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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)”.

Readmore..


Prime minister hints at shabby EU referendum fix

by Chris Ames

The Guardian reports that:

The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war will not be published until after the EU referendum, Downing Street has confirmed.

Other papers have picked up on David Cameron’s comments at PMQs today that ‘the Chilcot report will come not too much longer after’ the EU referendum on 23 June but the Guardian says that:

Downing Street sources later confirmed that July was the most likely timing for the publication.

It’s not clear whether this “most likely” is the basis for “confirmed” or an elaboration but what is more of a concern is why the Prime Minister has this information.

Last month I wrote on Comment is Free and here:

Penrose also said that Chilcot would give a firmer timetable for publication after [national security checking], but has suggested that this will still see publication in June or even July. He said the delay will not be because of the EU referendum, but because the report’s size means “it will take a number of weeks to prepare it for publication”. Has William Caxton been engaged to do the work, or should we be suspicious of some shabby fix?

The Inquiry has made clear that it will not be commenting until national security checking has been complete but it has not yet made any announcement and no date has been set. Obviously the absence of a date doesn’t mean they haven’t told No 10 that publication will be some way off.

I asked the Inquiry’s spokesman if he would comment on the appropriateness or accuracy of the No 10 briefing but he declined.

Should we be suspicious that the timing of the Inquiry’s report is not independent of government after all?

I think so.


National Security Checking begins today

by Chris Ames

I understand that the National Security Process will begin today, not last week as many people, including myself, were assuming.

But, because the process appears to involve officials visiting the Inquiry at some point today, rather than the report being sent to the government, it may be that the finishing touches are still being put to the report.

Note that Sir John’ Chilcot’s letter last October referred to officials being given ‘confidential access to the report’. The report will remain in the hands of the Inquiry throughout.

Publication is still going to be in June or July,


No further forward

by Chris Ames

Today’s debate on the National Security Checking process does not appear to have taken us beyond what has already been reported this week – that publication of the report is more likely to be delayed by the preparation of the report for publication rather than the checking process or the EU referendum.

Cabinet Office minister John Penrose told MPs:

we expect the inquiry’s report to be ready for national security checking in the week beginning 18 April—that is, some time next week. Once Sir John indicates that that is the case, the work will begin. As the Prime Minister promised, it will take no longer than two weeks.

Once that is done, the inquiry team will prepare the report for printing and publication. I should make it clear that at that stage, even when the national security checking process is complete, the report will still be in Sir John Chilcot’s hands and will not be released to the Government until everything is ready. The inquiry team has said that it will complete the remaining work as swiftly as possible, and Sir John Chilcot indicated in his letter to the Prime Minister last October that he expects publication in June or July this year.

He also said:

I want to reassure everybody, in Parliament and elsewhere, that the process will not and cannot be used to redact or censor material that does not need to be secret, or that might prove embarrassing to Ministers or officials from the time covered by the inquiry. I am also pleased to inform the House that I understand that the inquiry team expects to announce a firmer publication date soon after the national security checking process is complete

and:

I should also reassure the House that I have checked with senior officials in the Cabinet Office and been assured that nothing in the rules of purdah for the EU referendum could provide a reason to delay the publication of Sir John’s report once he delivers it to the Government. We will therefore publish the report as soon as it is delivered to us in its final form by the inquiry team, whenever that may be.

This last commitment does not even appear to be dependent on the government getting the report before the summer recess, although that seems almost certain now,

Meanwhile, the Guardian speculates about what the report might say, although this also seems to get us no further forward:

Senior military figures may be singled out for criticism in the long-awaited Chilcot report into the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which is due to be handed to Downing Street next week.

This is almost meaningless. The ‘may’ is speculative, while ‘singled out’ is contradicted by the rest of the piece and contradicts a controversial story six months ago that blame would be spread ‘far and wide’.

It seems that:

Ministers in focus will be the former defence secretary Geoff Hoon, former foreign secretary Jack Straw, and former international development secretary Clare Short, as well as Blair.

specifically:

The Chilcot report is certain to point to Hoon’s instruction to the then chief of defence staff, Lord Boyce, to delay military preparations so as not to alert parliament and the public, that war was a given, as one well-placed source put it to the Guardian.

So we’re back to ‘far and wide’, with ministers as likely to be criticised as generals, and no further forward.


Commons to debate national security checking

by Chris Ames

Tomorrow (Thursday) the House of Commons will debate a motion on the national security checking process that is due to begin next week, and specifically the motion:

That this House calls on the Government to conclude the National Security checking of the Iraq Inquiry report as soon as possible in order to allow publication of that report as soon as possible after 18 April 2016, and no later than two weeks after that date, in line with the undertaking on time taken for such checking by the Prime Minister in his letter to Sir John Chilcot of 29 October 2015.

Tory MP David Davis, one of those putting forward the motion, is quoted in heraldscotland as saying:

A lot of the reason it’s delayed already is haggling over what they can and can’t use. If they weren’t security clearing at that time, I don’t quite know what they think they were doing.

There’s really no argument for it taking any more than two weeks.

I think we’ll win the battle. If not, frankly, there will be an uproar.

Labour MP Paul Flynn is quoted as saying:

This is an attempt to keep it outside of the referendum and the political fallout from both sides.

I think they could publish it ahead of the referendum, but they won’t.

We all want to get things settled and to be informed and to know the truth about these events which took place, in our lifetimes.

The delay is sinful, damaging and wicked. The debate will be a chance to get some answers from the Government.

The trouble is, the Sunday Telegraph reported at the weekend the government is still saying it can complete national security checking in two weeks and that any subsequent delay will be because of a tortuous printing process, rather than the EU referendum.

Perhaps the debate will clarify this.


EU referendum may delay Inquiry report

by Chris Ames

The Telegraph reports that:

David Cameron is set to postpone publication of the Iraq War inquiry report until after the EU referendum, leading to accusations that he is deliberately postponing controversial announcements.

Senior Government sources confirmed that it is likely to be published after the June 23 vote, despite the fact it will be handed to ministers next month. Mr Cameron had previously suggested that he wanted to publish the report within two weeks of receiving it.

The prospect of a further delay was last night condemned by families who lost loved ones in the conflict amid accusations that the Government is attempting to avoid anything which could turn the public against them.

It’s no surprise and has been hinted at before. The usual pre-election Purdah rules will be applied in the run-up to the referendum.

But it gives the lie once again to David Cameron’s claim that the timing of the report’s publication is not something he can control.

As the Telegraph reports:

Matthew Jury, a solicitor representing the families of servicemen and women who died in Iraq, added: “The inquiry is meant to be independent. Once the report is completed and delivered, whatever the reason, the Government should have no right to delay its publication.

“The Cabinet’s Office only job is to use every reasonable effort and resource to ensure the report is published as soon as is possible.

“The Government has no right to pick and choose the date of publication to suits its own political agenda, whatever that might be.

On the other hand, it’s just a question of holding back the report until after the election, there should be plenty of time to publish the report before the Summer recess.


Cabinet Office dates dossier wmd draft

by Chris Ames

A year ago, I made a freedom of information request to the Cabinet Office to find out more about who wrote certain drafts of the dossier. It’s a long story but it has finally elicited some new information that clarifies something that has been baffling me for years, i.e. going back to the Hutton Inquiry.

I asked which draft dossier (or section thereof) was circulated with a handwritten note by John Scarlett dated 6 September 2002, which was at an early stage of the re-writing of the wmd dossier published later that month.

It always appeared as if the document circulated with the note was a version of the wmd section of the dossier headed “Section 6” that was adjacent to the note on the Hutton Inquiry website.

But if this document was produced and circulated on 6 September 2002, that didn’t seem to fit with other evidence about the drafting of the dossier. Various other documents released to me under FOI, including documents dated 9 September, contain comments with page and paragraph numbers referring a draft dossier said to represent the state of drafting on 5 September.

However, the Cabinet Office has told me that the document circulated by Scarlett was indeed the “Section 6” on the Hutton website. This fills in a few gaps in the chronology.

For a start it does show that comments from the Defence Intelligence Staff were on a draft dossier that had already been superseded.

But foreign office spin doctor John Williams was aware when he produced his ‘9 September’ draft, which the Cabinet Office persuaded Lord Hutton was not relevant, that the wmd section had been updated. He wrote: “I don’t propose to rewrite this until I take delivery of the new version.

The new wmd section was produced very soon after it was identified as section 6 of a newly structured dossier at a meeting on the afternoon of 6 September. The document is very similar to the earlier draft except that the historical parts have been removed.

It was also produced and sent soon after the DIS sent over a form of words describing illicit revenue generation and wmd funding at 15.29 on 6 September. The same words appear in the draft.

It isn’t clear who made the handwritten changes to the draft but both they and the typed changes can be found in the 10 September draft dossier attributed to Scarlett, along with elements of Williams’s drafting.

The remaining hole in the story appears to be Williams’ rewrite of the intelligence section.

 

 


Is Sir Jeremy Heywood at the centre of blocking my FoI request?

by Chris Lamb

In drafting my case for appealing the Information Commissioner’s decision backing the Cabinet Office’s refusal to disclose the official advice and discussions around the setting up of the Iraq Inquiry, I have been presented with the task of fleshing out the meaning of the so-called “chilling effect”.

The alleged “chilling effect” of the disputed information – deterring the candour of civil servants in offering advice to ministers in future and driving decision making into backroom, unrecorded channels – is the key reason put forward by the Cabinet Office, and accepted by the Information Commissioner, for blocking this request.

Reputable academic commentators on the “chilling effect” – such as the Constitution Unit at University College, London – have described it as a very slippery concept and have found very little evidence to suggest that it exists at central government level. The Constitution Unit, in surveying civil servants, has found that adhering to conventions based upon civil service professional ethics – such as being impartial and objective and recording decisions – takes precedence over a so-called “chilling effect”.

My task in searching out meaning for “chilling effect” in relation to the information I was requesting was made particularly difficult because neither Cabinet Office correspondence or the Information Commissioner’s Decision Notice offered clues to work out answers for the most basic questions. Logically, one would ask who, or which civil servants stand to be “chilled” by the discosure; how and why would they be?

The appeal process, through the First Tier (Information) Tribunal, has not been more helpful in this respect.

I have been forced to argue my case against a wholly abstract “chilling effect”, operating upon unspecified civil servants – except for the known quantity that they are central government senior civil servants – with next to no evidence explaining the how and why. All the Information Commissioner’s Office and Cabinet Office have to say of the matter is that if I knew the content of the information I would understand the “significant and notable” chilling effect accorded to it, but as I do not know unfortunately I cannot understand this.

It appears an information blocking fait accompli. Readmore..


Cabinet Office shambles delays Inquiry

by Chris Ames

The Information Tribunal has rejected my appeal against the Information Commissioner in my attempt to have all documents declassified for publication by the Inquiry released now, rather than having to wait for the Inquiry to publish its report. The question of whether it is reasonable and in the public interest for the information to be withheld so that the public do not try to make sense of it without guidance from the great and the good was not decided. During the appeal, the Cabinet Office introduced a new exemption under Section 12 of the FOI Act – that the cost of retrieving the information would exceed the relevant limits. They won the case because they convinced the Tribunal – and indeed me – that their record keeping is a complete shambles.

But the case did reveal a new reason for the delay to the Inquiry, particularly in the long-running process of getting documents declassified. For reasons that are unclear, where the Inquiry should have written to the relevant government department for permission to publish each piece of information, it instead addressed all its requests to the Cabinet Office, which then had to write to the relevant department, which then wrote back to the Cabinet Office, which then wrote back to the Inquiry – and so on.

The notorious protocol governing publication of information sets out very clearly what should happen:

The Inquiry will notify the department, agency or service within HMG which is the originator of the information or that was the recipient of the information if it originated from outside HMG (the “lead government department”) …

The lead government department, following consultation with other government departments with an interest in the information and, where applicable, any third party source of that information, will respond to the Inquiry, in writing, as soon as possible…

Rather surprisingly, the Cabinet Office’s witness – a deputy director – told the Tribunal that, as the sponsoring department for the Inquiry, the Cabinet Office was the “lead department” for all requests. Clearly, the lead department changes according to a specific piece of information. The Cabinet Office claims to have been facilitating the declassification process and making sure deadlines were met, which is pretty laughable in the circumstances. It seems control freakery provides a better explanation. Of course, the inquiry secretary is Cabinet Office insider Margaret Aldred.

The protocol doesn’t actually refer to declassification either but to the Inquiry being allowd to publish documents or extracts. Another interesting distinction that emerged during the hearing was that the original documents have not themselves been declassified, just the versions held by the Inqiury. Astonishingly, it appears that the Inquiry is both redacting the documents as instructed and stamping them “declassified”. Because the Cabinet Office’s record keeping is so bad, it is largely having to trust the Inquiry to do this as instructed.

Although in its written submissions, the Cabinet Office claimed that the Inquiry would publish its report and the evidence in June or July 2016, as suggested in Sir John Chilcot’s recent letter to David Cameron, its witness had to admit that there is no guarantee that it will even come out this year.

So here we are in 2016. We may see the end of the Inquiry this year. Or we may not.


A moral and pragmatic duty to publish lessons now

by Chris Ames

In the Guardian, Richard Norton-Taylor says:

As MPs prepare to vote on whether or not the RAF should bomb Syria, the Chilcot report on the 2003 invasion of Iraq – the policy decision now widely recognised as the original sin that paved the way for Islamic State – should have been essential reading.

MPs have instead been summoned to meetings to talk to “experts” – David Cameron’s reference to intelligence agencies that he is reluctant to identify after the disaster in Iraq. We are having to wait until next summer, more than 13 years after the invasion, to hear what Chilcot says about “lessons learned”, the main purpose of his inquiry.

Devastating – but now largely forgotten – testimony to Chilcot points to parallels between 2003 and today that should be there for all to see: the dangers of trying to topple dictators without filling the power vacuum they leave behind; of bombing a country without taking responsibility for what’s happening on the ground; and of military intervention increasing, rather than diminishing, the terrorist threat.

He concludes:

Chilcot has a moral as well as pragmatic duty to publish now at least a summary of the lessons his inquiry has learned – and help avoid further tragedies.