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Cameron to demand that Chilcot names a publication date

by Chris Ames

The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour reports that:

An impatient David Cameron will demand Sir John Chilcot names the date by which his report into the British invasion of Iraq will be ready for publication.

The prime minister is expected to tell Chilcot he wants to see the report as soon as possible. “Right now I want a timetable,” he told journalists.

Exasperated by the repeated delays into the publication of the report, Cameron fears it may not be published until as late as summer next year. The aim is to get a publication timetable from Chilcot but it is unlikely one will be given before MPs return from their summer break in September

“I cannot make it go faster because it’s a public inquiry and it’s independent,” Cameron will tell Chilcot, “but I do want a timetable and I think we deserve one pretty soon.”

Cameron’s officials said he will demand Chilcot puts a clear timetable on his desk, including the date by which the report will be published.

It’s not entirely clear how this will help. Chilcot has said that he can’t produce a timetable because he doesn’t know how long the Maxwellisation process will take. He can’t even say when he will produce a timetable.

But if producing a timetable means setting a limit to the amount of time that Maxwellees and their lawyers are allowed to drag the process out, that will effectively mean making it go faster, which Cameron says he can’t do.

Lessons learned: invade Iraq and prosper

by Chris Ames

The FT reports that Sir Simon McDonald, who was chief foreign policy adviser to prime minister Gordon Brown and head of foreign and defence policy in the Cabinet Office from 2007 to 2010, will become the top civil servant at the Foreign Office. McDonald was also principal private secretary to foreign secretary Jack Straw between 2001 and 2003 but was only asked to give evidence to the Inquiry about his later role. McDonald is one of many civil servants involved in the decision to achieve regime change in Iraq whose careers have serenely sailed on while we wait for the Inquiry to report.

The FT notes that:

Sir Simon told Britain’s Iraq war inquiry that the UK’s reputation in the Middle East had been enhanced by the conflict.

He said: “It is a part of the world that knows about military might, a part of the world that respects a country that is willing to put its forces where its mouth is.

Sir Simon also said the Iraqi government had looked favourably on Britain for key commercial decisions, citing an auction of oil rights where British companies “did pretty well”.

Here is the relevant passage from the transcript on the first quote:

SIR RODERIC LYNE:You have been one of the very few senior foreign policy officials dealing with the Middle East throughout the period of this Inquiry’s remit and I would like you to sort of look very widely and give us your assessment of the overall effect of our involvement in Iraq on the achievement of British foreign policy and security policy objectives.
Has it helped or hindered us in combating terrorism? Has it contributed to peace and stability in the Middle Eastern region generally or the opposite? Has it helped us or hindered us to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions? These are all very high priority items. What has it done overall for the United Kingdom’s standing in the Middle East and more widely in the world?
MR SIMON MCDONALD: I think most of the problems you describe exist separate from what we did in Iraq, that if we had or had not done something in Iraq, we would still have a problem with Iran, we would still have a problem with Israel or the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, we would still have issues of terrorism around the Middle East.
I think the fact that the British stood up, the British fought, the British were alongside the  Americans, the British followed through, wins a certain respect from significant parts of the Middle East, not everybody, but it is a part of the world that knows about military might, a part of the world that respects a country that is willing to put its forces where its mouth is, and I think that’s part of what we did in Iraq.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that McDonald ducked most of Lyne’s questions about the net effect of invading Iraq. This is one of the problems with a “lessons learned” inquiry that questions serving officials. They will spin and obfuscate if the honest answer potentially reflects badly on the government. Sharp-eyed readers will also note that Sir Simon was only “Mr Simon McDonald” at the time.

Although the invasion of Iraq was in no way motivated by oil interests, McDonald did indeed tell the Inquiry that it helped the UK’s oil interests: Readmore..

Robert Maxwell: his part in the Iraq Inquiry

by Richard Heller

A quarter of a century after his death, the bulky shadow of Robert Maxwell is now stopping the British people seeing the truth about the Iraq war. The old rogue achieved a curious immortality by giving his name to Maxwellization, the procedure by which any public inquiry is obliged to give individuals some kind of advance notice of intended criticisms, and an opportunity to respond to them, before they are published. (Rather delightfully, Tony Blair has become a “Maxwellee” for the Iraq inquiry, along with an unknown number of other people).

The Inquiry has entered this stage, but none of us know what it entails and its likely timeframe. Chairman Sir John Chilcot has published two recent letters on its progress, one to the Prime Minister and one to Crispin Blunt MP, the energetic new chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.

However, these leave open some crucial issues about the Inquiry’s approach to Maxwellization and what steps are now required to complete it.

The current issue of Private Eye (number 1397) has an excellent analysis of Maxwellization in an article “Reports lost at sea”. Although mainly devoted to the delayed report into the collapse of the HBOS bank, it also deals with the Inquiry. It goes back to the original proceedings involving Maxwell, which arose from a Board of Trade inquiry in the late 1960s on his fitness to be a company director, and draws comparisons with the Maxwellization procedures used recently in the recent Leveson inquiry into the media and the Francis inquiry into the NHS in Mid-Staffordshire.

Private Eye suggests plainly that Chilcot has been too generous in his treatment of Maxwellees.

One does not have to accept that suggestion to be afraid that Maxwellization could allow Tony Blair and others too much scope to delay the Iraq inquiry by demanding that it look at new evidence and by invoking the right to see successive drafts and redrafts of intended criticisms and respond to them.

For that reason I believe it is imperative for Chilcot and Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to give public answers to the following ten questions. Readmore..

Information Commissioner backs Chilcot’s monopoly

by Chris Ames

As I have described previously on the Digest, I have tried to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain release of the huge pile of documents that have been declassified for publication by the Inquiry but which John Chilcot is refusing to publish because, however long he is taking to publish his report, we cannot be trusted to interpret the evidence without it. As he told the Foreign Affairs Committee in February:

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.

Unsurprisingly, the Cabinet Office has blocked my requests, citing section 22 of FOIA, where information is exempt from publication if “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)”. The Cabinet Office claims that this describes the information in question. Now, in a decision notice (pdf), the Information Commissioner has backed the Cabinet Office and backed Chilcot’s monopoly ownership of the evidence. I have appealed to the “Information Tribunal”.

The decision is outrageous for a number of reasons and it is clear that the Commissioner has bent over backwards to please the Cabinet Office, which now has responsibility for FOI and is carrying out a review that threatens to curtail our right to know. Readmore..

Chilcot writes to the Foreign Affairs Committee

by Chris Ames

The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has published this letter from Sir John Chilcot to its chairman, Crispin Blunt. Perhaps the most significant part is:

Those engaged in the Maxwellisation process have engaged fully, and I continue to judge that no-one has taken an unreasonable time to respond given the range and complexity of the issues under consideration.

It is implicit in the letter that some responses have yet to be received. Chilcot says that once all responses have been received, “evaluated carefully and the process concluded” a timetable for publication can be drawn up. This is a bit garbled as it implies that the process must be “concluded” before a timetable for publication can be drawn up.

Chilcot also suggests that during his recent meeting with the Cabinet Secretary he was open to offers of assistance, both in terms of “steps that can be taken now” and “the additional assistance the Inquiry will wish to call upon in its closing stages.”

Spend more, spend less

by Chris Ames

The Independent on Sunday reports that:

Mounting anger over the sums of money paid to Sir John Chilcot and his committee have prompted calls for the Government to stop any further payments, amid demands by politicians for publication of the Iraq inquiry’s report without further delay.

An analysis by this newspaper of all accounts released by the inquiry reveal that Sir John, his fellow committee members, and their advisers, have shared more than £1.5m in fees since the inquiry began in 2009.

This averages out at £231,308 each. And last year alone £892,400 was spent on the wages of the 11 civil servants and three support staff who comprise the inquiry’s secretariat.

It’s not really a lot of money over six years. The IOS works out what it calls a “combined day rate” of £3,615 for four Inquiry members and two advisers. On these calculations, last year’s total of £119,300 implies that these people were paid for an average of only 33 days each. But the IOS has plenty of outraged politicians linking the cost to the public purse with the lack of progress and calling for drastic action.

“The whole way this has been conducted is outrageous. This sort of work rate confirms what we have all suspected – there’s no element of urgency in this inquiry. It’s completely unacceptable,” Jake Berry, Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen, said.

“We should have a fundamental review of the cost of this inquiry. No further payments whatsoever should be made until the report has been published,” he added.

The IOS also picks up on yesterday’s story in the Mirror, criticising Chilcot for not taking up an offer of extra staff, apparently made by Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood at their meeting, which took place on 7 July.

Stubborn Iraq Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot has snubbed an offer of help aimed at speeding-up his long-delayed report.

David Cameron suggested giving the probe chief more staff in a desperate bid to finally publish his findings.

But Sir John dismissed the offer to boost his team, claiming extra workers were not needed.

It isn’t clear how extra staff would help the Inquiry obtain and analyse responses under the Maxwellisation process. What we end up with is some people calling for more public money to be spent on the Inquiry, while others think it should be less.

Government “has not received” any drafts of report

by Chris Ames

In response to a written question from the SNP’s Roger Mullin, asking

how many drafts of the forthcoming report by Sir John Chilcot into the Iraq War have been received by the Government; and on which date each such draft was received.

Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock answered: “none”.

It would appear then that the government has not been sent a draft of the report, although it may have seen extracts. In addition, some officials who might be criticised are still in office.


PM urged to ‘pull plug’ on Chilcot

by Chris Ames

The BBC reports that:

The Iraq Inquiry should be wound up and Parliament should decide what to do next with its unfinished report, a former attorney general has said.

Lord Morris told peers the panel led by Sir John Chilcot seemed “incapable” of delivering its report into the 2003 conflict and should be discharged.

Cabinet Office Minister Lord Bridges disagreed:

“The inquiry is independent of government and, most importantly of all, it has taken a long time to get this far, and it needs to be able to complete its work as quickly as possible so we can learn the lessons,” he said.

“Removing them from office or stopping this now is not in the best interests of this work.”

Morris’ s suggestion, by means of an oral question in the Lords, was first reported in John Rentoul’s story a couple of weeks ago, which claimed that the report was “unlikely to be published for another year at least”.


The truth about the Inquiry “could undermine” it

by Chris Ames

The Government is blocking disclosure of secret advice given to Gordon Brown about the Inquiry, which it says “would risk undermining the Inquiry before it publishes its report”.

The Government’s assertion comes in a decision notice (pdf) issued by the information commissioner, who has backed the refusal of the Cabinet Office to disclose the advice under the Freedom of Information Act, despite agreeing that it could throw light on several controversies surrounding the inquiry.

The request was made by Digest contributor Chris Lamb, whose freedom of information requests for disclosure of the minutes of two pre-war Cabinet meetings have twice been vetoed by ministers.

In the decision notice, deputy commissioner Graham Smith made clear that the content of the information – “a detailed and candid examination of the various issues and options associated with the establishment of the Inquiry” – was crucial to his decision. He said that “there is some merit” in the Government’s claim that the inquiry would be undermined and that the “the high profile and potentially controversial nature of the subject matter and the level at which such advice was provided and discussed” mean that the information should be withheld from the public.

In his complaint to the commissioner, Chris Lamb suggested that the secret advice could answer a number of questions about the inquiry, which began six years ago, including why it has taken so long, why then prime minister Brown appointed members with question marks over their impartiality, why it was set up without a lawyer and why it was precluded from making judgments on the legality of the war. Brown originally tried to hold the Inquiry in secret.

Smith acknowledged that disclosing the advice could “provide some insight” into these questions. He also agreed that Chilcot’s ongoing failure to publish his report added “further weight to public interest arguments in favour of disclosure.” Ultimately however he ruled that the potential for controversy and damage to the inquiry justified keeping the advice secret.

Quite astonishing, but the commissioner seems to be badly behind the curve in trying to maintain public confidence in an Inquiry that everyone else is “fast losing patience” with. In another decision notice, also a response from Smith to a request from Chris Lamb, the commissioner, backed the Cabinet Office’s refusal to disclose copies of correspondence between officials and the secretary to the Inquiry (Margaret Aldred).

In a typically inept failure to keep up, Smith cited and did not challenge the Cabinet Office’s argument in support of its use of Section 22 of the FOI Act:

pointed out that in a letter to the Prime Minister dated 13 July 2012,5 Sir John Chilcot explained that to ensure that the evidence was seen in its full context and to ensure the fair treatment of individuals, the Inquiry did not intend to publish further material piecemeal in advance of the final report.

Back in February, in front of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Chilcot made clear that there was now a “settled body of evidence” that he could publish but will not publish, because the public cannot be trusted to make up their own minds.

It does have to be said that if the commissioner were to understand that Chilcot is now arguing that the public cannot be given all the information and trusted to make up their own minds, he would probably agree.



New delay story follows calls for Chilcot to be sacked

by Chris Ames

The Independent on Sunday’s John Rentoul claims that the Inquiry report will be even later:

The Chilcot report has taken six years and cost £10m but is “unlikely to be published for another year at least”, according to sources close to the inquiry.

Rentoul also reports that former Labour attorney general Lord Morris has put down a question asking David Cameron to assess:

“the case for discharging the Chairman and members of the Chilcot inquiry, and inviting the Cabinet Secretary to set out a mechanism for an interim report to be produced on the basis of the evidence gathered”

Rentoul also says that:

The Independent on Sunday understands the inquiry is still asking the Cabinet Office to declassify documents, suggesting that the report into the Iraq war is still being written.

This doesn’t necessarily follow. Chilcot said in February that the main reason for continuing declassification requests is that people who have been warned about possible criticism have been generating new requests:

To give you one example, if someone who has been sent a provisional critical text as a witness comes back with a quite different piece of evidence from a document that we had not either seen or adduced…

It may be of course that the scale of the rebuttal from Blair and others has bogged the Inquiry down on all fronts.

In terms of what might happen, Rentoul, a regular follower of the Digest, points out that:

Although the Iraq inquiry is independent of government, the Prime Minister has the power to publish all the documents that have been disclosed to the inquiry panel

In fact, the government merely has to stop blocking my Freedom of Information requests for disclosed documents to be published.