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  Bush, Blair had ‘no evidence’ of Iraq WMDs

It's extremely rare,  to get this kind of an insight of an extremely private, we should say secret meeting between two leaders preparing for a coming war. Tell us what you think are the main insights to be gained from the so-called White House memo?
 

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Australian Broadcasting Corporation
TV PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT
LOCATION: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2006/s1605153.htm
Broadcast: 31/03/2006

Bush, Blair had ‘no evidence’ of Iraq WMDs: lawyer
Reporter: Tony Jones

TONY JONES: Phillipe Sands, thanks for being there.

PHILIPPE SANDS, INTERNATIONAL LAWYER AND AUTHOR: Delighted to join you again.

TONY JONES: Yes, indeed. It's extremely rare, isn't it, to get this kind of an insight of an extremely private, we should say secret meeting between two leaders preparing for a coming war. Tell us what you think are the main insights to be gained from the so-called White House memo?

PHILIPPE SANDS: Well, I think there are two really crucial issues. Firstly, the memo of the meeting of 31 January, which has not been challenged - its authenticity hasn't been attacked in any way, the contents haven't been attacked - confirms the decision to go to war had already been taken by President Bush, in terms irrespective of whether or not there was a second resolution. And the British PM does not demur from that decision. Secondly but I think even more significantly, the memo effectively confirms that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I think it's clear that the material indicates that both President Bush and the PM had a belief that there were weapons of mass destruction there but they didn't actually have any evidence. And that's why they engaged in the type of conversation that relates to putting up spy planes because they needed to do something to provoke some Iraqi reaction in order to justify, if you like, a second resolution.

TONY JONES: I'll come to the detail of all of this in a moment. First, I've got to ask you, how were you able to verify that this memo is, in fact, the genuine article? As you say, it hasn't been denied by either of the two leaders but it hasn't been confirmed, either.

PHILIPPE SANDS: Well the New York Times reported this past Monday and they've obviously been doing their own ferreting around two senior British officials, confirming the authenticity of the material. So there's independent verification. For my own part as an academic, I have to check my sources very carefully. As a member of the English bar I have to check that my facts are accurate and I satisfied myself and indeed nothing in the book has been challenged in relation to its accuracy. I think you can rely on it as accurate.

TONY JONES: Well according to the memo, President Bush discusses three possible ways of provoking a confrontation within Iraq. What detail of those options is actually spelt out in what appears to be a five-page memo?

PHILIPPE SANDS: Well, in my book, I've indicated some of the material and it's obviously a short memo of a meeting and so the detail that has now come into the public domain is about as detailed as it gets. It doesn't indicate, for example, how serious President Bush was about this idea of spy planes, whether any preparation was taken or indeed, whether it actually happened. It's floated, if you like, as an idea. I have to confess I was pretty surprised that even such an idea could be floated because it really brings back memories of what happened in Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin and so on and so forth. So it's very general material, but it's all completely consistent with the fact that a decision was taken and they really didn't have any material. And bear in mind, as your piece began, this was five days before Colin Powell was due to go to the Security Council and unveil the smoking gun, so to speak, and that fell as a damp squib. It's I think all very telling.

TONY JONES: The second option pertains to that in some way, doesn't it? Because there was some thought to actually bringing out one of the Iraqi, one of the key Iraqi defectors who in the end were the very people who provided that false information to Colin Powell?

PHILIPPE SANDS: Well, we now know that a lot of the material upon which various parts of the Bush Administration relied, came from selective and not well-tested people who came out of Iraq and indeed, some suggestions are that some of the material came from a serving foreign Mminister of Iraq. But we don't know anymore than the detail that's come into the public domain as to what precisely happened. So it's sketchy but it's accurate.

TONY JONES: Yes, well the third option was to assassinate Saddam Hussein. Once again, no detail as to whether this was discussed seriously and it appears no response recorded from Prime Minister Blair.

PHILIPPE SANDS: Well, in relation to that suggestion or that possibility, it's unclear from the material whether the suggestion was that any effort to assassinate would come from the US or the UK or from some other source. It might be interpreted simply as an expression of hope that someone would pop off Saddam Hussein and that would do the job. But what is very striking is that these ideas are floated by Bush and there's simply no reaction from the British PM. I have to say, personally, I found that rather dispiriting. There's no, "Hang on a second George, you can't be going down that line". It's all, "I'm solidly with you, Mr President". I think that raises serious questions.

TONY JONES: At the beginning of the interview you seemed to throw some doubt over my next proposition but it did appear that the main reason for Tony Blair going into this meeting was for him to seek and to tell President Bush that without a second resolution, Britain at least would not be going to war. You're saying that's not so?

PHILIPPE SANDS: I think it's clear from the memo that that is not so and the British Prime Minister's decision, his personal view - because it then had to go back to Parliament - I think was taken at that meeting on 31 January. "I'm solidly with you Mr President", is I think unequivocal. I think it is true to give the British PM full credit, is that he wanted a second resolution and he wanted a second resolution because he had been told by his lawyers at that point, although the situation subsequently changed, that he needed one. In the memo as I describe in the book and as the New York Times has now provided further information on, the reason for that in part is Tony Blair's view that a second resolution would provide an insurance policy - if things go belly-up, so to speak, we'll have Security Council backing and that will make things much easier. That, of course, becomes all the more pertinent, given President Bush's expectation that there wouldn't be internecine strife or conflict, which has proved tragically to be very wrong. And we know if there'd have been Security Council backing, at least there would have been the support of the international community.

TONY JONES: Put in the actual words of the memo, Tony Blair says, "A second resolution would give us international cover".

PHILIPPE SANDS: Well it would have given the whole action a legitimacy that it has never had. I think it would have made it possible, for example, from the outset for military troops from neighbouring Arab countries to join in the operations or at least the aftermath of the actual war and armed conflict and that would have allowed a proper regional response to a situation, rather than a situation which we have, which is that no local countries have provided any troops at all. They've had to rely on Australia and Britain, Honduras and all sorts of other countries and that has really tended to delegitimise the issue. As we now know, it's become part of the problem in itself, in terms of the allegation it's fuelling the insurgency. So PM Blair had - he was right. I regret very much that he didn't follow through on the vision that he had.

TONY JONES: What do you make of - this is real politic I suppose - but what do you make of President Bush's statement that the US would not only put its weight behind getting a second resolution, it would threaten and it would twist arms?

PHILIPPE SANDS: We know that did happen. I've spoken personally to ambassadors of Security Council members and I'm aware of the inducements that were given to countries in the Security Council to vote in favour of a resolution. And I think the most striking aspect of that period is that not one country could be persuaded. And if you talk to these people, ambassadors privately, the reason that they'll tell you is very clear, they simply didn't believe the argument. They didn't believe that the evidence of this - at this time Hans Blix was reporting back Iraqi cooperation was accelerating. Mr ElBaradei said there weren't any nuclear materials and Mr Blix was saying he probably didn't think there were going to be any weapons of mass destruction - there may be some incipient programs to try to build it up in the future but there would be no hard evidence. It really all in the end turns on the evidence - the inducements, the pressure, the arm-twisting had no effect.

TONY JONES: Here's one of the critical bits of the memo from our point of view. President Bush had to say that if we ultimately failed military action, to get the resolution that is, military action would follow anyway?

PHILIPPE SANDS: Those words are totally unambiguous. That document confirms irrevocably that the decision had been taken by President Bush and it goes onto confirm that the British PM was with him. There's an interesting question listening to your piece as to the role of Australia in all of this. No doubt, at some point, material will emerge to indicate at what point John Howard gave his unequivocal support. Anecdotally, I do know that President Bush told an Australian acquaintance of mine personally that John Howard was one man he could always count on. So I'd be personally surprised if there isn't some indication somewhere that John Howard would also have provided rather early support.

TONY JONES: We'll have to see - that might be one for historians. I've got to ask you, what was motivating people clearly at very high levels of the British Government to leak this sort of information, which is clearly damaging to both governments?

PHILIPPE SANDS: Well, I think one of the interesting aspects of the last three years has been the amount of material that has emerged all over the world. It's emerged in Spain, it's emerged in the US, it's emerged in the United Kingdom and I think that must be a reflection of disquiet about the way in which decisions were taken in that crucial period. I don't know how it was in Australia or so much in the United States but in the United Kingdom, it is clear that there is very considerable unhappiness at the highest levels of government and decision-making as to the way in which decisions were taken and, of course, there've been inquiries about that issue that have reported and been rather critical of the PM.

TONY JONES: Alright, Philippe Sands we will have to leave you there. We thank you very much for taking the time once again to come and talk to us on Lateline.

PHILIPPE SANDS: Thank you very much.

 

 

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