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..

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.

I (will) admit I was wrong – Hague

by Chris Ames

In an article in the Telegraph that makes the case for intervention in Syria by citing the Rwandan Genocide Memorial, William Hague, who was at the forefront of Tory calls for an inquiry into Iraq, says:

Back in London, Sir John Chilcot is laboriously assembling a very different monument – the long overdue report on the handling of the Iraq war. There are other monuments to lives lost in Iraq, but this one will contain a small pile of ruined reputations rather than a large one of broken bodies, and we can expect it to teach us a very different point: that military interventions, even those that are well-intentioned and promoted by democratic political leaders, can go seriously wrong.

When it is finally published, the Chilcot report will be a document for those of us who have often supported military interventions to reflect on, and it will be a time to acknowledge that we were wrong about the invasion of Iraq. We relied too much on evidence that turned out to be flimsy, and let our most important ally, the United States, become exhausted when there were many other battles to fight.

The Telegraph headlines the article “I admit it – Iraq was a mistake”, which suggests that Hague is saying that the invasion – as opposed to the country – was a mistake.

The use of tenses here is interesting. Hague is both saying that he will admit he was wrong when the report comes out and saying now what he and others were wrong about. In doing so he joins the ranks of politicians who thinks he knows what the report will say. For example, he is assuming that the report will say that the invasion was well-intentioned and relied on evidence, as opposed to taking place on a cooked-up pretext.

Back on the subject of Syria, Hague asks:

So how can we know, the sceptic can justifiably ask, that in 10 years’ time we will not be waiting for a Chilcot-style inquiry into Syria, with the weighty monument to failed interventions growing taller still?

It’s a question that Hague puts forward in order to provide a positive answer but, in doing so, he again pre-empts Chilcot.

When will they learn?

The Double Deception and the Road to War in Iraq

by Eric Herring and Piers Robinson

The US-instigated invasion of Iraq in 2003 continues to have profound and disastrous consequences for the region, including the partial disintegration of Iraq itself and the fuelling of a wider war in the Middle East aimed at dividing Sunni and Shia into crudely polarised identity groups. Central to the ongoing conflict are regional power politics between key players such as Saudia Arabia and Iran, and the involvement and influence of external actors including the US, Russia and China. In terms of how Britain and the US came to initiate such an ill-thoughtout war, the British public remain, to a significant degree and probably more than they realise, in the dark. The Chilcot Inquiry panel has thus far failed to deliver its report and there remains uncertainty as to the extent to which it will get to the truth.

From the perspective of the British public and political system, however, there has been a persistent and widely held view that some level of deliberate deception occurred in order to mobilise support for the invasion of Iraq. For many, perhaps most, the British and US Governments set about a policy aimed at removing Saddam Hussein through force for undeclared reasons and misled their publics by disguising the war as a defensive act aimed at protecting the world from Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). For those politicians and officials involved in UK policy, however, their position has remained resolute: Britain sought to disarm Iraq by peaceful means and did so primarily because of the threat posed by Iraq. From this latter perspective, the Iraq War was primarily a consequence of intelligence failure in which analysts provided politicians with faulty assessments as to the WMD capability of Iraq. Of course, the implications of there having been a deliberate deception are serious and include substantive concerns about the workings of the British political system, its democratic credentials, the legality of the war and the probity of the politicians and officials involved.

A Double Deception

Whatever the ongoing claims and counter claims, there now exists a significant body of evidence in the public domain which has allowed us to develop a good understanding of the extent to which deception was deployed by UK (and US) officials. Two deceptions, performed via a carefuly orchestrated propaganda campaign, can be identified. The first concerns the allegation that Iraq was producing WMD and the second the claim by the British Government that its principal objective was the disarmament of Iraq via the UN and that regime change was not Britain’s objective.  Drawing upon our recently published studies, Report X Marks the Spot in Political Science Quarterly and Deception and Britain’s Road to War in Iraq in the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, we summarise the evidence for each of these deceptions.

The September Dossier and Deception Over WMD

The question of lying and deception over WMD has been the most widespread and well known alleged example of deception and continues to fuel allegations that officials, in particular Tony Blair and George Bush, lied with respect to the presence of WMD in Iraq. In fact, as we show in Report X Marks the Spot, the deception in this case was not one of a straightforward lie whereby the British government claimed that Iraq possessed WMD when they knew that there were no WMD. Instead, this was a case where officials intentionally exaggerated the certainty and threat assessment of their intelligence regarding possible WMD in Iraq through acts of omission and distortion. The most prominent example of this, in the UK context, was the 2002 September Dossier.

The dossier was conceived of as part of a campaign of organised persuasive communication aimed at mobilizing support for the invasion of Iraq. Between March 2002 and September 2002, under the direction of the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir John Scarlett, intelligence on Iraq, which was known to be limited and uncertain, was strengthened so as to create the impression that Iraq was known for sure to be a current WMD threat. One prominent example of the strategy of deception occurred when John Scarlett advised that other more serious WMD threats (Iran, North Korea and Libya) be removed from the dossier so as to ‘obscure’ the fact that Iraq was not an exceptional WMD problem. However, the most serious, and to date poorly understood, act of deception involved the use of what has come to be known as ‘Report X’. Report X involved little more than a promise, from a source on trial, that evidence would be provided of active chemical and biological weapons production. Despite the suggestion during the Chilcot hearings from MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) chief Sir Richard Dearlove that he insisted the information could not be used in the dossier, it was in fact used to harden claims that Iraq was actively producing chemical and biological agents, underpin the claim that these could be fired within 45 minutes of an order to do so, and allowed Blair to state in the foreward to the dossier that the intelligence was ‘beyond doubt’. To date, there is still no clear understanding of precisely who was responsible for electing to use such a flimsy piece of information, merely the promise of intelligence to come, to strengthen these key claims in the dossier, other than that senior officials, including Blair, were party to the process.

The ‘UN Route’

In some ways the persistence of controversy regarding deception over WMD has obscured a second significant deception with regard to the path to war in Iraq. To date, leading officials have maintained that the objective of British policy was to seek the disarmament of Iraq through peaceful means if possible. As both Tony Blair and Jack Straw have repeatedly claimed, if Saddam had fully complied with UN resolutions, then he could have stayed in power and war would have been averted. At the most extreme, key officials such as Sir Jeremy Greenstock (UK Ambassador to the UN) have presented British pressure to go the ‘UN route’ as a heroic attempt to force compliance from Saddam and to avert war.

The problem with this claim is that contemporaneous documentation now available shows that the purpose of pursuing the ‘UN route’ was primarily designed to create legal cover for British involvement in a US-led invasion of Iraq, whilst also helping to build domestic and international support for military action against Iraq. As we set out in Deception and Britain’s Road to War in Iraq, as early as March 2002 UK policy was firming up around supporting a US-led invasion of Iraq in order to remove Saddam from power. A key problem, recognised as early as November/December 2001, was that a policy aimed at regime change would be illegal under international law. By March 2002, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was advising Blair that military action had to be rationalised as part of an attempt to disarm Iraq if adequate legal cover was to be secured. At best, the ‘UN route’ was likely mainly about gaining legal cover for the invasion of Iraq with only an outside belief that it may avert war. In this scenario, and at best, UK officials would appear to have deceived through omission and distortion: omitting the fact that the major rationale for the UN route was primarily one of obtaining support for war and legal cover for British involvement, and exaggerating the idea that going the UN route was ever likely to avert war. At worst, officials are guilty of a more direct deception: claiming that their goal was to avert war via the UN route, UN inspections and Iraq compliance when, all along, their greatest concern was that Iraq might comply sufficiently and in a way that would prevent them from getting the war they wanted.

Broader implications

From many quarters, the 2003 Iraq invasion is now seen as a seminal case of deception in politics. The implications of this for British (and US) democracy are far reaching, suggesting that politicians have a considerable degree for freedom of manoeuvre when it comes to misleading their publics, and highlighting the ways in which organised persuasive communication slips easily into propagandistic manipulation and deception. Of course, the implications for Iraq and the region are, undoubtedly, of a different order. Whether the Chilcot Inquiry, when it finally reports, grapples with these deeper issues remains to be seen. It would be easy, and convenient, to sweep the issues of deception and propaganda underneath the carpet whilst assuming the upstanding and honest intentions of all those involved. However, if any substantive lessons are to be learned from this case, and ones which might contribute to improving the accountability of the government and encouraging a more ethical (i.e. non deceptive) mode of persuasion and communication, then the deceptive manner in which the invasion of Iraq was sold needs to be fully investigated, understood and brought to light. The opportunity to start such a debate now lies with Chilcot.

This post was edited on 13 May 2015 at the request of the authors.

Straw on the Straw Paradox

by Chris Ames

I wrote here about John Williams’ reference, to the Straw paradox – the idea that Iraq could only be induced to comply with the UN by threat of force that might then have to be used. Jack Straw himself also discussed this issue at his last appearance at the Inquiry, which was four years ago.

It is very significant that if you look at the last meeting of the Security Council that took place on 7th March that nobody, not a single delegate, suggested that Iraq was complying. Now the argument was in the context they were not complying and they were required to comply. That was the difficulty. The other problem here is what Sir Jeremy Greenstock described as the Straw paradox, which is this, that —
SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: You initially called it the Straw paradox.
THE RT. HON. JACK STRAW MP: It is a pretty straightforward point and my name is tagged to it, which is that we wanted to resolve it peacefully. The only way we could resolve the matter peacefully was through compliance. The only way you could get compliance was through the threat of the military action, I mean the real threat.
Indeed, that paradox was actually, mainly inadvertently, brought out by President Chirac in that interview he gave on 10th March 2003 where he says —  before he says “we are going to veto” — he says that there has been some advance in compliance, but he thinks it is almost certainly because of the troops sitting outside Saddam’s door. That for sure was true.

Straw is so duplicitous that he “inadvertently” manages to contradict himself within a few lines at the same appearance at the Inquiry. No-one thought Saddam was complying, indeed they all thought he was not complying. Except that Chirac thought that there has been some advance in compliance, which Straw agrees with.

You couldn’t make it up. Well, not like Straw, anyway.


What’s the story?

by Richard Heller

There was an interesting development at yesterday’s session of the Commons public administration committee, which grilled Sir Jeremy Heywood on the delays to the Inquiry report. I had previously put to the committee my Yorkshire Post article, suggesting that Parliament subpoena the report as it stands and publish it in time for the election. Labour MP Paul Flynn put this to Sir Jeremy,  who said that this would be a matter for Parliament but suggested that it would be preferable for everyone to wait until the complete report was published, as Chilcot and his team intended. (That of course would mean, after they have agreed to any watering down of their conclusions in response to the Maxwellees.)

However, I had also put an alternative proposal to the committee. Chilcot could publish a “narrative verdict” on the Iraq war, as an interim report by the end of February, that is to say a full account of all the key decisions and events in the relevant period, citing all the sources they had used as far as they were allowed. This report would not pass judgment on any individual. The British people could then draw their own conclusions. Of course, all the political parties and the media could try to exploit this narrative verdict during the election campaign, but at least they would all be using a common, authoritative source and those who obviously misused it could be quickly exposed. The Inquiry would complete the Maxwellisation process and submit its final report, with its judgments on individuals, to the new Parliament after the election.

This idea was put to Sir Jeremy by Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland and it seemed to cause him some discomfort. He suggested that Chilcot and his team might find it impossible to “disentangle” their judgments from the factual passages in their report. I disagree – assuming that he and his team have done their job properly, and based their judgments on the full evidence that they have studied and presented. Their report is written: they have identified the critical passages and put them into Maxwell letters. All they need to do is remove those critical passages from the report and publish all the rest. (The excisions might conceivably create some discontinuities or non-sequiturs in the report, but these should be easy to remedy). I suggested to the committee that preparing this “narrative verdict” would not be too onerous a task for Chilcot and his team – who currently have nothing to do but wait for Maxwellisation responses. They could be given additional temporary staff. As Mulholland pointed out, this proposal circumvents all the delays created by the Maxwellisation process, whether these are reasonable or deliberately obstructive.

I believe that such a narrative verdict could be a valuable resource for British voters before the election. It could go some way to meeting the feelings of the victims of the Iraq war, who have waited so long for Chilcot.

The video of the session is here.

Dark Actors: A Register of Interests

by Rob Lewis

My book, Dark Actors: The Life and Death of David Kelly, was published earlier this month. It met with three early and prominent reviews, from writers who all have held very vocal positions on the matter of Kelly’s death and Iraqi WMD generally. While an author cannot begrudge such a high profile reception, these reviews contained some egregious misstatements that could cloud any serious study of our lead-up to the Iraq War, and they require some correction. This post also acts, then, as a defence of my book, but this is an inevitable corollary.

Writing for the Times, David Aaronovitch argued there is “a massive hole in my account”, to wit, that 9/11 gave both the intelligence services and Downing Street reason to fear that jihadis might acquire WMD, and this provided a sound rationale for the invasion of Iraq.

This, of course, by no dint of coincidence, echoes exactly the defence Blair gave at the Iraq Inquiry on the 29 January 2010, which makes Aaronovitch’s take the current Labour line (as it always is: both have shifted synchronously over the years).

“The crucial thing after September 11 was the calculus of risk changed,” Blair told Chilcot’s panel. “…[it] completely changed our assessment of where the risks lay… It’s a judgement we had to make. After September 11, I wasn’t willing to run that risk… it is not about a lie, a deception, a conspiracy. It is a decision. Could we take that risk? What this is all about is risk.”

Perhaps the chief problem with this line is that Blair was warned about terrorists and Iraqi WMD only once after 9/11, by no less a personage than Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, and as the Downing Street Memo shows, Dearlove warned him not that “the conjunction of terrorism and WMD” was a danger but that it was the straw man that Bush would use to justify regime change in Baghdad. It is a straw man that Blair has now adopted as his own. And considering the Joint Intelligence Committee never issued a single warning about the dangers of Iraqi WMD until it was specifically asked to by Tony Blair, whatever the spooks were worried about, it certainly wasn’t Iraq.


Growing dissatisfaction over delays

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?”

‘Working well’

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”.