The Inquiry will publish the pre-war Cabinet minutes in full – or will it?

by Chris Lamb

The Information Commissioner has issued a Decision Notice for my third request for the Cabinet minutes of 13 and 17 March. He backs the Cabinet Office’s rejection of the request under of Section 22 (i) of the FoI Act.

Section 22 (i) states that information is exempt from disclosure if;

(a) the information is held by the public authority with a view to its publication, by the authority or any other person, at some future date (whether determined or not),

(b) the information was already held with a view to such publication at the time when the request for information was made, and

(c) it is reasonable in all the circumstances that the information should be withheld from disclosure until the date referred to in paragraph (a)

The grounds cited for this exemption are that, when the request was made, an agreement had already been made between the Cabinet Office and the Inquiry that the minutes could be published.

The Commissioner decided that the content of what had been agreed for disclosure essentially covered what I had asked for in my request.

The Cabinet Office explained that the information in the minutes which relates to Iraq is intended for publication by the Iraq Inquiry. It explained that on 22 January 2014, the Cabinet Office wrote to the Chilcot Inquiry confirming agreement to the publication by the Chilcot Inquiry of “the ’full extract’ from the 13 March 2003 and 17 March 2003 Cabinet Conclusions. In the case of the 17 March 2003 document, this amounted to the whole document (Iraq was the only topic discussed on 17 March 2003)”.

Readmore..


Prime minister hints at shabby EU referendum fix

by Chris Ames

The Guardian reports that:

The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war will not be published until after the EU referendum, Downing Street has confirmed.

Other papers have picked up on David Cameron’s comments at PMQs today that ‘the Chilcot report will come not too much longer after’ the EU referendum on 23 June but the Guardian says that:

Downing Street sources later confirmed that July was the most likely timing for the publication.

It’s not clear whether this “most likely” is the basis for “confirmed” or an elaboration but what is more of a concern is why the Prime Minister has this information.

Last month I wrote on Comment is Free and here:

Penrose also said that Chilcot would give a firmer timetable for publication after [national security checking], but has suggested that this will still see publication in June or even July. He said the delay will not be because of the EU referendum, but because the report’s size means “it will take a number of weeks to prepare it for publication”. Has William Caxton been engaged to do the work, or should we be suspicious of some shabby fix?

The Inquiry has made clear that it will not be commenting until national security checking has been complete but it has not yet made any announcement and no date has been set. Obviously the absence of a date doesn’t mean they haven’t told No 10 that publication will be some way off.

I asked the Inquiry’s spokesman if he would comment on the appropriateness or accuracy of the No 10 briefing but he declined.

Should we be suspicious that the timing of the Inquiry’s report is not independent of government after all?

I think so.


National Security Checking begins today

by Chris Ames

I understand that the National Security Process will begin today, not last week as many people, including myself, were assuming.

But, because the process appears to involve officials visiting the Inquiry at some point today, rather than the report being sent to the government, it may be that the finishing touches are still being put to the report.

Note that Sir John’ Chilcot’s letter last October referred to officials being given ‘confidential access to the report’. The report will remain in the hands of the Inquiry throughout.

Publication is still going to be in June or July,


Read this first…probably

by Chris Ames

I am told by the Inquiry that there is no update on plans to give the report to the government for National Security Checking this week.

In the meantime, my colleague Peter Oborne has written a book Not the Chilcot Report, which is to be published on 19 May, almost certainly before Chilcot publishes.

Here’s the story on the book on the Bookseller website:

According to the publisher, Not the Chilcot Report is a “concise summary of what should be in the Chilcot Report”. The publisher added: “Peter Oborne shows how the British government colluded in deceiving the public, grossly exaggerating the threat from Saddam Hussein. The book will prove that Tony Blair repeatedly misled the British people in his determination to stand with America at all costs.”

The publisher continued: “The invasion of Iraq was ‘the defining calamity of the post-cold war era’, in Peter Oborne’s words. It has led to the collapse of the state system in the Middle East. Iraq is shattered, Syria may never be put back together again. And the great wave of refugees unleashed by this breakdown is threatening what is left of democracy in Turkey and the very existence of the European Union.

“Oborne provides a forensic examination of the way evidence was doctored and the law manipulated in order to justify a war for regime change. The government bent facts to fit its determination to go to war, Parliament failed to scrutinise wild allegations, the intelligence service was perverted, and the media lost its head.”

Oborne said: “I hope that this short book, which is based very largely on evidence publicly presented to the Inquiry, will assist lay readers who want to make sense of Chilcot. It stretches to 35,000 carefully written words. The Iraq Inquiry by contrast is a reported 2 million words long –  which is approximately four times the length of War and Peace.”

I should declare an interest: I have read through and checked the book at Oborne’s request and am acknowledged in its foreword.

 

 

 

 

 


Will a censored Chilcot be worth the wait?

by Chris Ames

I have posted a piece for Comment is Free this afternoon. Here is the original version:

The end to the seemingly interminable Iraq Inquiry is in sight, for sure. A couple more months perhaps and with scope for another dose of farce and some more censorship. To use a cliché that predates even the inquiry, the glass is half full. Or is it still half empty?

On the positive side, we are on track for publication of the inquiry report (in parliament and simultaneously on the Inquiry’s website) in June or July, as per the timetable set out by Sir John Chilcot in October.  But why it will take quite so long is inexplicable.

Sometime this week, and possibly as you are reading this, a near-final version of the report will be winging its way from the ”independent” inquiry to the government, which will then complete a process of national security checking within two weeks.

Reassuringly, Cabinet Office minister John Penrose told MPs on Thursday that the process “cannot be used to redact or censor material that … might prove embarrassing to Ministers or officials”.

But this is only reassuring until you remember that Gordon Brown told MPs when he launched the inquiry that “the final report will be able to disclose all but the most sensitive information—that is, all information except that which is essential to our national security”. Officials then drew up a list as long as your arm of reasons why information might need to be withheld. “National security” covers a multitude of sins.

Penrose also said that Chilcot would give a firmer timetable for publication after this, but has suggested that this will still see publication in June or even July. He said the delay will not be because of the EU referendum, but because the report’s size means “it will take a number of weeks to prepare it for publication”. Has William Caxton been engaged to do the work, or should we be suspicious of some shabby fix?

Penrose gave MPs an assurance that the government will publish the report “as soon as it is delivered to us in its final form by the inquiry team, whenever that may be.” This is good news, as ministers had previously said that the report could only be published if MPs were available to debate it. Even if Chilcot fails to provide the report before the summer recess on 21 July ministers will (probably) not hold onto it.

What will the report say? If Sir John has forgotten the question, the Iraq Inquiry Digest has a list. I think it can safely be assumed that the Iraq misadventure will not be rewritten as a roaring success. There has been plenty of speculation about who will be criticised most, and for what. Military and establishment figures will be “singled out” for criticism, or the blame will be apportioned “widely”. Again, it depends which way you look at it.

My own area of interest has always been how we got into the debacle, not the debacle itself. We can still only speculate about what Chilcot will say about the legality of the war, or whether he will say Tony Blair lied about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or lied when he told MPs that it had not been possible to get “a” second UN resolution because Jacques Chirac said France would veto any resolution “whatever the circumstances”.

We should remember both that there is a traditional squeamishness within the establishment about accusations of lying and that the inquiry has no particular protection against a defamation action if it accuses someone of bad faith. It has probably already been threatened by the lawyers of “Maxwellees”, who have been given advance sight of criticism.

What I do know is that the inquiry will publish documents that set out clearly how Blair promised US President George W Bush a year before the invasion that he would back regime change to overthrow Saddam Hussein but proposed setting a trap for the Iraqi dictator based on his alleged WMD, on which intelligence was ‘poor’. But even here we are back to that half-empty glass.

The documents in question are often referred to as the Downing Street documents, because they include a revealing record of a meeting at No. 10 in July 2002. They were leaked many years ago to journalist Michael Smith and have been available online, almost in their entirety, ever since.

The good news is that the inquiry cannot publish these documents and produce a narrative that ignores what they show. For example, a Cabinet Office paper from March 2002 set out two options: one was to try to use the UN and a threat of force to try to disarm Iraq of WMD; the other was to use WMD as a pretext for regime change. At the time, Blair told his cabinet and the rest of us that his policy was the former.  In 2011, he explained to the Inquiry why this wouldn’t have worked and why he chose the latter.

The bad news is that both the inquiry and the Information Commissioner have told me that these documents will be partially censored at the government’s request.

It is well established that there has been a lot of argument between Chilcot and the government about what the inquiry can publish, particularly regarding Blair’s intercourse with Bush. If you are an optimist you will trust Sir John when he says he can publish enough evidence to stand up the story he wants to tell. If you are a pessimist you will be very worried when Sir John says he will publish only the evidence that stands up the story he wants to tell.

 

 

 

 


No further forward

by Chris Ames

Today’s debate on the National Security Checking process does not appear to have taken us beyond what has already been reported this week – that publication of the report is more likely to be delayed by the preparation of the report for publication rather than the checking process or the EU referendum.

Cabinet Office minister John Penrose told MPs:

we expect the inquiry’s report to be ready for national security checking in the week beginning 18 April—that is, some time next week. Once Sir John indicates that that is the case, the work will begin. As the Prime Minister promised, it will take no longer than two weeks.

Once that is done, the inquiry team will prepare the report for printing and publication. I should make it clear that at that stage, even when the national security checking process is complete, the report will still be in Sir John Chilcot’s hands and will not be released to the Government until everything is ready. The inquiry team has said that it will complete the remaining work as swiftly as possible, and Sir John Chilcot indicated in his letter to the Prime Minister last October that he expects publication in June or July this year.

He also said:

I want to reassure everybody, in Parliament and elsewhere, that the process will not and cannot be used to redact or censor material that does not need to be secret, or that might prove embarrassing to Ministers or officials from the time covered by the inquiry. I am also pleased to inform the House that I understand that the inquiry team expects to announce a firmer publication date soon after the national security checking process is complete

and:

I should also reassure the House that I have checked with senior officials in the Cabinet Office and been assured that nothing in the rules of purdah for the EU referendum could provide a reason to delay the publication of Sir John’s report once he delivers it to the Government. We will therefore publish the report as soon as it is delivered to us in its final form by the inquiry team, whenever that may be.

This last commitment does not even appear to be dependent on the government getting the report before the summer recess, although that seems almost certain now,

Meanwhile, the Guardian speculates about what the report might say, although this also seems to get us no further forward:

Senior military figures may be singled out for criticism in the long-awaited Chilcot report into the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which is due to be handed to Downing Street next week.

This is almost meaningless. The ‘may’ is speculative, while ‘singled out’ is contradicted by the rest of the piece and contradicts a controversial story six months ago that blame would be spread ‘far and wide’.

It seems that:

Ministers in focus will be the former defence secretary Geoff Hoon, former foreign secretary Jack Straw, and former international development secretary Clare Short, as well as Blair.

specifically:

The Chilcot report is certain to point to Hoon’s instruction to the then chief of defence staff, Lord Boyce, to delay military preparations so as not to alert parliament and the public, that war was a given, as one well-placed source put it to the Guardian.

So we’re back to ‘far and wide’, with ministers as likely to be criticised as generals, and no further forward.


Commons to debate national security checking

by Chris Ames

Tomorrow (Thursday) the House of Commons will debate a motion on the national security checking process that is due to begin next week, and specifically the motion:

That this House calls on the Government to conclude the National Security checking of the Iraq Inquiry report as soon as possible in order to allow publication of that report as soon as possible after 18 April 2016, and no later than two weeks after that date, in line with the undertaking on time taken for such checking by the Prime Minister in his letter to Sir John Chilcot of 29 October 2015.

Tory MP David Davis, one of those putting forward the motion, is quoted in heraldscotland as saying:

A lot of the reason it’s delayed already is haggling over what they can and can’t use. If they weren’t security clearing at that time, I don’t quite know what they think they were doing.

There’s really no argument for it taking any more than two weeks.

I think we’ll win the battle. If not, frankly, there will be an uproar.

Labour MP Paul Flynn is quoted as saying:

This is an attempt to keep it outside of the referendum and the political fallout from both sides.

I think they could publish it ahead of the referendum, but they won’t.

We all want to get things settled and to be informed and to know the truth about these events which took place, in our lifetimes.

The delay is sinful, damaging and wicked. The debate will be a chance to get some answers from the Government.

The trouble is, the Sunday Telegraph reported at the weekend the government is still saying it can complete national security checking in two weeks and that any subsequent delay will be because of a tortuous printing process, rather than the EU referendum.

Perhaps the debate will clarify this.


Tortuous printing process to delay Inquiry report

by Chris Ames

According to the Sunday Telegraph, “a team of national security officials has been prepared to go to the offices of the inquiry next week to start the national security vetting process”.

This is as expected but the paper also suggests that the report will be delayed not because of the European Referendum as claimed previously, but because the Inquiry needs even more time. It says John Penrose, the minister in charge of the Government’s response to the report,

said the process would take just two weeks to complete, however the Government had agreed with Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry’s chairman that the report would not be published until June or July.

He said: “Nobody wants this to take any longer than it has already. The process of checking by security officials will take no more than two weeks to complete.

“Sir John can then complete the process of preparing his report for publication on the timetable set out in his letter to the Prime Minister last October. We look forward to seeing the final report then.”

Last October, Sir John did indeed say:

“The very considerable size of our report – more than two million words in total – means that it will take some weeks to prepare for printing and publication … We will complete that work as swiftly as possible.  I consider that once National Security checking has been completed it should be possible to agree with you a date for publication in June or July 2016.”

I understand local printer Mr William Caxton is on standby.


EU referendum may delay Inquiry report

by Chris Ames

The Telegraph reports that:

David Cameron is set to postpone publication of the Iraq War inquiry report until after the EU referendum, leading to accusations that he is deliberately postponing controversial announcements.

Senior Government sources confirmed that it is likely to be published after the June 23 vote, despite the fact it will be handed to ministers next month. Mr Cameron had previously suggested that he wanted to publish the report within two weeks of receiving it.

The prospect of a further delay was last night condemned by families who lost loved ones in the conflict amid accusations that the Government is attempting to avoid anything which could turn the public against them.

It’s no surprise and has been hinted at before. The usual pre-election Purdah rules will be applied in the run-up to the referendum.

But it gives the lie once again to David Cameron’s claim that the timing of the report’s publication is not something he can control.

As the Telegraph reports:

Matthew Jury, a solicitor representing the families of servicemen and women who died in Iraq, added: “The inquiry is meant to be independent. Once the report is completed and delivered, whatever the reason, the Government should have no right to delay its publication.

“The Cabinet’s Office only job is to use every reasonable effort and resource to ensure the report is published as soon as is possible.

“The Government has no right to pick and choose the date of publication to suits its own political agenda, whatever that might be.

On the other hand, it’s just a question of holding back the report until after the election, there should be plenty of time to publish the report before the Summer recess.


Heywood row strengthens my Iraq Inquiry FOI case

by Chris Lamb

Last week it was reported that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood had introduced new guidance for civil servants to withhold official papers appertaining to the EU from government ministers supporting the campaign for the UK to exit from the European Union.

This intervention has now blown up into a full scale row with the Cabinet Secretary being accused of conspiring with Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a ‘constitutional coup’ to undermine the authority of ministers backing Brexit.

This row over civil service impartiality under Heywood’s regime lends a considerable boost to the demand that any role which Heywood played, currently obscured in secrecy, in the setting up of the Iraq Inquiry should be made transparent and opened to accountability. It strengthens the objective of my freedom of information request for the Downing Street official advice to Gordon Brown on the selection of the Chilcot panel and the setting of the Inquiry’s remit to be disclosed.

Heywood has been summoned to appear before the House of Commons Public Administration Committee to explain his actions. According to reports in the Sunday Times, the committee chairman Bernard Jenkin- who supports exiting the EU- stated that the committee

will be raising concerns about civil service impartiality and the ability of ministers to carry on the business of government and the accountability of departments to government.

He continued that ‘the rules (introduced by Heywood) have ‘left ministers blindsided by their own departments’ and that;

This cannot be right and we want an explanation. It is vital that the impartiality of the civil service is not compromised or that there is any suspicion that that the prime minister is pressurizing the civil service.

The Sunday Times reports that Heywood’s guidance to ban official papers from Brexit ministers has a wider impact than originally thought. It was supposed to apply to documents directly related to the forthcoming referendum, but civil servants are apparently also stopping ministers from seeing correspondence addressed to them if it mentions the EU at all. Officials in the departments with senior ministers supporting Brexit have been ordered to send government statistics bolstering the case for staying in the EU direct to the Cabinet Office without getting them signed off by the Secretaries of State concerned. This is potentially in breach of ministerial legal responsibility for their departments.

The six Cabinet ministers backing Brexit are, according to the Sunday Times report, set to demand from Sir Jeremy Heywood a written clarification of his guidance complaining that the ban on them seeing official papers has ‘paralyzed’ the government.

David Davis, the prominent Conservative backbench MP and government critic, has accused the government, through this guidance, of ‘trying to rig the system in its favour’ and describes the impact of the ban as ‘a constitutional offence’ and ‘abuse of power’. The Sunday Times quotes a civil servant source stating that ‘it is outrageous that Jeremy Heywood is willing to threaten the impartiality of the civil service like this’.