by Chris Ames
In February, I made a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request to the Cabinet Office concerning the Inquiry, specifically the statement in chairman John Chilcot’s July 2012 letter to David Cameron that the Inquiry would not “publish further information piecemeal and in advance of its report”, ie that it had decided to sit on large numbers of documents that it had been given permission to publish. My request asked the Cabinet Office what those documents were.
As I have previously documented on this site, the government has constantly used the Inquiry to to kick the issue of Iraq into the long grass, hiding behind the eventual publication of the Inquiry’s long overdue report. Also in February, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas asked Cameron to identify those documents whose declassification remained in dispute, including the dates of the declassification requests. Referring to Chilcot’s letter, Cameron said that he did not intend to undermine Chilcot’s intention “by publishing details of the incomplete declassification process.”
Unsurprisingly therefore, the Cabinet Office used an FOI exemption to block my request. It cited Section 22 of the FOI Act, claiming that all of the information I requested was intended for future publication. If this had been true, it would have been quite a development, given that it implied an intention on the part of the Inquiry to identify every declassified document, including those that it decided not to publish in full or at all, and the date of declassification in each case. Obviously, being the Cabinet Office, it was not true. They were making it up.
To establish the truth of the matter, I contacted the Inquiry, which has been very helpful. The Inquiry’s deputy secretary has told me that
Information such as author, recipient and title would be redacted from a [published] document if the information they contained fell to be removed under the terms of Protocol agreed between the Inquiry and the government.
That really should be the end of the matter, given that I asked for the identities of the documents, rather than their contents, to be disclosed. In its guidance on Section 22 the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) makes clear that you can’t cite it in relation to a batch of information unless there is an intention to publish all of that information.
The Inquiry also told me that:
It is not the Inquiry’s intention to publish the dates on which documents were cleared for publication.
This is not surprising; it would be surprising if the Inquiry did intend to publish this information. But in the context of my FOI request, which directly asked which documents had been published at a particular point in time, it makes clear that there is no intention to publish this information and the Cabinet Office’s claim that such an intention exists is entirely made up.
In addition, although the Inquiry told me that:
When the Inquiry seeks permission to publish material, is it with the intention of publishing it in or alongside its final report.
which again is a statement of the obvious, it also told me that the material to be published “continues to evolve as the report is written”. I remain unclear as to whether all declassified documents will be published, or only those that support the narrative that the Inquiry constructs.
It’s worth returning here to Cameron’s response to Lucas. He set out a clear intention on the part of the government to throw a veil of secrecy over the delassification process, so as not to undermine Chilcot’s intention to withhold evidence that could be published now. It’s clear that his civil servants are similarly seeking to protect the Inquiry from legitimate scrutiny, even if it leaves the very civil servants responsibile for transparency making things up. Fortunately the Inquiry is being a bit more open.
I’ve already made a complaint to the ICO about the Cabinet Office’s spurious use of this particular FOI exemption. The problem is that they are likely to win in the end by stalling publication of the list of documents being withheld by the Inquiry until it is far less relevant. That’s how government departments play the FOI game.
by Chris Ames
The Guardian’s Ian Cobain reports that:
The UK has faced tough questions this week from a UN panel closely scrutinising the UK’s human rights record, following a series of disclosures about involvement in so-called extraordinary rendition and torture in the years following the 9/11 attacks.
Over two days in Geneva, the UK delegation went before the UN committee which monitors the implementation of the international convention against torture to face hundreds of questions covering a range of issues including: complicity in abusive interrogation; renditions to Libya; the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq; and the stalled official British inquiry into the treatment of terrorism suspects.
After posing a series of questions about the killing of Baha Mousa and the mistreatment of individuals detained by the British army in Iraq, Xuexian Wang, a Chinese diplomat, complained loudly that while the UK delegation’s responses were being “given in beautiful English”, they seemed “almost to be non-answers”.
These are of course issues that the Iraq Inquiry has avoided looking at while the government avoids looking too carefully at them through other inquiries. The reference in the article to a stalled inquiry links to “The Detainee Inquiry“. The website for that Inquiry does say on its FAQ page that:
We will not exclude any rendition case because it started with the military, as opposed to the intelligence agencies. This will therefore include the cases of two detainees captured by UK forces in Iraq, handed over to the Americans, and then subsequently subjected to rendition to Afghanistan in 2004, as well as any other allegations of the awareness of or involvement in mistreatment or rendition by UK personnel whether they are military or civilian.
That Inquiry was wound up last year and a report on its work so far given to David Cameron. As Cobain noted last month:
An official report into Britain’s involvement in rendition and torture since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US has yet to be published more than nine months after it was completed and delivered to David Cameron.
According to Cobain’s article, a police inquiry into rendition to Libya is only part of the reason for the delay:
David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has said that was only one reason for the decision.
“Part of it was a dispute over the question over who should have the word on disclosure,” he said. “Should that be the security services or should that be the chair of the inquiry? And it was partly that the police decided that it wanted to investigate with a view to some criminal prosecutions, and that in the end was the reason given for the inquiry being put off.”
Under the terms on which the inquiry was established, the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and not Gibson, will have the final say on which sections of the report will be censored before publication. The Cabinet Office has declined to say whether material may be censored in order to protect the reputations of the UK’s intelligence agencies.
As this suggests, and as the Detainee Inquiry itself acknowledges, these arrangements are based on those of the Iraq Inquiry. There are slightly fewer reasons for blocking disclosure but, with the cabinet secretary having the final say, including on the question of whether a valid reason for blocking disclosure exists, the difference is perhaps academic.
From non-answers to delays and disputes over disclosure, the British establishment does have a way of obstructing inquiries. Of course an establishment inquiry like the Iraq Inquiry is far too polite too complain over non-answers.
by Chris Ames
The suggestion that the Syrian opposition, as well as the Syrian government itself, may have used chemical weapons continues to provide an interesting lens through which to consider the concepts of evidence, proof and indeed belief when it comes to intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
There has been some fairly inept reporting of recent suggestions regarding the Syrian Opposition, including this one from the BBC a couple of days ago
UN commission downplays claim Syria rebels used sarin
The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria has sought to distance itself from comments made by one of its members that there was evidence of the nerve agent sarin being used by rebels.
Carla Del Ponte said testimony from victims and doctors had given rise to “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof”.
But the commission stressed that it had not reached any “conclusive findings”.
So Carla Del Ponte says there are “concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof” and the UN Commission of Inquiry somehow distances itself from her by stressing that it had not yet reached any “conclusive findings”.
Ironically, there is an equally inept critique of the BBC story on the News Unspun website:
The BBC, reporting on the various suggestions that the rebels or regime have used chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, report incorrectly that ‘evidence that government forces have used chemical weapons’ has been found by western governments. In reality, what western governments have found, according to David Cameron, is ‘limited, but growing‘ evidence – clearly not conclusive evidence.
Such reporting can easily mislead readers – a correct report may have referred to evidence that government forces may have used chemical weapons.
Whoever wrote this article doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of evidence or its usage and seems to have confused the concept with proof. Evidence that something has happened does not have to be conclusive to be described in this way. It is still evidence, even if it is not conclusive. There is no need to double-qualify such a statement by saying that it is evidence that something may have happened.
Given the extensive confusion about the meanings of these words, it’s not surprising that there remains so much scope for confusion and misrepresentation about Iraq. Leaving aside Tony Blair’s unjustified expressions of certainty, the former prime minister continues to misrepresent the views of other leaders on the WMD issue before the war. Here he is writing in The Sun a couple of months ago:
the view that he had a WMD programme was held not just by the intelligence services in the UK and US but in countries which opposed military action.
by Chris Ames
The situation in Syria and allegations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons has brought inevitable comparisons with Iraq, with the obvious suggestion that Western governments are more reluctant as a result both to make intelligence-based claims about weapons of mass destruction and to intervene militarily on the basis of such claims.
In this BBC report from last week, David Cameron deliberately chose his words carefully with regard to the allegations and accepted the comparison with Iraq:
The prime minister then addressed concerns about the quality of the UK’s intelligence and fears that unreliable evidence could again be used as a justification for the West to become involved in a Middle Eastern conflict.
He said: “I would want to reassure people and say the lessons of Iraq have been learned.
“There are proper processes in place to try and make sure that what people say is properly backed up by the information.
In the context of the Inquiry and the government’s ridiculous refusal to say anything about Iraq or even allow a debate until the Inquiry’s report is published, these comments are significant for two reasons.
Firstly, it is notable that Cameron, as other ministers have said before, claims that the lessons (ie all of them) of Iraq have been learned. Given that the purpose of the Inquiry is said to be “to identify lessons that can be learned from the Iraq conflict”, it is not clear what the purpose of the Inquiry is now.
Secondly, Cameron’s point that “There are proper processes in place to try and make sure that what people say is properly backed up by the information”, implies very strongly that what happened over Iraq was that people said things that weren’t backed up by the information. The phrase “the information” is a bit ambiguous here. With Iraq you can identify the flimsy and “limited” intelligence, the assessments made by the intelligence experts on the basis of that intelligence, and the claims made by politicians as to what that intelligence showed. But Cameron is very clearly talking about what is said publicly and the difference between that and the intelligence and/or intelligence assessemnts.
Interestingly, the BBC’s Gordon Corera doesn’t need to wait for the Inquiry report either:
With Iraq a decision had been made to go to war and the intelligence was brought into the public domain to make the case for it.
By Chris Ames
The BBC reports that:
Peers have called for a speedy conclusion to the Iraq Inquiry amid growing dissatisfaction with the length of time it is taking to report.
Former Conservative Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd called on ministers to “inject some urgency” into proceedings.
Labour peer Lord Morris called for a “time limit” on inquiries while Lib Dem Baroness Williams said lessons would be less relevant with the passage of time.
The story also contains an interesting exchange on the suggestion that government intransigence over the “declassification” of documents is partly responsible for the delay.
Cross-bench peer Lord Butler, who conducted his own inquiry in 2004 into the intelligence used to justify the decision to go to war, said Chilcot’s terms of reference were “so wide as to be almost infinite”.
“The timing of the publication of the report depends not just on the handling of the representations but the government’s own clearance of what is to be included in the report. Will he undertake that this process will be done as quickly as the government can manage?”
Lord Hill said the Chilcot inquiry had made it clear that the process of de-classification was “working well” and the government would co-operate as fully as it could to “expedite the process of de-classification”.
by Chris Ames
When putting together the previous post linking to a blog piece on the legality of the war from Nigel D. White, Professor of Public International Law at the University of Nottingham, I realised that Professor White had made a submission to the Inquiry in response to the Inquiry’s invitation in 2010.
Professor White has now kindly made his submission available for publication on the Digest. I have added it to the page that lists (I think) all the submissions that have so far been published. The Inquiry has not published these submissions itself.
by Chris Ames
On the Oxford University Press’s Law and Politics blog, Nigel D. White, Professor of Public International Law at the University of Nottingham, has a piece entitled “Lessons from Iraq 10 years on“, which looks at the implications for international law, diplomacy and intervention of both the Iraq was and the Western intervention in Syria.
Ten years after the capture of Baghdad on 5 April 2003 by US troops, following an invasion of Iraq by US and UK forces, we are still awaiting the outcome of the Chilcot Inquiry which was set up by the government of Gordon Brown in 2009. The report has been delayed at least until the end of 2013 due to the reluctance of the government to release key documents, but the outcome as regards the illegality of the invasion should not be in doubt.
White then discusses the 2011 Western intervention in Libya as a further case where a UN resolution that Security Council permanent members China and Russia had been persuaded to sign up to “was subject to greater and greater demands placed upon it, stretching the Resolution beyond its meaning and contrary to the collective understanding of that resolution.” His account of the result of all this is interesting, given Tony Blair’s recent comments about Syria:
What started out in appearance at least, as an application of the emerging R2P [responsibility to protect] doctrine to protect civilians in Libya based on a clear Security Council mandate, was within a few weeks heading towards another instance of illegal regime change as in Iraq in 2003, with all the problems that entailed. Unfortunately, the unwillingness of those permanent members using force in Libya (UK and France with the assistance of the US) to learn all the lessons of Iraq, by abusing the mandate given to them, has meant that those permanent members that normally advocate non-intervention (Russia and China) have a reason to block any move towards a resolution that authorises necessary measures, or indeed, remembering Iraq, any resolution that might be so construed. The temporary coming together of the permanent membership in March 2011 has proved to be the exception as the people of Syria know to their cost.
by Andrew Mason
* With apologies to Roger Waters/Pink Floyd
Saddam must go. His continued survival after comprehensively losing the Gulf War has done untold damage to the West’s standing in a region where the only unforgivable sin is weakness. His flouting of the terms on which hostilities ceased has made a laughingstock of the international community. His appalling mistreatment of his own countrymen continues unabated. It is clear to anyone willing to face reality that the only reason Saddam took the risk of refusing to submit his activities to U.N. inspectors was that he is exerting every muscle to build WMD. We do not know exactly what stage that has reached. But to allow this process to continue because the risks of action to arrest it seem too great would be foolish in the extreme.
Margaret Thatcher – July 17, 2002 – from her Wall Street Journal op-ed – Don’t Go Wobbly
by Chris Ames
In the ongoing debate in Australia about whether there should be an inquiry into that country’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, former PM John Howard is to make a speech defending his actions. A version of the speech is online on theaustralian.com website, with the predictable title Errors were made but we did not go to war on a lie.
The gist of Howard’s defence is this passage:
After the fall of Saddam, and when it became apparent that stockpiles of WMDs had not been found in Iraq, it was all too easy for certain people, who only months earlier has said Iraq had the weapons, to begin claiming that Australia had gone to war based on a lie.
That claim merits the most emphatic rejection. Not only does it impugn the integrity of the decision-making process at the highest level but also the professionalism and integrity of intelligence agencies here and elsewhere.
Some of their key assessments proved to be wrong, but that is a world away from those assessments being the product of deceit and/or political manipulation.
Intelligence assessments never produce evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. To illustrate, in his book The Finish, which deals with the killing of Osama bin Laden, Mark Bowden quotes CIA deputy director Michael Morell telling Barack Obama that he had spent a lot of time on both WMDs and the tracing of bin Laden to Abbottabad, “and I am telling you the case for WMDs wasn’t just stronger, it was much stronger”.
I’m not by any means familiar with what Howard’s government said about the certainty with which intelligence was said to show that Iraq had WMD but his line that “Intelligence assessments never produce evidence beyond a reasonable doubt” is a real shot somewhere painful for Tony Blair. Blair’s assertion in the September 2002 dossier that “assessed intelligence” had “established beyond doubt” that Iraq had WMD came in for criticism early in the Inquiry’s hearings from Sir John Chilcot, who said that the Butler review, of which he had been a member, “came to a view that it was not a statement it was possible to make on the basis of intelligence”.
The question that comes to mind is not so much why Howard believed this as a general rule while Blair didn’t, but why no-one told Blair that it wasn’t true in relation to Iraq, if indeed no-one did. When the issue was raised at JIC chairman John Scarlett’s first appearance at the Inquiry, Scarlett seemed to dodge the the issue, which wasn’t put to him directly anyway:
I’m not able to completely reconstruct the thought process, but my memory at the time quite clearly was this was something which was the Prime Minister’s and it was going out under his signature. So it was different from the attention that I paid to the wording of the dossier.
It’s worth recalling here that the main function of the JIC chairman is to make sure that ministers and the prime minister in particular have a good understanding of intelligence. Scarlett seems to be implying that he didn’t really notice what Blair was saying sufficiently to correct him, either for the sake of being accurate in public statements or so that he didn’t base his policy on a complete misconception. It says a lot about the Inquiry that this point wasn’t pressed. But then it says a lot about the Inquiry that Scarlett was never asked about his comment in March 2002 that having a dossier about Iraq only, as opposed to four countries with WMD programmes of concern, would have “the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD Iraq is not that exceptional”. Once you know that Scarlett said that, you know that from the outset he was happy for the dossier to mislead people about Iraq’s WMD.
by Chris Ames
The story in today’s Independent on Sunday, Tony Blair and Iraq: The damning evidence is another one of those where it’s very difficult to know what is new and what isn’t. The main gist of the story, that
Hitherto unseen evidence given to the Chilcot Inquiry by British intelligence has revealed that former prime minister Tony Blair was told that Iraq had, at most, only a trivial amount of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that Libya was in this respect a far greater threat.
is based on transcripts that have been on the Inquiry website for a long time and have been discussed on this website and elsewhere. In this piece in the Guardian Ian Black names witness SIS4 as Sir Mark Allen. Strangely, the Indy story does not identify SIS4, although it says that:
“Chilcot has the full story and it’s a very complex one,” a former senior MI6 officer, who would not be named, told The IoS.
The story also says of the Inquiry’s report that:
“This report will be absolutely damning on Blair’s style of government, the decision-making process and the planning and execution for its aftermath,” said a source close to the inquiry, speaking before the 10th anniversary on Tuesday of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue.