons of mass destruction. I agree that what has happened in respect of North Korea recently is extremely worrying, which is why we need to get a proper strategy in the international community for dealing with it. I do not think it follows from that, Donald, that we do not also deal with the key question of Iraq, which has actually used weapons of mass destruction.

  13. If the problem does not end with Iraq, do you fear that the hawks in the Pentagon, like stepping stones, will go from one alleged rogue state to another, to North Korea, then to Iran, then possibly Syria? Would we follow?
  (Mr Blair) I hear a lot about the hawks in the Pentagon or elsewhere and all I know is the discussions that I have with President Bush, who I think is more important than any newspaper speculation may be about different positions in different parts of the administration. I just want to make this thing absolutely clear. If George Bush was not raising the issue of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, I would be raising it. In fact, I did raise it at the very first meeting I had with him in February 2001, before September 11, before any of the recent events. This is a serious issue. If we do not deal with it now and take a stand on it now, and it has come to a focal point around Iraq, then is North Korea going to believe us if we say "This is what you must do to come into line in the international community"? Are any of these other countries who are trying to acquire this weaponry going to believe us if, when we come to the point of decision on Iraq, we face the challenge and then we duck it? As I say, I understand why public opinion says "Why do we need to deal with this now?" I understand why people say "North Korea is a big issue as well" but my answer to that is deal with both. Having come to the point of decision over Iraq do not veer off and say "North Korea is the issue, Iraq is not an issue any more" because both are issues and Iraq is particularly an issue because of the history of the UN Resolutions, because of the fact that— Look, Saddam is a leader who four times has either threatened or invaded his neighbours, has used weapons of mass destruction against other countries, against his own people, and I think most of us know perfectly well that what he said in his declaration of 8 December is not true. We have tried everything we can to get this resolved by the international community. We have gone down the UN route. Those people who told me that the hawks in the Pentagon or elsewhere were going to stop this going down the UN route were proved wrong, we are down the UN route, let us stick with it and get the job done, but the UN has got to be the way of dealing with this issue, not a way of avoiding it.

Dr Gibson

  14. Just a quick one, Prime Minister. Do you have evidence or do you believe that the weapons of mass destruction include nuclear, biological and chemical, or only one of those or two of those? Have you evidence right across the board that Iraq has all three?
  (Mr Blair) What we are sure of is chemical and biological weapons. What we believe they are doing is trying to reconstitute their nuclear programme. How far along the path they have got on that we cannot be sure. I think it is worth pointing out that they had a fully fledged nuclear programme, which they denied for years, incidentally, until they were obliged to admit it and if they get the right ballistic missile technology and the highly enriched uranium, it is not impossible for them to do it. The truthful answer is that we cannot be sure how far along the path of the nuclear weapons programme they are. What we believe is that they are trying to reconstitute it. On the chemical and biological side we believe they have still got weapons that they can use and they have also got the missile capability of firing them a significant distance.

  15. But will they be found by the inspectors or are they hidden away in vaults somewhere, is that what you believe?
  (Mr Blair) Again, what we believe, and I think the recent finds by the inspectors would bear this out, is that they are being dispersed to different parts of the country. I think the inspectors have done a good job, they have been in there really at full strength only a few weeks, and I think we can be reasonably hopeful that they will do their job well.

Mr Jones

  16. The Prime Minister said earlier that we have got to make the case against Iraq, and I think that is true, but I have a slight advantage over him, I think, and also over President Bush in that I met Saddam Hussein in 1988. He was sheltering the PLO then, so he was involved in terrorist activity because the PLO was a terrorist organisation then. He had weapons of mass destruction then and everybody acknowledged that he was an evil dictator then. Can the Prime Minister tell me what he thinks has changed in that time?
  (Mr Blair) I think that is a very, very good point. I think what has changed is this: first, that the policy of containment post-1998 has not really worked. Because it was not in the news really prior to September 2001 people were not aware of the fact that there were constant negotiations going on as to how you tightened and changed the sanctions regime because the sanctions regime, frankly, was crumbling. We estimate that it is probably in the region of $3 billion a year now that he gets from illicit oil sales that he can use for whatever purposes he wants, including weapons of mass destruction. Secondly, again the intelligence that we have that we published in the dossier, and as I say it is a decision for people to decide whether they think the intelligence services are just telling us this for fun or whether they are serious about it, as I believe they are, is that they have been making every attempt to reconstitute and rebuild those programmes, particularly trying to use dual use facilities that might have a civilian use and might have a military use. The third thing, I think, which has changed the context in which these decisions are made is September 11 because, as I say to people, if we had said in the summer of 2001 that al-Qaeda was a serious problem and we had to do something about their network in Afghanistan there would have been no international support for doing that at all, and yet it would have been better in retrospect if we had been acting on that some time before. I think that this issue of weapons of mass destruction is a really serious issue. I think on the link with international terrorism it is, as I say, only a matter of time before it develops and I think it is important that we deal with it, which is why the UN have come together and they have passed a resolution in the Security Council. I think there is an additional reason now, which is that the UN having laid down a very clear mandate has got to make sure that it is obeyed.

  17. I think we would all agree that the UN has to be involved in this. A US senator, Nunn I think his name was, had a very good definition of terrorists. He said that terrorists "do not have return addresses". Saddam Hussein has a return address. We have weapons of mass destruction, the West has weapons of mass destruction, he has weapons of mass destruction. He is not mad or suicidal, so why does deterrence not work with him where it worked with the Soviet Union and with China?
  (Mr Blair) When we talk about Saddam, and we were talking about North Korea a bit earlier, I think it is just as well to reflect on his regime for a moment.

  18. I see.
  (Mr Blair) Since the early 1980s whenever he has had the opportunity he has been at war. In the Iran-Iraq war a million people died, he then invaded Kuwait, he has threatened others of his neighbours too and, as I say, he has used these weapons of mass destruction. When people say "Why do we believe this person constitutes a threat?" it always strikes me as a slightly odd thing to say. He has been, in the plainest possible way, a severe threat in the past to his own people and to the outside international community. The only question is do you carry on trying to contain him the whole time or do you recognise that at some point this policy of containment is not going to be enough. Even containment has meant that over the past ten years we have kept several thousand British troops down there patrolling the no-fly zones, doing other work down there, but it cannot go on forever in that way. What is clear is that although to a certain extent there has been success in containing him through the policy of sanctions, through the no-fly zones, through the pressure from the international community, I think all the evidence, which was why we were involved in these detailed negotiations in the UN in mid-2001, was that was not sufficient.

  19. But the UN makes that decision.
  (Mr Blair) The weapons inspectors will make their findings and, yes, there has got to be a further discussion in the UN Security Council. One of the reasons why I wanted this to go down the UN path was so that Saddam was given the chance to resolve this peacefully. All he needed to do was very, very simple. When we passed the UN Resolution in November he could have come forward and said "Look, here are the programmes. This is the weaponry we have got. This is what was left over from the previous inspections", the inspectors could come in and close it down. It is not an impossible thing to do. One might ask the question why has he chosen not to do that, but instead to give a 12,000 page declaration on 8 December that I do not think anybody seriously believes is a correct view of what weaponry he has.


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 4 February 2003