Inquiry to publish Scarlett “nuggets of gold” email

by Chris Ames

First the good news. The Cabinet Office has told me that the Inquiry will publish the notorious email that the then Joint Intelligence Committee chairman, John Scarlett, sent the head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) as it failed to find weapons of mass destruction in post-invasion Iraq.

But the bad news is that the Cabinet Office has used this as an excuse not to release (most of) the email under the Freedom of Information Act, even though it knows (and has been told by the Information Commissioner) that it cannot use this excuse, given that the intention to publish followed by FOI request.

As Digest contributor Rod Barton sets out here, Scarlett’s email in March 2004 was an attempt to sex up the ISG’s Status Report, to cover the UK government’s embarrassment.

If it doesn’t get lost in the rest of the report, disclosure of the Scarlett email will be a major scandal, albeit that Scarlett is likely to get a lot of stick for the government’s misuse of shaky intelligence in the September 2002 Iraq dossier and has already been discredited for trying to sex up the dossier the first time round.

The Cabinet Office should be given credit for admitting that some of the exemptions that it applied, relating to national security and international relations, cannot be applied over a decade on, although it says that the FOI Act Section 23 exemption relating to security bodies still applies to some information.

That isn’t stopping the Inquiry publishing the full memo. However, the Cabinet Office says that a “subsequent” request from the Inquiry, to which it agreed, means that the document is “therefore exempt under s22” of the Act.

More bizarrely, the Information Commissioner has gone further than the Cabinet Office in assessing that the whole document is exempt under s23.

The Information Commissioner: finding new ways to restrict the public’s access to information.


Preparing to debate the report

By Chris Ames

The Guardian reports that:

The Liberal Democrats, who opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, will try to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from dominating the anti-war side of the argument in the wake of publication of the Chilcot report next month by calling for a two-day Commons debate about the inquiry.

As it’s Patrick Wintour, there is more from Tony Blair’s supporters.

Behind the scenes in the Labour party, efforts are under way to reconcile Tony Blair’s determination to defend his decision to go to war with Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding view that the war was illegal. Some senior shadow cabinet figures are trying to broker a compromise that allows both Blair and Corbyn to state their strongly held positions without starting a political civil war.

And, somewhat bizarrely, Wintour adds:

It is expected that the report will be extremely critical of the role of the then head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, and will examine claims that he became too close to Blair and too eager to believe intelligence that Saddam Hussein retained chemical weapons capability. Dearlove has defended himself by arguing that many senior figures in the Saddam regime believed it retained weapons of mass destruction.

It’s not clear where this fits into the story and whether it’s new information or a random piece of speculation.

 


The Chilcot Report – An end to smoke and mirrors?

Piers Robinson

​​​Of the many issues that the Inquiry is expected to report on, the issue of deception and its role in paving the road to war in Iraq is the most longstanding and controversial.

Shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Andrew Gilligan reported suggestions by the UK’s leading biological weapons expert, Dr David Kelly, that intelligence had been manipulated for political purposes.

Across the Atlantic, Ambassador Joseph Wilson made similar claims regarding the US government. Since then the idea that people were deceived or lied to by the Bush and Blair administrations in order to mobilise support for war has been widespread and persistent.

This should be of little surprise. The multiple and changing justifications for war, coupled with the failure to find any usable weapons of mass destruction (WMD) within Iraq, has led perhaps most of the British and American public to believe they were misled.

Moreover, democracies are not supposed to go to war based on lies and, in legal terms, unprovoked aggression is a most serious crime. The casualty toll from the Iraq war and its aftermath is horrific with some estimates putting the number of dead around the million mark. The stakes are very high. Readmore..


Blair’s unbelievable arrogance

by Chris Ames

When Tony Blair was in power, he had people like Alastair Campbell in No 10 and people like the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour to spin for him. It’s no surprise that he turns to Wintour now to help spin his defence.

When Wintour claims in the Guardian that:

Tony Blair is expected to defend his decision to join in the invasion of Iraq by asking his critics to think through the consequences for stability in the Middle East had Saddam Hussein been left in power, capable of developing weapons of mass destruction.

In the wake of the publication of the Chilcot inquiry report, friends of the former prime minister believe he will argue that the ultimate cause of the long-term bloodshed in Iraq was the scale of external intervention in the country by Iran and al-Qaida rather than failures in post-conflict planning.

neither of them are fooling any of us. It is Blair who is spinning.

In inviting us to look at the consequences of leaving Saddam in power, he conveniently forgets that he said:

I detest his regime – but even now he could save it by complying with the UN’s demands.

Astonishingly, Blair also seems to want to tell us what lessons we should be learning.

What I think is a shame is that the Inquiry didn’t ask Blair along a couple of times to make his case ad nauseam and perhaps send him its findings in advance to he could argue with them.

 



Ministers ordered to disclose advice to Brown on setting up inquiry

by Chris Ames

Digest contributor Chris Lamb has won – for now – his Freedom of Information battle to force the Cabinet Office to disclose “candid” advice from top civil servants to Brown about setting up the inquiry, despite claims that this could undermine the inquiry before it publishes its report.

But the Cabinet Office has delayed release of the advice by indicating that it intends to appeal against the ruling by the information tribunal.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is likely to have provided some of the advice and could well be behind the move to suppress it.

He was in charge of the Downing Street machine under Brown and was principal private secretary to Blair in the run-up to the invasion.

The papers, which date back to the setting up of the inquiry in 2009, could show why the inquiry was set up with limited powers and why it has taken so long.

For example, the Inquiry’s report is not expected to reach any conclusion on the legality of the invasion, having been set up by Brown when he was prime minister as a ‘lessons learned’ inquiry by privy councillors, rather than a judge-led inquiry.

In a unanimous ruling, the tribunal overturned an earlier decision by the Information Commissioner, who had backed the Cabinet Office’s refusal to disclose the advice .

To be allowed to appeal, the Cabinet Office will need to show that it is contesting a point of law. Given the strength of the ruling against it, this cannot be taken for granted. In the meantime, the tribunal judge has suspended the order to disclose the information.

According to the Commissioner, the secret advice to Brown consists of “a detailed and candid examination of the various issues and options associated with the establishment of the Inquiry”.

The Cabinet Office argued that disclosing the advice would have a “chilling effect” on officials in future. The Commissioner agreed that these arguments “attract particular weight given the high profile and potentially controversial nature of the subject matter and the level at which such advice was provided and discussed, being the highest level in government”.

Having seen the documents, the Commissioner accepted “that there is some merit in the Cabinet Office’s argument that disclosure of the withheld information could undermine the Inquiry itself”.

But the tribunal rejected these claims, pointing out that it is “precisely at the highest levels of the Civil Service that the public expects to find the highest standards of official behaviour, including robustness in giving a Prime Minister the best possible advice, candid though it may need to be”.

Setting out the tribunal’s decision, Judge Peter Lane wrote that the documents would be seen as “precisely the kind of high-quality and frank advice, which the public would expect the Prime Minister to be given”, and rejected any suggestion that publication might preclude or impede the inquiry from finishing its report.

The decision notice revealed that the tribunal had provided further assessment of the documents in a confidential annex, sent only to the Cabinet Office and the Commissioner.

The tribunal concluded that there is a “very strong public interest in understanding how the Inquiry came to be created and why a privy councillor-led panel was chosen”.


Situation normal – shambles

by Chris Ames

The “independent” Inquiry seems to have negotiated another public relations shambles, having suggested that the families of dead servicemen wold have to pay £767 for a copy of the report, albeit that they would get a free copy of the executive summary, otherwise £30.

It’s not clear whether it was the Inquiry that had made this call, independent of the government as it nominally is, or the Cabinet Office. But the situation was soon resolved:

Number 10 said: “There is no question of families of service personnel who died in Iraq having to pay for copies of the Chilcot report.”

Move along, nothing to see.

 


Blair and Rentoul insult our intelligence

by Chris Ames

Yesterday on the Andrew Marr show, Tony Blair hinted that he may have the arrogance to reject the Inquiry’s verdict if it accuses him of making a secret deal with George W Bush to overthrow Saddam – while pretending to be seeking a resolution, peaceful if possible, of the issue of Iraq’s WMD.

Blair said:

I don’t think anyone can seriously dispute I was making it clear what my position was.

This has echoes of something the Blair apologist John Rentoul said last week, while accusing Jeremy Corbyn of “weasel words”:

It was not a secret that Blair supported Bush in confronting Saddam Hussein, by force if necessary.

After all these years, Rentoul – and presumably Blair – think they can still bridge the gap between seeking regime change and what Blair said he was doing by using the phrase “confronting Saddam Hussein, by force if necessary”.

But of course, Blair is being accused of a policy of confrontiing Saddam Hussein, by force if that’s what Bush decided. As Blair pointed out in the Inquiry, the March 2002 Iraq Options paper, which will be published next month,

really said two things. It said you can either go for containment. We can’t guarantee that that’s successful. He will probably continue to develop his programmes and be a threat, but nonetheless that is one option. The other option is regime change.

The Options paper sets out the option of toughening containment in almost the same terms as the policy that Blair set out very clearly – confronting Saddam, by force if necessary. The option of regime change is the policy he is accused of pursuing in secret – setting out to use WMD as a pretext for overthrowing Saddam.

It insults everyone’s intelligence to pretend that the two can ever be merged back together.

 

 


No decisions were taken in the aftermath of 9/11

by Chris Ames

I think Tony Blair’s latest attempt at pre-emptive spinning, as covered briefly in my earlier post today, deserves a little bit more analysis, as it includes a shift of approach and an insight into what he will say when the report comes out.

As has been pointed out, it’s quite unfair and unsatisfactory for the people who have been criticised to know long in advance what will be said and to have an opportunity to spin while everyone else waits.

Having said that, it’s fairly clear that Blair will be criticised for claiming to be seeking a resolution to the alleged problem of Iraq’s WMD while secretly plotting to overthrow Saddam, if that’s what George Bush decided. Even before the latest leaks, the publication of the Downing Street documents gives Chilcot nowhere else to go.

So, just to repeat what Blair said this week:

“I have a real humility about the decisions that I took and the issues around them,” he said.

“I was trying to deal with this in the aftermath of 9/11 and it was very tough, it was very difficult. I think it’s important that we also have humility then about the next phase of policy making, so we try and actually learn the lessons of the whole period since that time.”

Blair is here referring to “the aftermath of 9/11, which would appear to be a reference to late 2001 and early 2002. But no decisions were taken in that period we were told, again and again.

He seems to have missed the point: he will be criticised for making a decision and lying about it. Saying that any decisions he took “in the aftermath of 9/11” have to be seen in that context doesn’t excuse the lying, however much humility Blair claims to feel.


While we are waiting…

by Chris Ames

Into the gap created by the ludicrously protracted process of publishing the report after the EU referendum come a play, a book and, of course, some more meaningless spin from Tony Blair.

Richard Norton-Taylor (with others) has done another of his verbatim plays, “Chilcot” edited down from the Inquiry evidence. It’s finishing a short run in Manchester tonight and then the Battersea Arts Centre in London from 1-10 June. Richard writes about it here.

As mentioned previously, Peter Oborne has a book, Not the Chilcot Report, which I helped with. The BBC’s John Simpson writes about it here.

Meanwhile, ITV News reports

The former Labour leader also said that he had to make tough decisions about the controversial 2003 Iraq invasion – an episode that made him deeply unpopular.

“I have a real humility about the decisions that I took and the issues around them,” he said.

“I was trying to deal with this in the aftermath of 9/11 and it was very tough, it was very difficult. I think it’s important that we also have humility then about the next phase of policy making, so we try and actually learn the lessons of the whole period since that time.”

Sounds more like arrogance than humility to me.Please see it my way.

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption.

And speaking of deeply unpopular:

More than half the public say they can “never forgive” Tony Blair for embroiling the UK in the war in Iraq.