by Chris Ames
Digest contributor Chris Lamb has twice before made Freedom of Information requests for the minutes of the two Cabinet meetings that took place in the week before the invasion, on 13 and 17 March 2003. The first time the Labour government refused and took the case to the Information Tribunal, where it lost, causing Jack Straw to use the FOI veto for the first time. On the second occasion, the present government vetoed release without even taking the case to the Tribunal, knowing that it didn’t have a case. Last month, knowing that the Inquiry will release some or all of the papers eventually, Chris Lamb made a third request, which the Cabinet Office has again refused.
Ironically, the grounds for refusal are that the papers are due to be published by the Inquiry, eventually, and are therefore exempt under Section 22(1) of the FOI Act. It’s quite outrageous – and quite illogical – for a Cabinet Office that should have released the papers a long time ago to say now that we will have to wait for them, however long that takes. But the way the Cabinet Office has attempted to square the circle adds insult to insult.
In his letter to Sir Jeremy Heywood of 28 May 2014, Sir John Chilcot described this
material as “vital to the public understanding of the Inquiry’s conclusions”. He
recognised that disclosure of this material raised difficult issues of long-standing
principle. In agreeing to declassify these documents for disclosure by the Iraq Inquiry
alongside its report, the Cabinet Office recognises the wholly exceptional nature of the
The Inquiry is considering issues across a nine-year timescale. It is publishing material
from thousands of documents either within or alongside its report, including from over
200 Cabinet and Cabinet committee meetings. It is this wider context provided by the
Inquiry’s report that allows disclosure of these minutes, and mitigates against any
irreparable damage to the principle of cabinet collective responsibility.
So the Cabinet Office has agreed to declassify the minutes for publication by the Inquiry and accepts that this will not cause irreparable damage to the principle of cabinet collective responsibility, because lots of cabinet Minutes will be released at the same time! As the Cabinet Office points out, this decision has already been taken and announced publicly. But it has to maintain the charade of releasing them under that process rather than under FOI, to do so under its terms, through an establishment inquiry set up by government rather than under legislation that allows citzens to see what governments do in their name.
This is one of many cases where the Cabinet Office has cited the (eventual) publication of documents by the Inquiry as reason to block FOI disclosures. It’s important both to the government and the Inquiry that we should see any evidence that is released through the filter of the Inquiry’s interpretation rather than, god forbid, looking at the evidence and making our own minds up. As John Chilcot said last month, to publish evidence without hearing his take on it:
leaves individuals and the whole story open to every kind of out of context misunderstanding. It’s very important to add the analysis, both at strategic level and at the level of individuals on top of that account so that the whole thing can be seen in the round at the same time.
by Chris Ames
When Tony Blair claimed in his foreword to the September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction that assessed intelligence had established beyond doubt that such weapons existed, he misled Parliament and the British public badly. To make this claim he had to ignore all of the caveats and qualifications in the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments he was given and overlook what the Butler review called the “relative thinness” and “inferential nature” of the intelligence. He either blatantly lied or was so cavalier in his presentation as to have effectively lied.
Whether the Iraq Inquiry will find that Blair knowingly lied here or will pull its punches like Butler did (and subsequently regretted) depends largely on whether establishment inquiries ever say directly that people lie and partly on what other evidence they find that Blair knew that the evidence was not as watertight as he was claiming. There does appear to be evidence on this last point.
As Butler and the late Brian Jones have pointed out, what Brian called “Report x” was crucial in allowing the drafters of the dossier to reach a judgement that Iraq had wmd and was still producing them. But as witnesses to the Inquiry made clear, this intelligence report was little more than a promise that further intelligence would be provided, giving locations for wmd production. Various witnesses referred to this as a “silver bullet”, in that it would provide conclusive evidence that Iraq had wmd. This is where Blair comes in. Blair was briefed on the report by SIS/MI6 chief Richard Dearlove on 12 September 2002 and, according to Butler, told him that “the case was developmental and that the source remained unproven”. Nevertheless, according to the witness SIS4 (Mark Allen):
The Prime Minister was interested in a silver bullet. If there was a gleam of a silver bullet anywhere, he would want to know about it, and he would want to see the product.
The point is of course that if Blair truly believed that the existing “assessed intelligence” had established beyond doubt that Iraq had and was currently producing wmd, he wouldn’t be so desperate for a “silver bullet”. But clearly he didn’t believe this. According to Roderick Lyne, the Inquiry has:
a trail of papers showing the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary having conversations with the Chief about where is this [additional material] and what is holding it up.
In fact, the “additional material” never did turn up. The promise was an empty one. The dossier was sexed-up “by assertion”, following an agreement between Alastair Campbell and Dearlove over what one witness called “wishful thinking”.
But, on the assumption that the Cabinet Office would hold records of what Lyne called “a trail of papers”, I made an FOI request for any documents showing Blair and/or Straw chasing up the “additional material”. Rather surprisingly, the Cabinet Office claims not to have any such documents.
This leaves us in the unfortunate position of relying on the Inquiry to publish and/or accurately report Blair’s quest for the “silver bullet”. Which is just how Sir John Chilcot likes it.
by Chris Ames
Former Foreign Office director of communications (and therefore press secretary to Jack Straw) John Williams was at the heart of efforts to persuade parliament, Britain and the wider world that it was necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussien to tackle the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Williams has been keen to present his involvement – and indeed that of Straw – as a genuine attempt to address the WMD issue, by peaceful means if possible. But a media strategy that Williams wrote in September 2002 shows clearly that he was planning to justify military action with or without the so-called “UN Route”.
In a statement to the Inquiry, Williams set out what he called “the Straw Paradox”:
… My chief concern was with explaining to the media the efforts being made to draft, agree and secure what became Resolution 1441, and then the efforts to use its ‘final opportunity’ to achieve a peaceful outcome. The diplomatic effort did involve what the Foreign Secretary used to call ‘the Straw paradox’: that Saddam Hussein could be induced to comply with the UN only by a threat of military action that was credible and therefore would have to be used if there was no compliance.
21. I was responsible for helping the Foreign Secretary prepare his responses to the reports given to the UN by Hans Blix after the weapons inspectors were re-admitted to Iraq (which seemed to us evidence that the Straw paradox was applying sufficient pressure to make the UN process work). My recall of the Foreign Secretary’s press conferences and interviews is that, in citing a short list of weaponry unaccounted for, we relied on inspectors’ reports rather than the dossier, but this may be hindsight wisdom at work.
22. As the UN process approached failure, I was involved with Alastair Campbell, at David Manning’s request, in highlighting the importance of the statement by the President of France that he would veto a second resolution whatever the circumstances.
The fundamental problem with this version of events is that what Williams describes as the “failure” of the UN process happened at a time when Blix had not made a smoking gun WMD find and was reporting no serious obstruction from Iraq but the hope that he might “resolve the key remaining disarmament tasks” . The failure was the failure of the UK and US in these circumstances to secure a second UN resolution expressly authorising the use of force, whether or not that was French President Jacques Chirac’s fault. The UK/US strategy for regime change via the UN route depended on the inspections process achieving a justification for war.
Straw and Williams may have believed, based on intelligence reports, that the failure to find WMD reflected Iraqi concealment rather than the fact that they did not exist but in the same statement Williams describes the weakness of that intelligence, even after he drew out “the strongest points” in his own version of the dossier:
I felt the result was underwhelming, commenting to colleagues that there was nothing much new in it.
Clearly, Williams’ own assessment of the strength of the intelligence should have been that it was too weak to justify a war in the absence of Iraqi obstruction, a smoking gun WMD find or a UN resolution. He appears to realise this:
My recall of the Foreign Secretary’s press conferences and interviews is that, in citing a short list of weaponry unaccounted for, we relied on inspectors’ reports rather than the dossier, but this may be hindsight wisdom at work.
But here Williams floats the same defence that Straw used and which Blix shot down at the Inquiry. At the time and at the Inquiry, Straw misrepresented the inspectors’ “clusters document”, which Blix described as “the basis for our selection of key remaining disarmament issues”, as evidence of concealment. As I described here:
Blix found it “ironic” that the paper “came to be used actually to the meaninglessness of inspections rather than as a means which would have helped to continue inspections.”
This irony highlights the deception within the Straw paradox: inspections were not meant as an alterntive to war but as a means of justifying it, as the Iraq Options Paper shows.
Towards the end of his statement, Williams takes the fallacious line adopted by some of Tony Blair’s most determined defenders – that no-one would be foolish enough to make false claims about WMD while knowing that they did not exist:
I had never imagined for a moment that of all the outcomes of this intense process, the truth would be that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. I believe the same is true of the Foreign Secretary and all those I worked closely with at that level, though as noted earlier I have since learned that some middle-ranking officials did have doubts. Some journalists are convinced we must have known. But no spokesman would knowingly subject a Foreign Secretary – and himself – to the humiliation of going before the media empty-handed, as we had to a few weeks after the invasion.
But his is a straw man approach – overstating the allegation in order to disprove it. The allegation against Blair, Straw and Williams is not that they claimed Iraq had WMD when they knew there were none but that they claimed certainty when they knew there was none. Williams has admitted that he knew Blair’s claim of certaintly was could not be justified.
by Chris Ames
The Inquiry has updated its FAQ page since Sir John Chilcot’s appearance at the Foreign Affairs Committee. “Frequently Asked Questions” are of course a pretty transparent way for an organisation to get across the information it wants to communicate, rather than a genuine response to questions that get asked a lot.
One point that hasn’t been updated – and is indeed contradicted by what Chilcot said at the FAC – is the story of how Inquiry Secretary Margaret Aldred came to be foisted on the Inquiry by the then Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell. Aldred is a government foreign and defence policy insider who had responsibility for Iraq policy for approximately half the time period covered by the Inquiry. Chilcot told the FAC:
I was well aware when accepting the chairmanship that the secretary would be Margaret Aldred, provided that I agreed.
Chilcot also told the Committee that he was given ten minutes to decide whether to take the job. This contradicts the previous story – that O’Donnell consulted Chilcot about what sort of person would make a good secretary and then nominated Aldred. A while back, Digest contributor Chris Lamb did some FOI digging into Aldred’s appointment and was told that:
The Cabinet Secretary himself decided to nominate Margaret Aldred, and agreed the appointment with Sir John Chilcot, shortly after Sir John himself had accepted his role as Inquiry Chair. Both the Cabinet Secretary and the Inquiry Chair felt that the Secretary needed to be a senior individual with the right experience and skills for the task.
So the story has changed. According to what Chilcot said recently, Aldred was already lined up before he was given his ten minutes to accept the job. At the FAC, Chilcot again sought to play down any concerns over Aldred’s obvious conflict of interest. Bizarrely, and at great cost to his own credibility, having told MPs that:
…the scope of this inquiry is unprecedented. Unlike many inquiries, we are not concerted with a single incident and its aftermath; rather we cover decisions over a nine-year period and the consequences that flowed from them.
He pointed out that:
… the only role in which she was directly engaged with Iraq in the Cabinet Office, as the deputy head of the overseas defence secretariat, started in November 2004, long after the decision to invade and the invasion itself, so she was not in any sense involved in those crucial decisions between 2000, 2001 and 2003.
So it’s an inquiry covering a long time period and not just a single incident and its aftermath, except where its blatantly conflicted Secretary is concerned, when what matters is 2000, 2001 and 2003.
Chilcot also told MPs that the nine year period* covered by the Inquiry’s remit was not something that he was consulted about before accepting the job and the FAQ page repeats this:
Sir John and his colleagues were not consulted on the Inquiry’s terms of reference before their appointment.
Chilcot also batted away suggestions that he should publish evidence now, rather than wait for his long-delayed report, as I described here. Again, the FAQ page now reflects this:
The Inquiry Committee considers that it would be unhelpful to make further documents available, without context, before its report is published.
I’m becoming increasingly aware, and concerned, that out of the 7,000 or so documents that have been fully or partially declassified, only about 1,500 will be published as documents. Chilcot clarified this point after his appearance at the FAC. The rest will be referred to or quoted from, providing the “context”. This means that we will have to trust that the Inquiry is correctly interpreting those documents and not, for example, leaving out those bits that don’t fit its narrative or analysis. The more Chilcot spins over the role of Margaret Aldred, the less he can be trusted.
* In fact, Gordon Brown told the House of Commons in June 2009 that the Inquiry would cover the “period from summer 2001, before military operations began in March 2003, and our subsequent involvement in Iraq right up to the end of July this year”, approximately eight years. It appears that Chilcot has decided to start from 2000, thereby lengthening the period covered.
by Chris Ames
Yesterday the Daily Mail and a very confused Evening Standard were both speculating on the possibility that former foreign secretary Jack Straw might become a lord after standing down as an MP, in spite of the threat of severe criticism from the Inquiry, when it is eventually published.
There is of course the longstanding presumption in criminal law that someone is innocent until proven guilty. But of course the Inquiry is not a criminal process and unlikely either to find anyone guilty of anything. According to Sir John Chilcot, this is how tough it might be:
But I want to make something absolutely clear. This Committee will not shy away from making criticism. If we find that mistakes were made, that there were issues which could have been dealt with better, we will say so frankly.
Somewhere between those two options, there is the possibility that the Inquiry might break with all establishment precedent and suggest that not everyone acted in good faith at all times. Straw, for example, persuaded attorney general Lord Goldsmith not to tell the Cabinet how “finely balanced” the arguments were about the legality of war on the grounds that it was highly sensitive. Being Straw, he subsequently defended this on the grounds that it was an open secret that the arguments were finely balanced.
In the circumstances, i.e. that the jury is not so much still out on Straw’s role as a minister as still hearing defence submissions, it might be seem unwise to ennoble him just yet,
by Chris Ames
The Mail on Sunday’s political editor Simon Walters says that:
Thirty people, including Tony Blair, are set to be heavily criticised by the Chilcot Inquiry in its ‘devastating’ attack on the Iraq War.
Well-placed sources say that ‘approximately 30’ people have been sent letters by chairman Sir John Chilcot warning them that they will be criticised in his report into the 2003 invasion.
As the story points out, during his appearance at the foreign affairs committee last week, Sir John Chilcot refused to say how many people had been sent warning letters, in case people worked out who they were.
The story also says that:
Sources close to the inquiry say its strongly worded criticisms of the way the war was handled make a nonsense of claims that it will be a ‘whitewash’.
Contrary to earlier claims, full details of the way that Blair privately promised Bush that he would go to war against Saddam – without telling MPs and British voters – will be published. Blair and Bush are said to have ‘signed in blood’ their agreement to oust Saddam Hussein in secret talks at the President’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, a year before the start of the war.
Blair’s candid words in their secret letters – with redactions to protect sensitive military and intelligence issues only – will be published word for word. Only the ‘gist’ of Bush’s comments will be published to avoid embarrassing a key foreign ally.
I’d say this is consistent with what Chilcot has already said on the matter, although it will be a surprise if we hear very much of Bush’s views.
On the issue of Maxwellisation, Walters says:
Some of the 30 or so have received letters running into hundreds of pages. One individual is said to have received a 1,200-page letter from the inquiry.
It’s unlikely that a letter is that long in itself. More likely that it had an awful lot of evidence attached.
by Chris Ames
The Guardian, the Independent and the Telegraph, and others, have obituaries of panel member Sir Martin Gilbert, who died on Tuesday. The Guardian piece, written by a long-standing friend and colleague of Gilbert, says that “in March 2012, he suffered an arrhythmia of the heart from which he never recovered.”
Although Gilbert’s background and previous views led to criticism of his inclusion on the panel, his contribution to the Inquiry should be judged on its own terms, without prejudice or allegation of prejudice. My impression of him from the public hearings is that he was often gentle with witnesses and inclined to pose questions that gave them the benefit of the doubt and assumed good faith rather than challenging them. Whether his approach to the report would have been more challenging we will never know.
by Chris Ames
Answering one of a number of questions from John Baron MP as to why the Inquiry can’t publish the “settled body of evidence” now, Sir John Chilcot gave this explanation:
To publish a reliable account in full and in immense detail but to draw no conclusions, to offer no analysis leaves individuals and the whole story open to every kind of out of context misunderstanding. It’s very important to add the analysis, both at strategic level and at the level of individuals on top of that account so that the whole thing can be seen in the round at the same time.
The best critique of Chilcot’s appearance I have seen is from Dan Hodges for the Telegraph. This is what he made of this exchange:
He was asked if the evidence base, upon which the report’s conclusions would rest, was now broadly finalised. Yes, he said, essentially it was. So could that not be published? No. Sorry. It couldn’t. Because to publish the evidence without Chilcot and his committee providing the appropriate “context” would be unfair. People would be able to take the evidence and draw any old conclusion they liked. From the evidence.
Others, such as the Guardian’s Richard Norton-Taylor, have quite rightly given Chilcot and Sir Jeremy Heywood credit for what looks like a very liberal approach to the declassification issue. The Guardian’s Nicholas Watt reports Chilcot’s account of what we will eventually see:
The list of documents include 200 minutes of cabinet and cabinet committee meetings; 30 notes from Blair to Bush; records of conversations between Blair and world leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Jacques Chirac; records of conversations between cabinet ministers and their overseas counterparts, such as those between Jack Straw and Colin Powell; the legal advice to ministers; and a “huge quantum of papers, agendas, minutes from a wide ranging of meetings and discussions all across Whitehall which include chiefs of staff meetings; intelligence assessments by the joint intelligence committee and by the defence intelligence staff and other “intelligence product”; and telegrams from ambassadors.
But, with Chilcot refusing to give any hint on when the report will be published, it looks like it will be under wraps for some time yet.
By Chris Ames
At this morning’s hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Sir John Chilcot informed MPs that panel member and renowned historian Sir Martin Gilbert died yesterday. Gilbert had been ill for some time and had been unable to work on the Inquiry report.
by Chris Ames
The Telegraph carries an article by Tory MP and Foreign Affairs Committee member John Baron with questions for Sir John Chilcot, who appears before the committee this morning.
Meanwhile the Guardian picks up my story from last night – that the declassification process is not finished after all.