Iran Approaches Danger Point on Uranium Enrichment for Bomb
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report
Brushing aside all the international obstacles placed in its path, Tehran is clearly advancing full steam ahead in the race for a nuclear device. Sunday, March 28, the International Atomic Energy Agency learned that Iran's freeze on its uranium enrichment was at an end when the head of Iran's nuclear commission, Golmazeh Aghazadeh, announced production had started at the Isfahan facility and the process would be completed at the Natanz centrifuge plant.
On the state of the Isfahan plant, the Iranian official reported vaguely that the contractors had announced it was up and the facility functioning. He added: "In three weeks' time the Iranian people will hold a grand celebration to mark full operation at the Natanz plant."
DEBKAfile's sources interpret this as indicating that Iran's centrifuge industry is working at full capacity and in three weeks it will have attained for the first time the volume of enriched uranium output requisite for building a nuclear bomb.
Yet the next day, Monday, the same Aghazadeh announced piously that Iran had stopped building centrifuges "to win the world's trust over its nuclear program." DEBKAfile cites another Iranian official as flatly denying on March 13 Iran was engaged in uranium enrichment.
All these conflicting statements are transparent attempts by Iran to bewilder and throw off pressure as the Islamic republic advances on its objective.
Aghazadeh's first announcement, aired by state television as in interview Sunday, was timed for the one-day visit UN nuclear watchdog inspectors paid at Natanz. The second statement was delivered on Monday, March 29, when the inspectors moved on to Isfahan. UN inspectors were thus confronted with the accomplished fact that Iranian was producing enriched uranium in defiance of international censure.
US officials working on the Iranian nuclear issue fear that the UN inspectors will hold back on condemning Iran's nuclear breaches until chief inspector Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei visits Tehran next week. It will be left to him to find the words for a statement affirming that Iran has reached the point of no return in its production of the key ingredient for a nuclear bomb.
DEBKAfile sources add Iran is impervious to the anger of the European Union which has broken off all contacts with its officials on the issue. Contacts have also been interrupted with Moscow. President Vladimir Putin has honored his pledge to President George W. Bush to halt Russian assistance in the construction of Iran's Bushehr atomic center and to withhold the fuel rods for powering its reactor.
In Tehran, the hard-line rulers of the Islamic republic evidently trust that the storm clouds gathering over the White House in the wake of the 9/11 inquiry will tie Washington's hands for long enough to allow them to extort de facto acceptance of their continuing uranium enrichment without risk of harsh reprisals.
Israeli Parliamentary Intelligence Probe Misses Focus
DEBKAfile Special Intelligence Report
March 28, 2004, 11:17 PM (GMT+02:00)
Under Israel`s intelligence eye until he packed in his WMD
The usual reason for setting up independent inquiry commissions on the functioning or malfunctioning of national intelligence services in times of crisis is to close the books on troublesome dossiers that won't fade out of the public limelight.
This rule applied to the Israeli Knesset Foreign Affairs Intelligence sub-committee probe that faulted Israel's security services performance on Iraq and Libya in the open part of its report published Sunday, March 28. After hearing closed-door testimony from 70 witnesses in eight months, the panel headed by Likud MK Yuval Steinitz found that Israeli intelligence warnings about Iraq's non-conventional weapons threat to the country were based on assessments and speculation, not fact.
The report stressed that the secret agencies did not deliberately mislead Israeli officials or attempt to distort the intelligence picture in order to emphasize the necessity of going to war. No one is therefore held to account personally. The government was judged to have acted reasonably in ordering the population to cover windows with plastic sheeting and open sealed gas mask kits - even at a replacement cost of millions of dollars.
But there is a second rule to keep in mind: such panels are of very limited usefulness, for two reasons:
1. Their conclusions and recommendations, directed primarily at calming the public, have little bearing on real intelligence work and are therefore rarely carried forward into practical steps.
2. No one seriously imagines that a counterintelligence agent or intelligence officer, whether retired or active, will ever level with any outside panel on all the secret information in his possession or even deliver a clear, unambiguous presentation.
Operating in a world portrayed aptly in genre literature as a "wilderness of mirrors" requires its analysts and department heads to assemble plausible mosaics for drawing the truth out of infinite sets of double and blurred images. That far from infallible skill is not required of politicians serving on inquiry panels.
It is not surprising that Israel's Mossad and military intelligence service - Aman - are furious. They have never faced open criticism before. But they also rebut some of the points as being made more for the sake of settling personal accounts than to seriously scrutinize where Israel's secret services got it wrong in the Iraq War.
A conflict of orientation and objectives stands out in some of the assertions appearing in the published section of the sub committee's report, such as: "The military and political echelons are responsible for an intelligence foul-up regarding Iraq and Libya." On Libya, the panel found Israeli intelligence wanting in failing to pick up on Muammar Qaddafi's race for a nuclear weapon.
That criticism, at least, is simply refuted. DEBKAfile's intelligence sources assert:
A. Israeli intelligence knew about Libya's nuclear program in fine detail. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon twice - in 2002 and 2003 - warned of the danger of Libya beating Iran to a nuclear bomb. He would hardly have plucked this information out of thin air.
B. Israeli intelligence, according to information received in the past from DEBKAfile's sources, knew quite a bit about the flow of Pakistani centrifuges for enriching uranium to Libya and Iran, and the transfer of Chinese and North Korean nuclear technology and scientific, engineering and technical manpower to Libya, including Iraqi nuclear scientists who were attached to the secret Libyan program.
C. So precise was the information reaching Israeli intelligence that when a newly- arrived nuclear scientist went shopping in Tripoli, Tel Aviv knew about it.
Where Israel's secret services fell down was in not tumbling to the secret negotiations between Tripoli, Washington and London for dismantling Qaddafi's WMD. It was a double slip-up because a number of Palestinians were involved in the transaction and their movements at least should have attracted notice.
This failure had a disastrous effect on Israeli policy-making. DEBKAfile's sources reveal that Sharon learned too late that the Bush administration, which had used Israeli assistance for the Iraqi war, pushed Jerusalem aside when it came to Libya. Instead, Washington used British good offices to take certain Palestinian individuals aboard the secret Libyan project. Sharon's moves might have been different had he known about this in time.
The Knesset subcommittee states: Israeli intelligence reacted too slowly to the 1998 exit of UN inspectors from Iraq and did not come up with fitting answers to this development.
This statement conceals more than it reveals. Israel, like most other countries, excepting Russia and China - each of which maintained a strong independent intelligence presence in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, relied on four intermediate sources to find out what was happening in the country:
1. UN inspectors who were willing to sell anything they picked up if the price was right. The fickleness of this source was exhibited by the former deputy UN chief inspector Scott Ritter when, just before the war, he suddenly went back on his previous determinations and declared Iraq innocent of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
2. Arab and other Middle East businessmen who regularly visited Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
3. Kurdish undercover bodies inside Iraq.
4. Clandestine Arab agencies operating in Iraq.
Israel may be presumed to have had access to all these four sources.
The Israel inquiry panel did not grasp that what they were dealing with was not a straight yes or no on whether or not Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons or the up to 150 long-range missiles postulated by Israeli intelligence when the United States went to war. Nor was it the certitude of Israel's secret services conclusions. There was and remains a cloud of obfuscation yet to be pierced. It started with the trafficking in WMD intelligence for high stakes practiced by leading lights in Baghdad including Saddam himself and his two sons. There is no knowing up until the present day whose hand controlled Saddam's prohibited arsenal or whether it was deployable.
At least three enigmas viewed with hindsight could have misled the most competent secret service.
In the early days of the war, Iraqi forces fired 60 missiles at Kuwait from the Faw Peninsula. When that strip of land was captured, every last missile launcher had vanished. Before the war, UN chief inspector Hans Blix reported to the Security Council that Iraq possessed 14 mobile Scud missile launchers - 30 percent more than Saddam commanded in Gulf War One, when he fired them at Tel Aviv and Saudi Arabia. Those launchers have never been seen to this day.
In December 2002, US, Turkish and Israeli intelligence picked up signs that Saddam had brought his Tupolev-16 bombers and Sukhoi-24 bomber-fighters out of hiding. Instructions to the pilots were recorded to exercise bombing sorties at ranges of 1,000 km, meaning either Israel or Saudi Arabia.
That air fleet of which there are credible records has disappeared as though by magic.
All the various branches of Israeli intelligence were fully informed of the long convoys of trucks carrying tanker loads of Iraqi WMD into Syria from January 10 - or thereabouts, to March 10. Their information came from Israeli spy planes and its surveillance satellite. It did not specify who organized the transfer, who took delivery on the Syrian side of the border or whether Saddam or either of his sons were in control of the outflow that ultimately robbed his regime of its second-strike cross-border option and emasculated Iraq's military defensive capabilities.
What the Knesset panel did not ask is why the Israeli government, after coming into possession of this intelligence, did not secretly approach Washington and propose a joint clandestine operation to attack and destroy the convoys - even by means of an Israeli air strike.
There are two answers::
A. Sharon promised President George W. Bush that Israel would stay out of the military side of the Iraq War, unless specifically invited to take part by the US president.
B. Bush preferred to see all unconventional weapons removed from Iraq in order to keep US and British invasion troops out of harm's way.
In actual fact, Israel, whose policy makers and generals were not sure that the Bush administration's calculations were well-advised, pointed out to officials in Washington that even after its removal to Syria, there was no guarantee that the non-conventional arsenal would not be shipped back at a crucial point in the war. They recalled Israel's bad experience in the first Gulf War. Iraq rained Scud missiles on Saudi Arabia, Israel and Saudi-based US forces near the Jordanian frontier and overnight pulled the launchers into Jordan out of reach of air strikes, with the full assent of Jordan's late King Hussein.
Bush decided not to act on this advice. In the end, nothing relating to Saddam's arsenal turned out as expected. Things might have been different if Bush or the Israeli prime minister had heeded the veiled warning that came from the Russian minister in a telephone call to George Bush on March 6, two weeks before US drove into Iraq. What Putin said, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly revealed on March 14, was: "The same people who ambushed you (US) in Mogadishu and Srbrenica are now lying in wait for you again both in the Security Council and later in Iraq."
Maybe if Bush had watched his step as Putin advised him to do - or let Israel strike the convoys heading into Syria, he might have been saved his mock-search for WMD under tables at the last annual dinner for American newspaper editors.
Maybe if Sharon had not waited for a green light from Washington but in the higher interests of national security bombed the trucks heading into Syria, he might not have been faced in March 2004 with the need to send helicopters over Gaza City to eliminate the Hamas leader. In other circumstances, even Sharon's disengagement proposals, which no one wants to hear, might never have been born.
And at least two parliamentary inquiry commissions - in Washington and Jerusalem - might not have come into being and shown how counter-constructively politics and intelligence mix in the public domain.
Hamas Plots Knockout Blow with 800 Suicide Bombers
DEBKAfile Special Report
March 27, 2004, 11:31 PM (GMT+02:00)
British Muslims Hanif and Sharif acted for al Qaeda from Hamas Gaza HQ.
No sooner had the tens of thousands of mourners dispersed after the ceremonies and demonstrations of strength marking the death of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin last Tuesday, March 22, in an Israeli missile attack, when a thousand Hamas top and middle-ranking activists dived underground. This is reported by DEBKAfile's counter-terror sources. Since then, known Hamas operatives have maintained perfect telephone silence, their relatives are in the dark about their whereabouts and contacts are maintained only through trusted couriers.
This situation presented the Hamas command center in Damascus with the problem of communicating urgent instructions to the men on the ground in the Gaza Strip - urgent for two reasons:
1. Although Adel Aziz Rantisi made a show of bending the knee to Khaled Mashaal, head of the Hamas Damascus command center, Mashaal knows he must assert his authority without delay and set the pace of coming in events in the Gaza Strip before the local leadership grabs the initiative.
2. Hamas, Hizballah and al Qaeda agents maintain day-to-day exchanges based on a delicately balanced intelligence and logistical give and take. Mashaal and company will not allow anyone in the Hamas Gaza command to upset the balance of this relationship.
A way therefore had to be found for Hamas, Damascus, to impose its will on Hamas, Gaza.
The method finally hit on was to take to the airwaves.
Friday, March 26, therefore, the Hamas liaison man in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, who managed the Mishaal-Rantisi compromise, was interviewed on Hizballah Radio Nur. On the assumption that the Gaza contingent in hiding were listening in case of coded messages, Hamdan addressed the Hamas "military" wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qasseem Brigades, directly - not in code but in plain language.
DEBKAfile monitored his statement, as follows:
"The lone suicide martyr method has scored great achievements, but now, as we stand at the threshold of a decisive stage, we must resort to a tactic that brings us the desired results. Ideally, we would round up 70,000 to 80,000 martyrs and have them blow themselves up simultaneously in the enemy's urban centers and so finally vanquish him. But that is not realistic. One tenth or even one hundredth part of that number should suffice to inflict a shock on a strategic scale. I therefore tell you not to hurry to exact revenge. We have to be sure our assault is concerted and perfectly orchestrated. Don't waste resources and manpower on small operations. No one is pushing you. Take all the time you need and then pick a date and hour that are most advantageous to our project."
Hamdan's words freely translated are a directive from Damascus HQ to Muhammed Deif, commander of the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam, to muster an army of several hundred suicide killers to reach the hubs of Israeli cities and blow themselves up at the same moment. The Damascus Hamas command reckons that, even if not all the massacres come off, Israel will not be able to withstand a shock and casualties of the magnitude projected
This escalation fits in well with the intelligence gathered by Americans and Israelis on the spreading base of anti-Israeli terror from the double suicide attack carried out in Ashdod shortly before the assassination of Sheikh Yassin which caused the deaths of 10 Israeli port workers. Their experts conclude the attack was the work of Hizballah aided and abetted by al Qaeda.
A senior US intelligence official is quoted as saying: "The soldiers were members of Hamas. But the overall planning, the way the ship's container was prepared, the weapons used and the level of advance intelligence invested in the attack all bear the marks of the two Islamic terrorist groups. We can expect many more combined terrorist assaults of this kind in the future."
The Ashdod attack posed a grave challenge to the Sharon government's security and counter-terror policies. Last December, before handing over a large number of prisoners in an uneven swap deal with Hizballah, Israel issued a sharp public warning to the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group against further aggression.
Less than three months later, the Hizballah, not satisfied with the Ashdod operation, battered IDF for nearly three hours last Sunday, March 21, its missiles and mortars hitting road junctions on the Golan and coming close to the town of Kiryat Shmoneh inside the Green Line. Israel's response, confined to an air-artillery raid on Hizballah firing positions, bespoke diluted deterrence, a signal certainly picked up by Hizballah and al Qaeda as well as the Hamas and its fellow Palestinian terrorist organizations.
Many Israelis, including some at decision-making levels, prefer not to see the international terrorist coalition functioning in Palestinian-controlled territory - and even among Israeli Arabs in the form of Al Qaeda sleeper cells. The phenomenon is not even new. Al Qaeda shoe bomber Richard Reid who failed to blow up an American airliner on December 22, 2001, learned how to pack explosives in his shoes while visiting Hamas activist Nabil Aqal at his home in the Jebaliya refugee camp of the Gaza Strip. This fact was not brought out in the US court that sentenced him to life imprisonment. Israel too kept quiet about this connection, mainly so as not to embarrass Mohammed Dahlan, then head of the Palestinian Gaza Strip preventive security apparatus, who could not have avoided knowing about the al Qaeda visitor.
He was not the last, the two British Muslim bombers, Assif Muhammad Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif, who bombed Mike's Place on the Tel Aviv promenade on April 30, 2003, also spent time with Hamas hosts in the Gaza Strip prior to their hit. Their real assignment was to bomb the US embassy a few doors away from the bar but they found it too well protected. American, British and Israeli security forces have conspired to keep this quiet. But, unlike the Israelis, who bury their heads in the sand, the British heeded the Tel Aviv attack as a danger signal warning them that al Qaeda had planted cells in Briton's large Muslim population. Since the Madrid train attacks, London's top security and police officials have reiterated that an al Qaeda strike in the British capital is inevitable.
Clearing the Decks for Jimmy
FROM DEBKA-Net-Weekly 150 Updated by DEBKAfile
March 26, 2004, 3:55 PM (GMT+02:00)
The process of selecting Gemal Jimmy Mubarak to succeed his 76-year old father as Egyptian president is nearly over, notwithstanding Mubarak Sr.'s denials. A book just out in Cairo, "Gemal Mubarak - Revival of National Liberalism," performs an excellent PR job on the incoming president. The book, clearly written to order by Gahad Awda, a member of the ruling party's central committee, introduces young Mubarak's political agenda and his vision for the future of his country.
Much less glossy reading matter was handed to President Hosni Mubarak earlier this month. It was put in his hands, gift-wrapped as a special package, ahead of his trip to Washington next month.
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On May 19, DEBKA-Net-Weekly revealed its contents: a large stack of Iraqi intelligence documents that US forces seized in Baghdad and which expose the deep penetration of the Mubarak regime achieved by the deposed Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein.
After opening his gift, Mubarak called an emergency session in the presidential palace of his key advisers, intelligence chiefs led by General Omar Suleiman and top military and police commanders.
The documents spelled out in detail how Farhan Hassan, Iraq's deputy ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo, turned his office into a center of espionage and recruiting post for Iraqi agents in Egypt, the United States and the Gulf.
At the end of the meeting, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly 's intelligence sources, Mubarak ordered his security forces to start rounding up all the Egyptians listed in the documents as agents of Hassan's Iraqi network. Some 120 people were picked in the first wave.
The package also contained Hassan's reports to Baghdad. Under the codename "Number 3" attested to his ranking in the Iraqi hierarchy, he filed directly to Saddam Hussein.
Number 3 described in detail how he bought the loyalty of "several prominent Egyptian journalists", among them popular columnist Sayid Nasser, who were willing to publish articles shooting Saddam's propaganda line. One report outlined Hassan's steps for the recruitment of Shuwaike Abu Zayad, the wife of one of Egypt's top diplomats. She passed to Number 3 all the Egyptian foreign ministry's top-secret cables and documents.
As expectations of a US invasion of Iraq mounted in 2002, Mrs. Abu Zayad handed the Iraqis the ministry's secret computer codes. Iraqi intelligence then tapped in from Baghdad and downloaded document after document, including the secrets of US-Egyptian military cooperation and transcripts of conversations between Mubarak and the past and present US defense secretaries, William Cohen and Donald Rumsfeld. The Iraqis also read all the secret reports and documents pertaining to the annual US-Egyptian "Bright Star" military maneuvers.
Number 3 was particular fond of boasting to Saddam that he had recruited about 20 Egyptian generals who had been transferred to the reserves and farmed out to administrative jobs in Egypt's military industries. They positively gushed with information on their former units and new jobs.
Hassan also enlisted engineers, industrialists and doctors, some of them personal physicians to Egypt's senior military officers and political leaders. Saddam placed extremely high value on information on the health of top Egyptians.
Number 3 performed many more services for his master in Baghdad. They included:
1. Thwarting special operations mounted by the Iraqi opposition in Washington and London. In the US capital, according to one of the documents, Hassan recruited Najib Salhi, an Iraqi general and former commander of Iraq's 4th Division who defected to the United States. The general's people collected information in Washington on the activities of Iraqi opposition figures, including Mohammed Chalabi, now a senior member of the Iraqi Governing Council.
2. Using Iraq's Arab League office in Cairo to recruit agents from Eastern Europe. The documents are chock full of the names of Russian and Czech diplomats who served Iraqi intelligence. Number 3 was able to pass along to Baghdad volumes of secret cables and military reports that Moscow sent to or received from its embassies in the Middle East and Gulf.
3. Running a large number of import-export companies registered in Cairo. They were used as fronts for information, goods and money sought by Iraq.
4. Overseeing operations at the Qatar-based al-Jazeera, the biggest and most influential Arab satellite television in the world. Hassan got first look at intelligence gathered by the station and paid its staffers to tout the Iraqi line. This operation was a great success. Hassan's people managed to enlist the services of Faisal al-Qassam, one of the station's best-known broadcasters. Qassam, a Syrian, edits and moderates al Jazeera's popular daily phone-in show, "Counterpoint". Only a few of the dozens of callers who telephone from across the Arab world to discuss current events get on the air. But before every show, Number 3 or one of his minions decided with Qassam on the issue to be discussed and handed him a list of viewers who would call in with the questions they would ask. Those viewers were, of course, Iraqi intelligence agents from across the Arab world who read out the questions dictated from Baghdad.
The Egyptian regime therefore has its hands full rolling up Hassan's pro-Saddam network. It is waiting for a second stack of secret Iraqi files to come in from Washington. The president will then be able to finish a thorough clearing-out in time to hand a sparkling clean administration over to his successor
Riyadh Spurns Powell on Detained Reformists
DEBKAfile Special Report
March 22, 2004, 8:47 AM (GMT+02:00)
US-Saudi relations, uneven since 9/11, have hit a new low over a fresh bone of contention: a sharply-worded protest from Washington against the continued detention of 16 Saudi reform campaigners, half of them university professors and including a number of Shiite spokesmen. Their immediate release was demanded.
DEBKAfile's Washington and Middle East sources describe this action as the first direct protest to an Arab nation in the framework of President George W. Bush's initiative for spreading democratic reforms throughout the Greater Middle East. The protest was in effect an American jog to the Saudi elbow to speed up change.
Riyadh's response was furious enough to have Secretary of State Colin Powell make an unscheduled detour after Islamabad and Baghdad and turn up in Riyadh Friday, March 19. Crown Prince Abdullah greeted him with the angry statement that the arrests were an internal affair. The interview ended in acrimony - in diplomatic parlance "a candid and open debate."
According to our sources, the Saudis are willing to release the campaigners, who demand that Saudi Arabia's absolute monarchy move towards a more constitutional model, only if they sign a pledge to stay out of politics. This they refuse to do.
In the background, DEBKAfile's Cairo sources report, the 22-nation Arab League is tensely engaged in trying to agree on a plan for adoption by the March 29 Arab summit as a riposte to the US Greater Middle East Initiative. The American protest to Saudi Arabia landed in the middle of these preparations with a disturbing thump. Until then, Arab rulers had regarded the Bush democracy initiative as a long-term project to be filtered through in easy stages with enough time for argument and debate along the way. Suddenly it was hanging over their heads.
The Bush administration is also speeding up its action to punish Damascus.
Empowered by recent legislation, President Bush looks as though he is only days away from slapping sanctions down on Syria for sponsoring terrorism, occupying Lebanon, failing to stop anti-American fighters entering Iraq and maintaining chemical and biological weapons programs. Congressional sources list the sanctions expected to unfold in stages as a ban on Syrian aircraft from the United States, prohibition of American energy companies from making future investments in Syria and a block on transactions in Syrian government-owned property - to name a few.
Furthermore, Free Syria Radio takes to the air on March 31 from a US-financed station in Cyprus, two days after the Arab summit opens in Tunis.
These moves are aimed, according to our Washington sources, at breaking up the united Arab front attempting to formulate an agreed plan to combat the Greater Middle East Initiative before it takes off. This front, spearheaded by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Crown Prince Abdullah, now faces a direct challenge ahead of the Arab summit: come to terms with democratic reform as a living process already in motion or else risk a direct showdown with the Bush administration. They do not need to be reminded of the changes in Iraq exactly one year after the US invasion
Tories can kill off the European Constitution
The Prime Minister yesterday reported back to Parliament on last week's EU summit in Brussels. In doing so he signalled the return of the European Constitution to the heart of British political debate.
Not that Tony Blair is seriously interested in consulting public opinion. His view is that this is an arcane document of no fundamental importance, which consolidates older EU treaties but otherwise adds little to the long-established ascendancy of European over British law. In the Commons, Mr Blair ridiculed the Conservative critique as alarmist exaggeration, implying that not much would change.
In reality, the draft constitution would have incalculable consequences. Superimposed on our own unwritten set of conventions, it would inaugurate an organic and inexorable process of centralisation, leading to the atrophy of the nation state and the hypertrophy of the superstate.
The constitution would not merely circumscribe, but abdicate parliamentary sovereignty - and in perpetuity. It is the Trojan horse whereby the last citadel of independence could be subverted from within. Because the new constitution is established by a treaty, it still requires ratification. Once the constitution creates Europe as a legal entity, treaties and ratification - the badges of sovereignty - would be consigned to the dustbin of history.
The best form of ratification would be a referendum. There is a strong and popular case for it, but so far Mr Blair has remained unmoved. Yesterday Downing Street dismissed the notion with a "No!" emphatic enough for a Thatcher or a de Gaulle. Given such authoritarian intransigence, it is imperative for the democratic Opposition (Liberal as well as Tory) to have a plan B, a way of testing public opinion, just in case Labour refuses to hold a referendum that it would probably lose.
The next best opportunity is the European elections in June, which might, with an energetic campaign, be turned into a de facto referendum. But an election in which most people normally abstain and in which other issues are bound to figure will not be easy to focus on so abstract a proposition as the constitution.
Even so, there is an opportunity here for Michael Howard. By exposing the hollowness of the pretence that Britain's first ever written constitution is merely a tidying-up exercise, the Tories ought to be able to denounce both the constitution itself and Mr Blair's duplicity, too. The House of Lords could do its part to prevent the ratification of the constitution without a prior referendum.
The constitution still has many hurdles to surmount, but even the best efforts of the Opposition may fail to halt the juggernaut before the next election. The country deserves a clear choice. Labour stands for a system in which European policies on asylum and immigration, taxation and justice, defence and foreign affairs would slowly but surely replace distinctively British ones. What would the Tories do if the constitution were a fait accompli?
A promise to "renegotiate" the constitution is not enough. Mr Howard needs to spell out precisely how he would reverse this inglorious revolution.
Posted by maximpost at 2:09 PM EST