Blair claim on Iraq WMDs was overtly political, Scarlett tells inquiry Former spy chief says it was not his place to change then PM's foreword to discredited intelligence dossier Richard Norton-Taylor guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 8 December 2009 22.29 GMT Sir John Scarlett gives evidence to the Chilcot inquiry. Photograph: PA The government's spy chief at the time of the invasion of Iraq distanced himself today from Tony Blair's claim that intelligence had established "beyond doubt" that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Sir John Scarlett, then chairman of the joint intelligence committee (JIC), said in evidence to the Chilcot inquiry that he had been responsible for drawing up the now discredited dossier on Iraq, but said the foreword in which the claim was made was "overtly political". The dossier, which also included the now notorious 45 minutes claim, was drawn up under his authority, Scarlett said. He had read Blair's foreword in which the then prime minister made the "beyond doubt" claim and made one or two minor changes to it. But he added: "I saw the foreword as something quite separate. It was an overtly political statement by the prime minister ... I didn't see it as something I would change." Scarlett, who has been criticised for succumbing to political pressure from Downing Street, admitted that the claim in the dossier that Iraqi forces were able to deploy chemical or biological weapons "within 45 minutes of an order" did not refer to ballistic missiles. It would have been better if that fact had not got "lost in translation", he said. It would have been better, he added, if the dossier had not referred to any weapons but instead to "munitions". The 45 minutes claim captured the headlines and was widely interpeted as referring to missiles that could have hit British bases in Cyprus. The way it was used in the dossier was criticised heavily by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee and by the Butler inquiry into the use of intelligence to support an invasion of Iraq. Scarlett told the inquiry it had not been his intention to mislead. "There was absolutely no conscious intention to manipulate the language or obfuscate or create a misunderstanding as to what they might refer to," he said. Sir John Chilcot, chairman of the inquiry, referred to claims today by the Conservative MP Adam Holloway that an Iraqi taxi driver who said he overheard Iraqi commanders talking about weapons of mass destruction was MI6's source of the 45 minutes claim. Chilcot said Holloway's claim perhaps did raise some "points" but they were "not a matter for this session". Six years ago, an Iraqi colonel called al-Dabbagh claimed he was the source of the claim. Scarlett was appointed head of MI6 in 2004 and retired last month. He told the inquiry that while Iraq was a "very high priority" for the JIC, assessing intelligence about the internal situation in the country was "an exceptionally difficult thing to get right". Saddam's intention was to possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, he said, adding: "Of course that does not automatically mean he does have [weapons of mass destruction]." Even senior Iraqi commanders did not know whether he had such weapons or not, Scarlett said. On one hand Saddam wanted to get rid of UN-imposed sanctions, and on the other he wanted to create the impression he had them to "project power in the region". "Did the JIC understand the intensity of that paradox?" he was asked. "No," Scarlett replied. He agreed that intelligence on Iraq was "patchy", but Scarlett said that as the dossier was being prepared for publication in September 2002 – six months before the war – "reliable and authoritative" information came in allowing his officials to "firm up" their judgments. Then, on 7 March 2003, 13 days before the invasion, intelligence emerged suggesting Iraq had no missiles that could reach Israel and none that could carry chemical or biological weapons. The intelligence said the Iraqi leadership had ordered the dismantlement of its al-Hussein ballistic missiles in order to avoid detection, although they could be quickly reassembled. A further report came in on 17 March saying that Iraq's chemical weapons had been disassembled and dispersed and would be difficult to reassemble. However, the assessment that Iraq had useable chemical and biological warfare capabilities that could be delivered by artillery, missiles and possibly by unmanned aerial drones had not changed, Scarlett said. The Butler report in 2004 stressed the paucity of reliable sources MI6 had in Iraq. MI6's most reliable sources were also those whose reports were "less worrying" than the others. "More weight was placed [in the weapons dossier] on the intelligence than it could bear", it said. It added that "there was no recent intelligence that would itself have given rise to a conclusion that Iraq was of more immediate concern than the activities of some other countries". In later evidence today, Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge, commander of British forces at the time of the invasion, said the US commander General Tommy Franks had told him during a visit to London in May 2002 that it was a question of "not if but when" America would attack Iraq. He said he had made it "absolutely clear" that Britain could not commit because it had a "process to go through" – a reference to the UN and attempts to get a fresh security council resolution endorsing an invasion. The approaches of the UK and US differed, he said. "If we were going to participate, our end state was to rid Iraq of WMD," he said. "The strategic end state for the US was to effect regime change." Lieutenant General Robin Brims, who led British forces into Basra, said he had been told in January 2003, two months before the invasion, "don't worry, there is a plan" for the post-invasion phase. "Over time it was clear to me that there wasn't," he said.