The final word: Sofa government still too easy

by Chris Ames

The Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has published its report Lessons still to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry, which concludes pretty much what it says on the tin:

there remains an absence of safeguards in place to prevent a Prime Minister from disregarding Cabinet procedures in the conduct of foreign and military policy. This was evident in the lead up to a possible military action in Iraq, and was exposed by the Chilcot inquiry.

The committee also notes that:

For many, the Chilcot Inquiry fails to provide closure on the Iraq issue

However, it also says:

The question of whether Parliament was misled is constantly raised. We do not pass over this matter at all lightly, but after taking advice, we do not feel that Chilcot or any other inquiries provide a sufficient basis for PACAC to conduct such an inquiry. However, we think Parliament should be prepared to establish such an inquiry into the matter if any new and relevant material or facts emerge.

This was of course something that a Commons motion in November unsuccessfully sought to persuade the committee to do after the revelation, via Digest contributor Chris Lamb’s freedom of information triumph, that Chilcot was set up with an intention to avoid blame.

A good few years ago, I attended a seminar of the predecessor committee, looking at a possible inquiry into Iraq. That inquiry eventually concluded last year and the committee has now had its say on the outcome, albeit that there remain loose ends.

The process has come full circle and the Digest has done its work. It will close shortly.

Thanks to all those who contributed to the debate, not least my good friend the late Dr Brian Jones, who was in at the start and is due the last mention on the Digest, even if, sadly, he can’t have the last word.

Blair had no factual evidence of “material breach”

by Chris Lamb

I have finally received a reply from the Cabinet Office to the freedom of information request I first made in June relating to disclosure of information that would show evidence for Tony Blair’s “unequivocal view”, on 15 March 2003, that Iraq was in “further material breach” of its treaty obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1441. This was one of the key decisions that committed this country to military force.

The reply shows that no official record was made of the factual evidence upon which Blair’s “unequivocal view” – conveyed in a letter from his private secretary Matthew Rycroft – relied. It holds no such records. As the Cabinet Office is connected to the Office of the Prime Minister, this would also apply to the Prime Minister’s Office.

It should be remembered that the Chilcot Report made it clear that Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, emphasized the necessity for “strong factual evidence” to corroborate any such alleged ‘further material breach’. The basis for legal force under the US revival argument (which was drafted into Operational Paragraph 4 (OP4) of UNSCR 1441), in Goldsmith’s view, required such strong factual evidence.

Here is a transcript of the chronological narrative from Section 5 of the Chilcot Report which directly addresses these issues: Readmore..

The spin goes on

By Chris Ames

Today’s attempt to get MPs to invite a parliamentary committee to include allegations that Tony Blair misled parliament and public got a right kicking, but the truth was the greater casualty.

Going back a couple of days, my colleague Paul Waugh reported that some Labour MPs bizarrely wanted to be whipped hoarded to vote against the motion, including Blairite Ben Bradshaw:

He said it was an “unacceptable” not to whip fully against a motion that “deliberately distorted” the findings of the Chilcot report and “perpetuates the lie” that Tony Blair misled Parliament and Cabinet “when Chilcot made clear he acted in good faith”.

I emailed Bradshaw to ask him where the Inquiry report made clear that Blair acted in good faith. He kindly replied, albeit somewhat patronisingly, asking me if I had read the report. I won’t publish the whole email but it includes an assertion that

volume 4 paragraph 876 makes clear there was no falsification or improper use of intelligence…

Here it is:

876. The JIC accepted ownership of the dossier and agreed its content. There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No.10 improperly influenced the text.

Oh look, it refers specifically to the dossier, implicitly the part attributed to the Joint Intelligence Committee rather than Blair’s foreword, and a lack of evidence that Blair abused it. Not asserting anyone’s good faith. Readmore..

Learn lessons and hold Blair to account

Caroline Lucas MP

After 7 years and £10m spent, the findings of the Chilcot needed to lead to serious action, but none has been forthcoming.

The Chilcot report confirmed Tony Blair lied to the public, Parliament and his own Cabinet in order to drag us into the Iraq war. Privately, he said he would support George Bush ‘whatever’ eight months before the war – everyone else was told war could be avoided. Thousands of lives were lost because he put that promise before all the evidence in front of him.

Yet – despite the damning evidence against him contained in the Inquiry’s report – no action has been taken against the Former Prime Minister.

Tony Blair also went on to repeat a deliberate misrepresentation of the French position, both at Prime Minister’s questions on 12 March and in his key parliamentary statement on 18 March—he even included it in the war motion before the House.

In short, the French position was for more time for the weapons inspectors, but with war as an explicit possibility.

The former Prime Minister kept taking out of context phrases from an interview by President Chirac given on 10 March, saying that they showed that France would veto a resolution in any circumstances. That was clearly not true, and Chilcot shows that. The French kept correcting Blair, but Blair instructed Jack Straw, in Chilcot’s words, to “concede nothing”. Clearly that was because he needed to continue the misrepresentation of France to provide cover for his failure to get UN support for the war.

The Chilcot report shows how the French position had deliberately mischaracterized. According to Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair was clear on 15 March that the French position was flexible: he wrote that Blair “was ‘clear now what the French would try – yes to the tests, even to the possibility of military action, but they would push for a later date’” (quoted in The Chilcot Report, volume 3, p.505).

Blair however deliberately sought to undermine negotiations, by instructing the Foreign Secretary to be inflexible. He knew that it was inaccurate to say that France was rejecting the British-proposed ‘six tests’, and that there were no ‘final efforts to secure agreement’ on 17 March, because a final decision had already been taken by that point. On this key aspect of the debate of 18 March, which resulted in a vote to support military action, Mr Blair was directly and unambiguously misleading the House of Commons.

Chilcot also confirmed that Tony Blair had indeed decided to back the Iraq war far earlier than he has previously admitted. His claim that it was a war solely to eradicate WMDs was always deeply questionable and is now officially in tatters. Tony Blair knew he would never have garnered enough support for regime change – so he lied to Parliament and the Public to invade Iraq.

The consequences of the Iraq war are horrific, run deep, and are difficult to even begin to quantify. We know that many thousands of civilians are dead and hundreds of British troops were killed and injured. And today, civil wars are raging across the Middle East.

We need to learn lessons from the Iraq disaster. That’s why I’m working with MPs from across the political divide in calling on the on the Public Administration Select Committee of the House to further examine the lack of any process of accountability following the damning evidence presented by the Chilcot report. We were taken to war in a duplicitous way, and our political system must match that knowledge with a process that holds those responsible to account.

Unfinished business

by Chris Ames

In the Observer, Jamie Doward and I report that:

A cross-party group of MPs will make a fresh effort to hold Tony Blair to account for allegedly misleading parliament and the public over the Iraq war.

Key factors behind the move are both a sense of frustration that the government has so far done nothing since the publication of the inquiry report, except promise to learn the lessons of a lessons leaned inquiry, and last week’s disclosure that the Inquiry was designed by officials, many of whom had taken part in the events that it investigated, to “avoid blame”.

This sort of thing hasn’t helped either:

With his flag planted firmly in the “progressive centre ground” and with opposition to the Tories so divided, Blair is preparing for his re-entry into public life, though his plans remain inchoate. It’s almost as if he believes he’s on an ethical mission, that he has unfinished business. But the ground beneath his feet is shifting violently.


The Inquiry as an exercise in damage limitation

by Chris Ames

I have uploaded the six documents disclosed by the Cabinet Office under the Freedom of Information Act, showing the advice and thinking at the highest level of government as the Inquiry was planned in May and June 2009.

Inquiry designed to ‘avoid blame’, documents show

by Chris Ames

In the Observer, Jamie Doward and I reveal that the documents that the Cabinet Office fought to hard to suppress and Digest contributor Chris Lamb fought so hard to expose, show how the Inquiry was designed to avoid blame for individuals or any finding – for example on the legality of the war – that would incur legal liability for individuals or the government.

The revelation is a severe blow to the credibility of the Inquiry and goes some way to explaining why it pulled its punches and declared itself unable to reach a conclusion to the legality of the war.

The key revelation is that the ideas of learning lessons and avoiding blame were seen as two sides of the same coin. We already suspected that this was the case but it was not made clear. From the outset, Gordon Brown said that the inquiry would not “set out to apportion blame or consider issues of civil or criminal liability”. However, that is very different from saying that it would avoid reaching findings that had such implications.

In fact foreign secretary David Miliband subsequently reiterated that the Inquiry had not been “set up to establish civil or criminal liability” but said: “Everything beyond that will be within its remit. It can praise or blame whomever it likes, and it is free to write its own report at every stage”. This was of course after the format, scope and membership of the inquiry had been designed to “focus on lessons and avoid blame”.

Its also clear that officials were aware of the need to avoid public controversy and saw the benefits of a behind closed doors inquiry in avoiding the daily running commentary that Hutton had attracted. What is astonishing is that neither officials nor Brown appear to have realised how totally unacceptable this would be.

The involvement in the process of setting up the Inquiry of officials who had taken part in the events it was to investigate is both shocking and unsurprising at the same time. We already knew that Margaret Aldred, the Inquiry’s secretary, had chaired the Iraq Senior Officials Group for four and a half years. What we have now learnt is that cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell was expressly warned that the secretariat should not include people with this kind of baggage.

As for the way Aldred was parachuted into the role, which we already knew was distinctly dodgy, again thanks to Chris Lamb, we know learn that she chaired the meeting that planned the appointment of the Inquiry secretariat.

Perhaps she unselfishly volunteered herself for the role?

The worst cover-up in history

by Chris Ames

Before the Inquiry published its report, I was concerned at its promise to publish the evidence that supported its narrative, worrying that it would conceal the evidence that told a different story. I should not (I think) have worried. The Inquiry has published plenty of new evidence that contradicts its key conclusion that the UK government managed:

to reconcile its objective of disarming Iraq, if possible by peaceful means, with the US goal of regime change. That was achieved by the development of an ultimatum strategy threatening the use of force if Saddam Husseindid not comply with the demands of the international community, and by seeking topersuade the US to adopt that strategy and pursue it through the UN.
As the Inquiry report describes, on 15 November 2001, Jonathan Powell wrote to Blair:
It seems to me that our over-riding objective is the removal of Saddam not the insertion of arms inspectors. It is only with a new regime that we can be sure of an end to CBRN proliferation and an end to hostile intent towards his neighbours plus his support for terrorism. We need to make a far greater effort to bring him down […] with proper backing for internal opposition […]
As Chilcot also notes:
Mr Blair replied: “I agree with this entirely and I should prepare a note for GWB[President Bush] next week.”
It is interesting to see how Chilcot sidelines this. Despite publish the note and including it in his narrative, he marginalises the revelation that Blair’s “over-riding objective is the removal of Saddam” by making his bold text key finding:
Mr Powell argued that only the removal of Saddam Hussein and a new regime would deal with the risks from Iraq.
He attributes the point to Powell, rather than Blair and presents it as an observation, rather than a statement of an objective. Given that Blair’s case is that ultimately, having given peace his best shot, he felt the removal of Saddam necessary, the distinction is lost.
Had Chilcot reported that Blair was seeking from the outset to remove Saddam, he would have told the truth. But in finessing the facts in Blair’s favour while publishing the stark evidence, he produced what must be the worst cover up in history.


Whatever you say, Sir David

Chris Ames

I’m not sure a lot that was new came out of Sir John Chilcot’s appearance before the liaison committee today but what it did show was his very naive willingness to believe and repeat what people tell him, often in spite of contemporaneous documentary evidence.

Chilcot quoted Jack Straw’s explanation for the failure of the Cabinet (including himself) to challenge Blair, as if anyone should ever believe anything that a devious toad like Straw says.

Similarly, he repeated Sir David Manning’s claim that Manning had tried to persuade Blair not to say “I will be with you, whatever” in his July 2002 letter to George W Bush. Here’s what Manning told the Inquiry:

SIR DAVID MANNING: I tried to take the first sentence out.
SIR RODERIC LYNE:Why did you want to take the first sentence out?
SIR DAVID MANNING:I didn’t think we should say that.
SIR DAVID MANNING: It was too sweeping. It seemed to me to close off options, and I didn’t see that that was a sensible place to be.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about UK Washington ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer’s note to Manning, which preceded Blair’s note and in which Meyer recalled that he had told US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that the US could

“rest assured that if and when the US decided to move against Saddam Hussein, the UK would be with them.”

Manning wrote on the note:

Christopher and I discussed the issues before he saw Armitage. I shall pick with Condi next week.

So Manning is happy for Meyer to tell the US that “if and when the US decided to move against Saddam Hussein, the UK would be with them” and will repeat the message to Condoleezza Rice.

But “I will be with you, whatever” is too sweeping and closes off options.

Yeah, whatever.

Cabinet Office slammed (again) over Brown advice on Chilcot

by Chris Ames

Digest contributor Chris Lamb has won another – and hopefully final – battle in his attempt to uncover the truth about why the Inquiry was set up as it was. The judgement is a complete humiliation for the Cabinet Office, which has wasted thousands of pounds of public money pursuing a case that has zero merit.

In May Chris won an information tribunal ruling ordering the Cabinet Office to disclose the secret advice that officials gave then prime minister Gordon Brown in June 2009 about the composition and remit of the Inquiry. This could show why it was set up without the ability to reach a judgement on the legality of the war.

But the Cabinet Office failed to comply with the order and eventually secured a stay while its request for the upper tribunal to hear an appeal was considered.

In a decision published yesterday the upper tribunal judge refused permission to appeal, throwing out every ground the Cabinet Office floated.

Dr Lamb’s own skeleton argument concludes with the submission that “there is next to no merit in the Cabinet Office’s case in seeking permission to further appeal and that what it wants to do is re-run the first appeal because it strongly disagrees with the conclusions and judgment properly made by the FTT”. For the reasons set out above, I have to say that I agree with that analysis (although I would prefer to say simply “no merit” rather than “next to no merit”).

The ruling is also highly critical of the Cabinet Office’s behaviour after the original tribunal and expresses some bafflement at what it sees as incompetence but was perhaps cynical stalling.

Unfortunately the Cabinet Office still has the possibility of an application to the High Court for judicial review and a further stay of around three weeks in the meantime. Given how badly they have lost, it seems inconceivable that they could try again. But you could (and I did) have said that last time.