LONDON—British Prime Minister Tony Blair was cleared Wednesday by a long-awaited report into allegations that he exaggerated intelligence reports on Iraq to push his country into war.
The report probably saved the career of President Bush's strongest ally in the war against Iraq and closest friend in an increasingly distrustful Europe.
While the report strengthened Blair's standing, it wasn't enough to reverse the erosion of his support since the Iraq war, which is widely unpopular in Britain.
The 328-page report, the result of a six-month investigation by the well-respected Lord Hutton, a retired judge, cleared "Teflon Tony" of accusations that he forced intelligence agencies to "sex up" a September 2002 dossier that was used to build the case for war with Iraq.
Hutton wrote that legitimate intelligence reports at the time included information that Iraq not only possessed a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, but also could be ready to launch them within 45 minutes.
"The intelligence reports were seen as reliable," Hutton said as he released the report just after noon. "The allegations against the government were unfounded." His report didn't address whether the intelligence reports were accurate.
In recent months, preparation of the report has dominated British news. Blair has admitted that the accusations went to the heart of his political career. If they were found to be true, many thought he'd have no choice but to resign.
"The allegation that I or anyone else in the government misled the country by lying about weapons of mass destruction is the real lie," Blair told the House of Commons shortly after Hutton finished a 90-minute reading of excerpts from the report.
Blair had faced what observers had been calling a "24-hour crisis" with the release of the report and a very close vote on higher education funding Tuesday evening, the so-called "top-up fees." With the crisis gone, Blair smiled, laughed and joked in his afternoon talk in the House.
The call for Hutton's investigation came last August after a series of events culminated in the suicide of David Kelly, a government scientist and biological weapons expert. Kelly was exposed early in July as the source for a May radio report on the British Broadcasting Corp. by Andrew Gilligan. In his report, Gilligan said Blair had been unhappy with an intelligence dossier on Iraq's weapons, and insisted it be "sexed up" to include a claim that Iraq could launch an attack in 45 minutes.
Kelly, who admitted to government officials that he'd spoken to Gilligan, without the required prior approval, was named as the "government leak." In late July he slit his left wrist in a park near his rural home. The resulting furor, and belief that either Blair or the BBC drove Kelly to his death, led to calls for the inquiry.
Hutton appeared to absolve all involved of responsibility for Kelly's death, saying no one ever would know why Kelly had killed himself, and that no one could have suspected his actions in advance.
However, his report sharply criticized the BBC. Hutton called the BBC report's primary allegations "unfounded" and its reporting and vetting procedures inadequate. By Wednesday evening, Gavin Davis, the chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, had resigned to take responsibility, and in the House of Commons, members of Parliament were raising the issue of privatizing the government-sponsored network.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040128 Hutton timeline
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tony Blair