Home » So where were they, Mr Blair? How the Independent exposed the lie of Saddam’s WMD

So where were they, Mr Blair? How the Independent exposed the lie of Saddam’s WMD

What are you going to say when they start sending us home?” I can still see the slightly crazed look in Robert Fisk’s eye as he waited for my answer. I had no idea what The Independent’s legendary war reporter was talking about. “When they start sending us home in body bags…” he explained, “…what are you going to say to our families?”

Shock and awe. The phrase was yet to take its place in the lexicon of the Iraq war alongside “axis of evil”, “dodgy dossier” and “the surge”, but it might have been invented to describe the combative Fisk. He certainly got my attention.

Until that moment, the dark clouds looming over Iraq had been a geopolitical weather front, rising and falling with the temperature on the daily news list. In September 2001 I had covered the horrors of 9/11 from the safety of my editor’s chair at The Independent on Sunday. A year later I’d watched with concern as the US threatened Saddam Hussein with military action unless he disarmed, and then with alarm as the UK published its claims about weapons of mass destruction the Iraqi dictator could send our way within 45 minutes. In February 2003 I’d watched the million who marched for peace through London urging Tony Blair not to follow George W Bush into an illegal war.

Now it was March 2003 and what Fisk knew was that the countdown to invasion was almost done.

Another indelible memory: Alastair Campbell arriving at The Independent’s offices beating the drum for the war to come. In a room full of Independent journalists, Blair’s formidable master of spin argued that while a (second) UN resolution backing military action would give him all the justification he needed to invade, it wasn’t the end of the world if he didn’t get it. Of course, Campbell didn’t talk about “his” invasion or “his” justification. But that’s the way it sounded to me. It is easy to forget how powerful Campbell was at this time, and when he entered our boardroom without Tony Blair, a late cancellation on this pre-invasion newspaper tour, there was no doubt that Campbell was his master’s voice.

Present in the room was Tony O’Reilly, the Irish British Lion who owned The Independent at the time, and a number of his newspaper editors, senior writers and reporters. Campbell asked for a show of hands at the end of his pitch for invasion. How many agreed with him? Only one hand shot up in a room full of shaking heads. That hand belonged to Tony O’Reilly.

If ever there was a moment that exemplified the independence of The Independent, this was it. (“Cinematic” was how one observer remembers it.) Such was his belief in that independence that the proprietor never once tried to push me to fall in behind his support for the coming conflict. The Independent titles (with only the Daily Mirror on backing vocals) continued to vigorously oppose the invasion and its bloody aftermath long before our rivals began to see the error of their support for a campaign that began with “shock and awe” – the bombing of Baghdad – and the disastrous launch of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in the early hours of 20 March, 2003.

Four weeks into the war, I woke early on a Saturday morning and started sketching out some words for the next day’s front page.

First, the headline.

So where are they, Mr Blair?

Then the subdecks.

Not one illegal warhead. Not one drum of chemicals. Not one incriminating document. Not one shred of evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction in more than a month of war and occupation

The front page of the Independent on Sunday – 20 April 2003

(The Independent)

Later that morning I discussed the front page leader that was to accompany these words with my most trusted colleagues. The conversation went something like this:

“We can’t do that.”

“Why not?”, I asked.

“What if they find WMD on Monday?”

“They won’t”, I said.

“You can’t possibly know that.”

“Do we believe Saddam has WMD?” I asked. “No. If they find some on Monday, that will be the daily paper’s problem. We’ll have five more days to examine the evidence. Then we’ll report that in next Sunday’s paper.”

How could I be so sure? I wasn’t. But what I did know was that Raymond Whitaker, the paper’s brilliant foreign editor, was being briefed by security sources deeply concerned that their intelligence on Saddam and his arsenal was being misused by Blair and Bush. And so The Independent on Sunday became the first British newspaper to go big on the failure to find WMD.

The leader written that afternoon rings as true today as it did when we published it on 20 April, 2003:

So where are they? In case we forget, distracted by the thought of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, looted museums and gathering political chaos, the proclaimed purpose of this war, vainly pursued by Britain and the US through the United Nations, was to disarm Saddam Hussein and to destroy weapons of mass destruction deemed a menace to the entire world.

But, Mr Blair, where are they?

Later that night I headed into the West End to find a newsstand selling the early edition of the next day’s paper. There was no going back.

The next day, I went out to lunch. In the street near our local was a gift shop called the Lucky Parrot. That afternoon white paint was drying on the letters the owner had stencilled on to her window. So where are they, Mr Blair?, she had painted, followed by every word of our front page subdecks.

They didn’t find WMD that Monday. Nor by 1 May, when Bush declared “mission accomplished” from an aircraft carrier off the California coast. Nor by 29 May when the BBC carried a report questioning the “45 minutes” WMD dossier. Nor by the 18 July when Dr David Kelly, a key expert on WMD, was found dead in the woods outside his home. Nor when Saddam was captured that December. Nor by the time of the Hutton report into the death of Dr Kelly and The Independent’s famous “Whitewash?” front page. Nor in the years of insurgency and surges and death and destruction that followed.

Twenty years on, we will never forget.