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The Williams draft is revealed

Martin Rosenbaum | 14:09 UK time, Monday, 18 February 2008

I can still remember quite clearly what I thought when I first saw the Evening Standard story in September 2002 about the speed with which Saddam Hussein could launch his chemical weapons. The headline screamed '45 minutes from attack'. I thought to myself 'why on earth should it take him that long?' Surely he would give the order and someone else press the button, and that would be it. It wouldn't take 45 seconds.

If I was badly informed about this procedure at the time, then the subject matter of the Standard story - the government's dossier about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction - turned out to be even more badly informed and inaccurate.

The Freedom of Information Act has now succeeded in bringing out into the open a document not disclosed by the Hutton Inquiry - the so-called 'Williams draft' of this famous government dossier on Iraqi WMD. This was written by the Foreign Office press officer John Williams. Some people regard it as the 'first full draft' of the dossier.

In some ways it would be more accurate to say that the researcher Chris Ames has succeeded in making it public, since he has fought a lengthy and persistent campaign against the Foreign Office for its release. This culminated in last month's Information Tribunal ruling that it should be disclosed.

This has put right those of us who argued that FOI was unlikely to exceed the level of disclosure of the Hutton Inquiry, but how much does it add to our understanding of the process by which the dossier was developed?

For Ames, the key point is that it demonstrates the role played by a press officer in drafting what should have been an intelligence-based document. He says the similarities between the Williams draft and the later versions shoots down the government's argument that this draft was 'not taken forward', while the intelligence chief John Scarlett made a 'fresh start' on a draft of his own.

Certainly, in presentational terms, it is noticeable that the Williams draft (page 5) features a list of bulleted points as judgments based on intelligence similar to what became the executive summary (and one of the most controversial sections) in the final published dossier. On the other hand some of these points are weaker than the claims eventually made, for example about the details of missiles and propellants. That however would be compatible with a process of 'sexing-up' being applied to the dossier as it went through the iterative drafting process.

The phraseology in the newly-released draft does echo that in a 'capping piece' written by Williams, which has already been made public.

There is no mention of the notorious '45-minute claim', as Williams himself insisted when this issue first arose. He wrote this draft before that 'intelligence' became available.

There are some other issues and discrepancies raised by the Tribunal decision which are yet to be resolved.

The material released today provides us with another link in the chain but it doesn't alter the overall shape of the chain. It's compatible with a view that Williams and his press office colleagues played a larger role in the preparation of the dossier than the goverment wanted to give the impression at the time of the Hutton Inquiry. But it's equally compatible with the view that while Williams helped to draft, it was the intelligence chief Scarlett who ruled on what actually appeared in the dossier.

Williams provides some interesting context for his work on the dossier in today's Guardian. But given the history of this whole business, perhaps we should all (whether spin doctors or journalists) remember some other words of his - ones which he uttered in evidence to the Hutton Inquiry: 'if there is any doubt about the validity of a statement or fact or a figure do not use it'.

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