Chilcot: the Kamel that broke Straw’s back

Who should have scrutinized government assertions on Iraqi WMD with greater commitment, demanding evidence? Other MPs? The BBC?

David Lowry
5 July 2016
 Matt Dunham / PA Images

The long-awaited Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war is due to report on 6 July. Credit: Matt Dunham / PA Images

As preparations for the invasion of Iraq later that month were ramped-up to deafening decibel levels in Washington and London, the Guardian’s then Washington Editor, Julian Borger – now World Affairs Editor – filed an intriguing story (“Defector’s testimony confuses case against Iraq, I March 2003,) which included the following revelation:

“The transcript of the interrogation of Hussein Kamel, the former head of Iraq’s weapons programmes and Saddam’s son-in-law [who defected in 1995 to Jordan] – leaked this week to Newsweek magazine and seen by the Guardian – reveal that Kamel told UN inspectors that Iraq had destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons and abandoned its nuclear programme after the Gulf war.”

Borger opined that, “The emergence of the classified statements weakens the case the US and Britain has tried to build against Saddam Hussein, in which Kamel’s defection has been used to bolster claims that Iraq still has thousands of tonnes of chemical and biological weapons for which it has not accounted.”

Despite its obvious and urgent importance, this story almost entirely disappeared from political discourse and scrutiny, and was not followed up in the Guardian, or indeed any other media, print, broadcast or electronic, subsequently in March 2003, as the drums of war beat louder. Why was this?

Immediately below I reproduce an exchange between the editor of media-watching group, Media Lens, Dr. David Cromwell, and the BBC Today Programme over an item on Iraqi WMD claims several months before the now notorious  ‘sexed-up’ claims  by Andrew Gilligan on the same programme (it also involved Gilligan, then the Today Programme defence  specialist). It is preceded by an open request for further primary source material on an internet list.

Re: Today item on Iraqi defector

From: Editor at medialens.org 
Mon Mar 3 19:26:40 GMT 2003    


Don't suppose anyone on this list has access to a transcript from last Friday'sToday programme from about 0750? I'd like to see just what coverage they gave to the late Iraqi defector Hussein Kamel and his testimony regarding Iraqi's "weapons of mass destruction". Reliable defector or not, either way recent revelations re: the Kamel debriefing by UN weapons inspectors undermine Bush and Blair. But the story seems to have virtually sunk without trace (though there was a curious little article by Julian Borger in Saturday's Guardian).

Please see the exchange below with Today editor, Kevin Marsh...

David Cromwell, Media Lens

From: Media Lens To: Kevin Marsh

Subject: Today programme on Iraqi defector Hussein Kamel

Sent: 03 March 2003 09:46


Dear Kevin Marsh,

The report below [from FAIR, previously posted, and not included here] regarding Iraqi defector Hussein Kamel appears to be crucial regarding Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction – the crux of the case for war, so Bush and Blair tell us.... The Today programme picked this up last Friday – a very short item between Edward Stourton and defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan. Virtually nothing since then. It surely merits much closer attention. I look forward to hearing from you

regards,(Dr) David Cromwell, co-editor, Media

Reply by Kevin Marsh

3 March, 2003

Thanks for this - we did, actually, do rather more than you recall: we also covered the item at 0750 in an interview with our defence specialist, extracts from the document, an interview with Dan Plesch and an interview with Rolf Ekeus who supervised the original debrief


Remember, this was early March 2003, a few weeks before the UK Parliament was to make its fateful vote to invade Iraq, based substantially on the belief that Iraq had WMDs, and was threatening to use them. 

Here is the extraordinary, contemporary article about an article in the International magazine Newsweek, mentioned by Borger above, that broke the claims that Saddam had already destroyed his WMDs several years before 2003. 

What did Kamel Say?

Posted on 6 March 2003

“Last week Newsweek reported that Hussein Kamel told the CIA that Iraq did destroy all its chemical and biological weapons. You’ll remember Kamel as the son-in-law who defected, became a Western informant, then stupidly went back to Iraq, where he was quickly executed.
Newsweek had been one of many publications that had held Kamel up as an information goldmine, one that proved Iraq was up to no good. The Newsweek story failed to make clear how this information fit in with their years of other reporting….”


Exclusive: The Defector’s Secrets

Newsweek, March 3, 2003, by John Barry 

“Nobody gives much guidance on how much of what we think about the programs is based on Kamel. Much of what he said was backed up by documents, so it can’t be all wrong.
Hussein Kamel, the highest-ranking Iraqi official ever to defect from Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, told CIA and British intelligence officers and UN inspectors in the summer of 1995 that after the gulf war, Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them.Kamel was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and had direct knowledge of what he claimed: for 10 years he had run Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs”

On 4 September 1995, Newsweek had also reported:  

“No hurry: Iraq’s germ-warfare program finally came to light because of the defection on Aug. 8 [1995] of Saddam’s son-in-law Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan al-Majid, whom Ekeus describes as “the mastermind of the whole biological-weapons program.” With Kamel prepared to spill Saddam’s secrets, the Iraqis suddenly provided Ekeus with reams of information on their outlawed program. The defection will apparently not lead to Saddam’s downfall in the near future. Once again, the dictator was crushing any potential challengers at home. And given the lack of an acceptable successor to Saddam, even U.S. allies in the Middle East were in no hurry to see him fall, as long as he remains politically and militarily weakened.” 

A decade later, this murky story was taken up in Parliament by veteran Labour MP, Paul Flynn, recently appointed as Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, in a debate on the Iraq Inquiry, held on 29 January 2015.

Jack Straw, the former Labour Foreign Secretary at the time of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and then a backbench MP, asserted to MPs in the debate:

“For the avoidance of doubt, however, the whole Security Council judged in November 2002 that there was a threat to international peace and security from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.”

George Galloway, the firebrand antiwar then MP for the Respect Party – who had correctly predicted mass chaos in Iraq if the invasion went ahead – bellowed back: “Because they believed you and Colin Powell.”
Paul Flynn on whose speech Straw had intervened, retorted:Because they were fooled.”
Flynn had been about to reveal, when Straw executed his disruptive intervention, that Straw and Blair had already known that Saddam’s Iraq no longer had WMDs in the autumn of 2002, when the United Nations was hoodwinked. He was in full flow pointing out: “We are being denied the truth. I find it astonishing that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) does not agree there were no weapons of mass destruction. It is amazing if he still believes there was an imminent threat to British territory. I have a document – I have no time to go into its detail –referenced by Tony Blair as evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the threat posed. It concerns a meeting on 22 August 1995 at which the principal person giving evidence was a General Hussein Kamel. For goodness’ sake, read the document!”

What was behind this claim? The full 15 page text of the document Flynn flourished in the House of Commons may be read here.

In light of this, how did Tony Blair report to Parliament – in the debate and fateful vote that finally took us to war – what the British Government (including Straw ) knew of the Hussein Kamal claims?


[Relevant document: The Fourth Report from the International Development Committee, on Preparing for the humanitarian consequences of possible military action against Iraq (HC444-I).] Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith).

12.35 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)
...In August [1995], it provided yet another full and final declaration. Then, a week later, Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, defected to Jordan. He disclosed a far more extensive biological weapons programme and, for the first time, said that Iraq had weaponised the programme ­– something that Saddam had always strenuously denied. All this had been happening while the inspectors were in Iraq.

Kamel also revealed Iraq's crash programme to produce a nuclear weapon in the 1990s. Iraq was then forced to release documents that showed just how extensive those programmes were. In November 1996, Jordan intercepted prohibited components for missiles that could be used for weapons of mass destruction. Then a further "full and final declaration" was made. That, too, turned out to be false. (Hansard, 18 March 2003 : Column 762)

A week later, Llew Smith MP, a Labour back bencher, and opponent of the war, for whom I then worked, asked prime minister Blair this question:


Llew Smith: To ask the Prime Minister pursuant to his statement of 18 March 2003, Official Report, columns 761–62, on the information provided by Hussein Kamel on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, if he will place in the Library the text of the interview. [104714]

The Prime Minister: Following his defection, Hussein Kamel was interviewed by UNSCOM and by a number of other agencies. Details concerning the interviews were made available to us on a confidential basis. The UK was not provided with transcripts of the interviews. (emphasis added)

(Hansard, 26 March 2003: Column 235W

But Blair inexplicably did not find time to share with Parliament – and hence the public `- the other revelation made by Kamel: viz “all weapons- biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed.”

It was a disgraceful deception of Parliament; but other MPs should have been less gullible, more inquisitive, and have scrutinized Government assertions with greater commitment by demanding evidence. It is a huge pity they didn’t: if they had, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and 179 brave British military may still be alive today. And many more would not be maimed for life.

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