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Inquiry to publish Scarlett “nuggets of gold” email

by Chris Ames

First the good news. The Cabinet Office has told me that the Inquiry will publish the notorious email that the then Joint Intelligence Committee chairman, John Scarlett, sent the head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) as it failed to find weapons of mass destruction in post-invasion Iraq.

But the bad news is that the Cabinet Office has used this as an excuse not to release (most of) the email under the Freedom of Information Act, even though it knows (and has been told by the Information Commissioner) that it cannot use this excuse, given that the intention to publish followed by FOI request.

As Digest contributor Rod Barton sets out here, Scarlett’s email in March 2004 was an attempt to sex up the ISG’s Status Report, to cover the UK government’s embarrassment.

If it doesn’t get lost in the rest of the report, disclosure of the Scarlett email will be a major scandal, albeit that Scarlett is likely to get a lot of stick for the government’s misuse of shaky intelligence in the September 2002 Iraq dossier and has already been discredited for trying to sex up the dossier the first time round.

The Cabinet Office should be given credit for admitting that some of the exemptions that it applied, relating to national security and international relations, cannot be applied over a decade on, although it says that the FOI Act Section 23 exemption relating to security bodies still applies to some information.

That isn’t stopping the Inquiry publishing the full memo. However, the Cabinet Office says that a “subsequent” request from the Inquiry, to which it agreed, means that the document is “therefore exempt under s22” of the Act.

More bizarrely, the Information Commissioner has gone further than the Cabinet Office in assessing that the whole document is exempt under s23.

The Information Commissioner: finding new ways to restrict the public’s access to information.

Preparing to debate the report

By Chris Ames

The Guardian reports that:

The Liberal Democrats, who opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, will try to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from dominating the anti-war side of the argument in the wake of publication of the Chilcot report next month by calling for a two-day Commons debate about the inquiry.

As it’s Patrick Wintour, there is more from Tony Blair’s supporters.

Behind the scenes in the Labour party, efforts are under way to reconcile Tony Blair’s determination to defend his decision to go to war with Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding view that the war was illegal. Some senior shadow cabinet figures are trying to broker a compromise that allows both Blair and Corbyn to state their strongly held positions without starting a political civil war.

And, somewhat bizarrely, Wintour adds:

It is expected that the report will be extremely critical of the role of the then head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, and will examine claims that he became too close to Blair and too eager to believe intelligence that Saddam Hussein retained chemical weapons capability. Dearlove has defended himself by arguing that many senior figures in the Saddam regime believed it retained weapons of mass destruction.

It’s not clear where this fits into the story and whether it’s new information or a random piece of speculation.


The Chilcot Report – An end to smoke and mirrors?

Piers Robinson

​​​Of the many issues that the Inquiry is expected to report on, the issue of deception and its role in paving the road to war in Iraq is the most longstanding and controversial.

Shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Andrew Gilligan reported suggestions by the UK’s leading biological weapons expert, Dr David Kelly, that intelligence had been manipulated for political purposes.

Across the Atlantic, Ambassador Joseph Wilson made similar claims regarding the US government. Since then the idea that people were deceived or lied to by the Bush and Blair administrations in order to mobilise support for war has been widespread and persistent.

This should be of little surprise. The multiple and changing justifications for war, coupled with the failure to find any usable weapons of mass destruction (WMD) within Iraq, has led perhaps most of the British and American public to believe they were misled.

Moreover, democracies are not supposed to go to war based on lies and, in legal terms, unprovoked aggression is a most serious crime. The casualty toll from the Iraq war and its aftermath is horrific with some estimates putting the number of dead around the million mark. The stakes are very high. Readmore..

Ministers ordered to disclose advice to Brown on setting up inquiry

by Chris Ames

Digest contributor Chris Lamb has won – for now – his Freedom of Information battle to force the Cabinet Office to disclose “candid” advice from top civil servants to Brown about setting up the inquiry, despite claims that this could undermine the inquiry before it publishes its report.

But the Cabinet Office has delayed release of the advice by indicating that it intends to appeal against the ruling by the information tribunal.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is likely to have provided some of the advice and could well be behind the move to suppress it.

He was in charge of the Downing Street machine under Brown and was principal private secretary to Blair in the run-up to the invasion.

The papers, which date back to the setting up of the inquiry in 2009, could show why the inquiry was set up with limited powers and why it has taken so long.

For example, the Inquiry’s report is not expected to reach any conclusion on the legality of the invasion, having been set up by Brown when he was prime minister as a ‘lessons learned’ inquiry by privy councillors, rather than a judge-led inquiry.

In a unanimous ruling, the tribunal overturned an earlier decision by the Information Commissioner, who had backed the Cabinet Office’s refusal to disclose the advice .

To be allowed to appeal, the Cabinet Office will need to show that it is contesting a point of law. Given the strength of the ruling against it, this cannot be taken for granted. In the meantime, the tribunal judge has suspended the order to disclose the information.

According to the Commissioner, the secret advice to Brown consists of “a detailed and candid examination of the various issues and options associated with the establishment of the Inquiry”.

The Cabinet Office argued that disclosing the advice would have a “chilling effect” on officials in future. The Commissioner agreed that these arguments “attract particular weight given the high profile and potentially controversial nature of the subject matter and the level at which such advice was provided and discussed, being the highest level in government”.

Having seen the documents, the Commissioner accepted “that there is some merit in the Cabinet Office’s argument that disclosure of the withheld information could undermine the Inquiry itself”.

But the tribunal rejected these claims, pointing out that it is “precisely at the highest levels of the Civil Service that the public expects to find the highest standards of official behaviour, including robustness in giving a Prime Minister the best possible advice, candid though it may need to be”.

Setting out the tribunal’s decision, Judge Peter Lane wrote that the documents would be seen as “precisely the kind of high-quality and frank advice, which the public would expect the Prime Minister to be given”, and rejected any suggestion that publication might preclude or impede the inquiry from finishing its report.

The decision notice revealed that the tribunal had provided further assessment of the documents in a confidential annex, sent only to the Cabinet Office and the Commissioner.

The tribunal concluded that there is a “very strong public interest in understanding how the Inquiry came to be created and why a privy councillor-led panel was chosen”.

Blair and Rentoul insult our intelligence

by Chris Ames

Yesterday on the Andrew Marr show, Tony Blair hinted that he may have the arrogance to reject the Inquiry’s verdict if it accuses him of making a secret deal with George W Bush to overthrow Saddam – while pretending to be seeking a resolution, peaceful if possible, of the issue of Iraq’s WMD.

Blair said:

I don’t think anyone can seriously dispute I was making it clear what my position was.

This has echoes of something the Blair apologist John Rentoul said last week, while accusing Jeremy Corbyn of “weasel words”:

It was not a secret that Blair supported Bush in confronting Saddam Hussein, by force if necessary.

After all these years, Rentoul – and presumably Blair – think they can still bridge the gap between seeking regime change and what Blair said he was doing by using the phrase “confronting Saddam Hussein, by force if necessary”.

But of course, Blair is being accused of a policy of confrontiing Saddam Hussein, by force if that’s what Bush decided. As Blair pointed out in the Inquiry, the March 2002 Iraq Options paper, which will be published next month,

really said two things. It said you can either go for containment. We can’t guarantee that that’s successful. He will probably continue to develop his programmes and be a threat, but nonetheless that is one option. The other option is regime change.

The Options paper sets out the option of toughening containment in almost the same terms as the policy that Blair set out very clearly – confronting Saddam, by force if necessary. The option of regime change is the policy he is accused of pursuing in secret – setting out to use WMD as a pretext for overthrowing Saddam.

It insults everyone’s intelligence to pretend that the two can ever be merged back together.



No decisions were taken in the aftermath of 9/11

by Chris Ames

I think Tony Blair’s latest attempt at pre-emptive spinning, as covered briefly in my earlier post today, deserves a little bit more analysis, as it includes a shift of approach and an insight into what he will say when the report comes out.

As has been pointed out, it’s quite unfair and unsatisfactory for the people who have been criticised to know long in advance what will be said and to have an opportunity to spin while everyone else waits.

Having said that, it’s fairly clear that Blair will be criticised for claiming to be seeking a resolution to the alleged problem of Iraq’s WMD while secretly plotting to overthrow Saddam, if that’s what George Bush decided. Even before the latest leaks, the publication of the Downing Street documents gives Chilcot nowhere else to go.

So, just to repeat what Blair said this week:

“I have a real humility about the decisions that I took and the issues around them,” he said.

“I was trying to deal with this in the aftermath of 9/11 and it was very tough, it was very difficult. I think it’s important that we also have humility then about the next phase of policy making, so we try and actually learn the lessons of the whole period since that time.”

Blair is here referring to “the aftermath of 9/11, which would appear to be a reference to late 2001 and early 2002. But no decisions were taken in that period we were told, again and again.

He seems to have missed the point: he will be criticised for making a decision and lying about it. Saying that any decisions he took “in the aftermath of 9/11” have to be seen in that context doesn’t excuse the lying, however much humility Blair claims to feel.

While we are waiting…

by Chris Ames

Into the gap created by the ludicrously protracted process of publishing the report after the EU referendum come a play, a book and, of course, some more meaningless spin from Tony Blair.

Richard Norton-Taylor (with others) has done another of his verbatim plays, “Chilcot” edited down from the Inquiry evidence. It’s finishing a short run in Manchester tonight and then the Battersea Arts Centre in London from 1-10 June. Richard writes about it here.

As mentioned previously, Peter Oborne has a book, Not the Chilcot Report, which I helped with. The BBC’s John Simpson writes about it here.

Meanwhile, ITV News reports

The former Labour leader also said that he had to make tough decisions about the controversial 2003 Iraq invasion – an episode that made him deeply unpopular.

“I have a real humility about the decisions that I took and the issues around them,” he said.

“I was trying to deal with this in the aftermath of 9/11 and it was very tough, it was very difficult. I think it’s important that we also have humility then about the next phase of policy making, so we try and actually learn the lessons of the whole period since that time.”

Sounds more like arrogance than humility to me.Please see it my way.

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption.

And speaking of deeply unpopular:

More than half the public say they can “never forgive” Tony Blair for embroiling the UK in the war in Iraq.

Brutal for Blair – and Straw, Sun says

by Chris Ames

The Sun (on Sunday) says:

TONY Blair and Jack Straw will be savaged in a long-awaited report into the Iraq War, sources revealed last night.

The ex-PM “won’t be let off the hook” over claims he promised America he would send our troops in a year before the 2003 invasion.

And harsh criticism will be aimed at ex-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw over the disastrous post-invasion stewardship of Basra and southern Iraq. An ex-minister with knowledge of the report’s findings said: “It will be absolutely brutal for Straw.”

We have to be careful of course about what axe an ex-minister with knowledge of the findings has to grind. Is it someone who himself – or herself – is due to be criticised and wants to make sure attention is focussed on other culprits?

Here are some more of the Sun’s claims, perhaps with different sourcing:

Mr Blair will be lambasted for over-egging the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, a source who has spoken to two of the report’s authors claims.

Ex-spy chief Sir Richard Dearlove will also be rapped for letting Mr Blair and his aides put a “gloss” on intelligence about the Iraqi tyrant’s doomsday weapons.

An insider says the report will slam Mr Blair for telling US President George Bush a year before the war that he would support military action.

He said: “It is clear that he did commit himself to Bush at an early stage and didn’t want to be seen as letting him down.”

This led to a “gloss given to intelligence assessments” and the claim in a dodgy dossier that Saddam could attack British targets at 45 minutes’ notice.

Of course, to anyone who has followed all the evidence, all of this is obvious, It’s always been a question of whether Chilcot, like the Butler review on which he collaborated, will pull his punches.


What is Dearlove up to?

by Chris Ames

The Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary says:

As the publication date of the Chilcot report into the Iraq war approaches with an urgency that makes Godot look punctual, a timely resurgence from Sir Richard Dearlove yesterday. The former MI6 chief appeared from the shadows earlier this week to compare offering visa-free access to Turkish immigrants with “storing gasoline next to the fire”. But is he simply warming up for a bigger story?

The Londoner is told that Dearlove, who was in charge of the British Secret Intelligence Service during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is said to be putting the finishing touches on a book about that difficult period of British history. The report is due in July, after a seven- year wait, and we hear that Dearlove, who is not expecting to come off well in the proceedings, will publish his version of events soon after.

Dearlove has previously threatened to use his memoir to retaliate against Chilcot:

A former head of MI6 has threatened to reveal explosive new details behind the ‘dodgy dossier’ scandal if he objects to the long-awaited findings of the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War.

Sir Richard Dearlove, 68, who provided intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) that was apparently ‘sexed up’ by Tony Blair’s Government, has spent the last year writing a detailed account of events leading up to the war. 

He had intended to keep his work under lock and key and made available only to historians after his death.

But now Sir Richard has revealed to The Mail on Sunday that he could go public after the Chilcot Inquiry publishes its findings.

It seems Sir Richard may not like what Sir John will say. So kind of Sir John to give him advance notice so he can prepare his retaliation.

But, as I’ve said before, how dare Dearlove keep things back from Chilcot? Or, to put it another way, what can he have to say that he wouldn’t have already used in his own defence?

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)”.