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..

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.





What Meyer told Armitage

by Chris Ames

A letter in July 2002 from the UK’s then ambassdor to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, to Tony Blair’s chief foreign affairs adviser, Sir David Manning, is perhaps as revealing as any of the previously leaked Downing Street documents, including an earlier very candid note from Meyer to Manning. But, although the Inquiry both published the letter and included it in its narrative, it did not allow itself to be deflected from its false narrative, that Blair was seeking to use ‘the UN route’ as a peaceful means to disarmament, rather than regime change.

The letter describes a meeting between Meyer and Richard Armitage, US Deputy Secretary of State, on 24 July 2002. This was a day after the Downing Street meeting on Iraq and four days before Blair’s “I will be with you, whatever” letter to Bush.

A handwritten annotation, which appears to be from Manning, says: “Christopher and I discussed the issues before he saw Armitage.” This provides evidence that Meyer was passing on Manning’s line, and therefore Blair’s.

As the Inquiry report notes, Meyer told 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.”

That’s about as blank a cheque as you can get and perhaps even more explicit and specific than Blair’s note. As the Inquiry also notes, Meyer told Armitage that it was

“very important to be able to build a public case for attacking Saddam;
exhausting UN processes on inspections; and unwinding violence between the Israelis and Palestinians were part of this strategy”.
Again, pretty clear evidence that the “UN route” was part of a stategy for regime change, not a way for
the UK to reconcile its objective of disarming Iraq, if possible by peaceful means, with the US goal of regime change.
That was just the spin that an inquiry by the British establishment used to play down wrongdoing by the British establishment.

Leaning lessons line by line

By Chris Ames

The Guardian reports that:

Military officials are going through the 2.6m-word Chilcot report “line by line” to learn crucial lessons in the face of its damning criticism of the way UK troops were deployed in the US-led invasion of Iraq, a crossparty group of MPs has been told.


Brigadier Ben Barry, retired, whose written statement to Chilcot has still not been published, told the Guardian on Tuesday the report failed to hold anyone to account about the slowness in responding to the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), such as roadside bombs.

“The chief of defence staff, permanent secretaries (top civil servants) and defence ministers have not been asked the necessary hard questions on this,” Barry added.

The Guardian also points out that:

in a little-noticed passage of the report, Chilcot says Gordon Brown, then chancellor, “should have ensured that estimates of the likely overall cost of a UK intervention in Iraq, for military and civilian activities during the conflict and post‑conflict period, and the wider implications for public expenditure were identified a identified and available to ministers and cabinet”.

The Powell note and the Chilcot fudge

by Chris Ames

As I’ve said before, the fundamental problem with the Inquiry report is its completely untenable claim, in spite of a mass of evidence to the contrary, that Tony Blair was seeking a resolution of the issue of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, with a threat of regime changes as a lever, rather than the other way round.

This assessment, which the panel must know to have been untrue, seems to be based on nothing more than a succession of witnesses lying through their teeth and despite Blair himself declaring in evidence that he chose to “confront and change” (ie regime change) rather than to toughened containment, which was how the March 2002 Options Paper described the policy that he was publicly articulating.

Thus, the report concluded:

12. In Mr Blair’s view, the decision to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US was an essential demonstration of solidarity with the UK’s principal ally as well as being in the
UK’s long‑term national interests.
13. To do so required the UK 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 Hussein did not comply with the demands of the international community, and by seeking to persuade the US to adopt that strategy and pursue it through the UN.

Among the documents released by the Inquiry that show that the objective of disarming Iraq “if possible by peaceful means” was ditched as incompatible with the US objective of regime change is Jonathan Powell’s note to Blair of 19 July 2002.

This document talks about (providing George Bush with) “a roadmap to getting rid of Saddam”, by issuing an ultimatum and finding a legal base through WMD rather than through regime change. Blair wrote across the top of the document “I agree with this entirely”.

Given how clearly this document sets out the way that the WMD ploy would be a part of the regime change plan to justifiy overthrowing Saddam and Blair’s express agreement, I was astonished at the weekend to read an article by the Institute for Government’s Daniel Thornton (a former private secretatry to Blair) describing the document as

the most important internal advice makes clear that the UK had specific objectives that it was trying to achieve by influencing the US, such as using the UN to encourage Iraq to give up its weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

I’m not sure which bit of a roadmap to getting rid of Saddam via an ultimatum, Chilcot and Thornton didn’t understand.

Another of the Inquiry’s conclusions that is contradicted by the Powell note is the claim that:

523. By late August 2002, the Government was troubled by intense speculation about whether a decision had already been taken to use military force. In Mr Blair’s words, the US and UK had been “outed” as having taken a decision when no such decision had been taken.
524. Mr Blair’s decision on 3 September to announce that the dossier would be published was a response to that pressure.
525. The dossier was designed to “make the case” and secure Parliamentary (and public) support for the Government’s position that action was urgently required to secure Iraq’s disarmament.

The Powell note also includes in its routemap to getting rid of Saddam:

We need to make the case. We need a plan and a timetable for releasing the papers we have prepared on human rights abuses, WMD etc.

These papers are of course the dossier and Powell and Blair are proactively planning in July 2002 to release them. The assertion that the dossier was a reactive measure is a straightforward lie and that the Butler Inquiry, on which Chilcot sat, was told and accepted at face value. Chilcot accepted it all over again, although the must have known it wasn’t true.

On the bright side, in an excellent article for the London Review of Books,  A Grand and Disastrous Deceit, Philppe Sands both catalogues the report’s criticisms of Blair and points to its failings:

Yet the inquiry has chosen to hold back on what caused the multitude of errors: was it negligence, or recklessness, or something else? In so doing it has created a space for Blair and the others who stood with him to protest that they acted in good faith, without deceit or lies. To get a sense of how this space was created requires a very thorough reading of the report. But two techniques can be identified immediately.

First, the inquiry has engaged in salami-slicing, assessing cause and motive in individual moments without stepping back and examining the whole. The whole makes clear that the decision to remove Saddam Hussein and wage war in Iraq was taken early, and that intelligence and law were then fixed to facilitate the desired outcome. On legal matters, Blair manipulated the process, forcing the attorney general to give legal advice at the last possible moment, with troops already massed and a coalition ready to roll. He would have known that Goldsmith was less likely at that stage to have said that war would be illegal. […]

Second, on the basis of material I have seen but isn’t in the public domain, I believe the inquiry may have been excessively generous in its characterisation of evidence.