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Cameron out of order

by Chris Ames

In the following exchange in the Commons yesterday, Alex Salmond’s criticism of David Cameron seemed to get support from Speaker John Bercow:

Alex Salmond (Gordon) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You may recall that, last Thursday, there was considerable disquiet across the House about the seven-year delay in the publication of the Chilcot inquiry and the fact that the Government chose not to make a statement on that. You invited those on the Government Front Bench to consider that position, but I now understand that the Prime Minister has declined to make a statement. This involves matters that are clearly the Government’s responsibility, including claims that the Cabinet Secretary delayed the release of documents, and matters that relate to the national security timetable, which has been built into the release of Chilcot. Given the need to avoid such a disgraceful situation occurring again, in the light of the seven-year delay, can you confirm that it would have been in order for the Government to make such a statement without prejudicing the independence of the inquiry? Do you also agree that the decision not to do so—given the considerable offence caused to the 179 service families waiting for answers from the inquiry—is a matter for the Prime Minister alone?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I am happy to confirm that it would have been entirely orderly for a statement by a Government Minister to be made on this matter. The right hon. Gentleman is an extremely experienced parliamentarian, and he knows that that is an entitlement of a Minister but that it is not an obligation that the Chair can impose upon a Minister. In the absence of an offer of a Government statement, he will also be well aware that there is a range of options open to hon. and right hon. Members who seek to elicit from the Government a statement of their current thinking on the matter in question. He does not need me to provide him with the toolkit, but I am happy to confirm its existence.

Did No 10 ask for 7 March legal advice to be burnt?

by Chris Ames

The Mail on Sunday has another story on Iraq:

Tony Blair was rocked last night by a new crisis over Iraq after it was revealed that Ministers were told to ‘burn’ a secret document which said the war was illegal.

The Mail on Sunday has learned how Downing Street descended into panic on the eve of the war when Attorney General Lord Goldsmith told Mr Blair the conflict could be challenged under international law.

The Prime Minister was horrified, and Ministers and officials who had a copy of Goldsmith’s written opinion were told: ‘Burn it. Destroy it.’

Ten days later, with the invasion just days away, Goldsmith did a U-turn and said an attack could be justified. Among those who were told to ‘burn’ their copy was Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, who flatly ignored the order.

A big flaw in the story, apart from the fact that the document was not burnt, as the story concedes, is that the advice did not say the war was illegal and Blair was not so unhappy with it that he wanted it burnt.

As the note of a meeting on 11 March 2003 records, Blair accentuated the positive of Goldsmith’s advice, which Goldsmith and chief of defence staff Michael Boyce also thought was good enough:

The Attorney General’s advice made it clear that a reasonable case could be made that UNSCR 1441 is capable of reviving the authority of UNSCR 678, although of course a second resolution would be preferable.

There is nevertheless a clear history of Blair marginalising Goldsmith, keeping him out of the picture until he came up with a better answer on the legality of the war, and hiding his equivocation.

In evidence to the inquiry, the Foreign Office’s chief legal adviser Michael Wood told of No 10’s reaction to a paper Wood wrote in October 2002 “on the consequences of the United Kingdom using force against Iraq without there being any international legal authority”:

It did go to Number 10, who said, “Why has this been put in writing?”

Estimate is not good enough – families

by Chris Ames

The Telegraph reports that:

Sir John Chilcot should be bound by Parliament to publish the Iraq War inquiry report in April, say families of the conflict’s victims who are concerned that the completion date is only “estimated”.

Sir John has so far only committed to an “estimate” of producing the report in the week starting 18 April next year in a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron this week.


The families of members of the Armed Forces who died in Iraq said that they want MPs to agree a “parliamentary declaration” to force Sir John to commit to that week.

They are also still holding out the prospect of a High Court action to ensure that pressure is maintained on the Iraq War inquiry.

From one point of view, the families – and their lawyers – are right to be unhappy that Chilcot has only given an estimate for handing the report over. Although it is the first time he has given any timetable, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that repeated delays in the past damage confidence in meeting it.

Another point of view is provided by Charles Moore, also writing in the Telegraph.

The purpose of the inquiry is not to assist the bereaved, though it should be respectful of their feelings. (Sir John’s team has met family groups to explain to them what is happening.) It would actually be wrong if its timetable or content were affected by their views. It is not a moral thing if inquiries of this kind are wrenched round to vindicate, comfort or compensate victims or their families for what happened.

The purpose of an inquiry such as Chilcot is to study and thus improve how public policy in a controversial matter was made and implemented. It is supposed, in doing so, to serve the interest of good government for all, not of any particular individual or group, however meritorious or suffering.

Blair denies responsibility for delay

by Chris Ames

The Office of Tony Blair has issued the following statement:

Tony Blair has always wanted the Inquiry to report as soon as it properly can and he looks forward to responding to the Inquiry’s report.

“Mr Blair also wants to make it clear that the timetable of the Inquiry and the length of time it will have taken to report is not the result either of issues over the correspondence between him as Prime Minister and President Bush; or due to the Maxwellisation process.

“As for the first, the correspondence has been with the Inquiry from the beginning. The only question was over how much of the correspondence could be published in the final report not about its content being used to inform the report. In any event that question was resolved between the Cabinet Office and the Inquiry in May 2014.

“Secondly, Tony Blair received the deliberations of the Inquiry under the Maxwell process in full only in January 2015, four years after the Inquiry finished taking evidence. He responded by August. This is not therefore the reason for the delay as Sir John Chilcot has made clear.

“It is our understanding that other witnesses also received information very late in the process, so any suggestion that witnesses have been the cause of the delay is categorically incorrect and this has again been stated clearly and publicly by Sir John.

It’s interesting and quite revealing but, like a lot of what Blair says, looks shaky under close inspection.

For example, just because the question of what could be published from the Blair/Bush correspondence was resolved last May doesn’t mean it didn’t hold the process up until then. Note that Blair has not denied involvement in that issue.

Also, Blair is saying that it took him from January to August to respond to Maxwellisation. And that is from when he got “the deliberations … in full”.

On the Maxwellistion point, the Guardian’s politics blog quotes an interesting point from Richard Norton Taylor:

It became clear, as the Maxwellisation process got under way, that Whitehall had held back relevant documents from the inquiry only to give them later to those the inquiry planned to criticise. This has caused further delays, and aggravated the deteriorating relations between Chilcot on the one hand, and Whitehall, backed by 10 Downing Street, on the other.

For it also should be remembered that it is not only Blair and former Labour ministers and political advisers who will be attacked, but senior Whitehall officials – sometimes called the permanent government. Armed with a powerful weapon – the final say over what documents could, and what could not be published, they have fought a rearguard action against Chilcot.

“Disappointed” Cameron: get on with it!

by Chris Ames

The Inquiry has now published David Cameron’s reply to Chilcot’s letter. Cameron is not only “disappointed”, he has asked Chilcot to hurry up.

Thank you for your letter of 28 October setting out a timetable for the completion of the work of the Iraq Inquiry.

Whilst it is welcome of course that there is now a clear end in sight for your Inquiry, I am disappointed – and I know the families of those who served in Iraq will also be disappointed – that you do not believe it will be possible logistically to publish your report until early summer.

I recognise that you have a significant task, but would welcome any further steps you can take to expedite the final stages of the Inquiry. I have seen your letter of 28 October to the Cabinet Secretary requesting additional resource to support the publication process, which I can confirm that we are happy to provide. As I have underlined previously, we remain ready to provide whatever further assistance we can in order to support the conclusion of your work, and I am very happy to provide more resource if it would allow the Report to be published more quickly.

In relation to National Security checking, the Government will aim to complete the process as quickly as possible. As you know, National Security checking for the Savile Inquiry took two weeks to complete. It would certainly be our plan and expectation to take no longer than this, and we will look to complete the process more quickly.

I am content for you to publish this letter alongside yours.



Chilcot: I need another six months

by Chris Ames

Statement from the Inquiry:

The Iraq Inquiry has today published a letter that Sir John Chilcot, the Chair of the Inquiry, sent to the Prime Minister on 28 October.

The letter states that the Inquiry expects to be able to complete the text of its report in the week of 18 April 2016.  At that time, confidential access will be given to a team of officials for National Security checking.  Sir John wrote “I entirely understand that a checking process is necessary and is normal procedure in Inquiries which have considered a large volume of sensitive material” to ensure that the Government meets its obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights and for the protection of National Security.

Sir John also explained “The very considerable size of our report – more than two million words in total – means that it will take some weeks to prepare for printing and publication … We will complete that work as swiftly as possible.  I consider that once National Security checking has been completed it should be possible to agree with you a date for publication in June or July 2016.”

Sir John ended his letter “My colleagues and I remain committed to producing a report that will meet the very wide ranging terms of reference we were given and reflect the considerable investment of time and effort by all involved.”

The Oborne Inquiry

by Chris Ames

On BBC Radio 4 tonight at 8 PM is Peter Oborne’s Chilcot Report. Oborne has written a piece for the Mail on this, while the BBC explains the programme here:

Sir John Chilcot’s report into the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is nearly five years late. He is about to reveal when he will publish it. Political commentator Peter Oborne cannot understand why there has been such a delay.

So for BBC Radio 4’s The Report, he studied much of the testimony given to Sir John and asked some of the witnesses who appeared four key questions at the heart of the inquiry. Here we set out what those questions are and reveal Peter Oborne’s own conclusions.

The Digest has its own list of eight questions for the inquiry. Oborne concludes that his questions “can be answered very simply.”

Did the British Government mislead Parliament about weapons of mass destruction? Yes.

Did the War very substantially increase the threat from Al-Qaeda? Yes.

Is there hard evidence that Tony Blair entered into a secret deal with the US President? No.

Was the war illegal? Yes.

The trouble with this article is that the questions it sets out become simpler from their first exposition to Oborne’s conclusions. For example, the third question starts off as “Did Tony Blair enter into a secret agreement with George W Bush that the UK would support US military action come what may?”.

It clearly matters exactly how you phrase the question although in this case, I think the answer is “yes” to both versions. If you take the longer version of the question, and leaving aside whether he got anything in return, the issue is whether Blair’s secret promise was to support US military action come what may, i.e. to invade/bomb Iraq if that is what George Bush decided. In his Mail article, Oborne says that when David Manning told Condoleezza Rice on Blair’s behalf in March 2002:

I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change…

This was “consistent with Blair’s repeated public statements that he was ready to disarm Saddam by force only if peaceful means did not work and the Iraqi leader couldn’t be persuaded by the United Nations to give in.” I don’t agree, particularly when Christopher Meyer, one of Oborne’s witnesses, told Paul Wolfowitz, using the same “script”, that the clever plan was to “wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and the UN SCRs”.

But of course there is also evidence that Chilcot has seen but which hasn’t been published. For example, Blair’s note to Bush in July 2002, which allegedly says:

“You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I’m with you.”

I think that equates to “come what may” in anyone’s book.

More on Blair’s non-apology

by Chris Ames

Writing on Al Arabiya, Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, points out that Tony Blair did not apologise for the war and dissects the three issues that Blair addressed.

Blair’s first apology was for something he was not directly responsible for and something he had already said before. “I apologize for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong.” He was given faulty intelligence, so it was not his fault in fact at all. He blames the intelligence services.

Apology number two was little better. “I also apologize for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime.” He does not exclude himself from the blame but he certainly shares it out but only for ‘some’ of the mistakes note. Was it a mistake in understanding? Blair was clearly and expertly briefed by experts on Iraq about many of the consequences of an invasion and occupation that did actually arise. This included the consequences of a power vacuum, looting, sectarian tensions and greater Iranian influence. The reality was Blair did not want to listen. After all, it is crystal clear he had made a pact with President George Bush in April 2002 and was in no mood to entertain doubts.

His third non-apology was a most ground-breaking admission – that the war contributed to the rise of ISIS. “I think there are elements of truth in that…. Of course you can’t say those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015.”

Doyle then takes issue with Blair’s claim that “ISIS actually came to prominence from a base in Syria and not in Iraq,” arguing that “ISIS originated, flourished and expanded from Iraq with its core leadership being Iraqi”.

After offering an account of what an apology from Blair might look like, Doyle concludes:

Neither will Blair make such an apology, nor will many accept it. Blair aside, there are many others, George Bush, included who should own up to their own sorry part in this. They have yet to do so.

In the meantime perhaps Mr. Blair could take the advice of the former Chief of Staff, Lord Dannatt, and maintain ‘a dignified silence’ until the Iraq inquiry reports whenever that will be. Blair will be hoping it will never happen, a bit like his apology.

Similarly, in a piece for the Belfast Telegraph, Eamonn McCann says:

There’s near-unanimity everywhere that Tony Blair’s “apology” for his role in the Iraq War won’t wash. His statement to CNN last Saturday – “I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong” – wasn’t an apology at all. Blair was claiming he’d acted innocently on information which turned out to be inaccurate. This is not true.

It should be noted that McCann’s piece is aimed at Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former Chief of Staff, in particular and relates to Powell’s current involvement in Northern Ireland.

More spin from Blair

by Chris Ames

Writing on the CNN website, Tony Blair both tells us that it is too early to tell whether invading Iraq was a good idea and rehearses some of his excuses:

The actual lesson of Iraq is not complicated but clear. When you remove the dictator — no matter how vicious and oppressive — you end one battle only to begin another: How to stabilize and govern the country when the ethnic, tribal and particularly religious tensions are unleashed after the oppression has been lifted.

This is the true lesson of both Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it doesn’t mean that it is right to keep the dictator in place. Or possible. Because the lesson of what used to be called the “Arab Spring” — beginning in 2011 — is that with young and alienated populations deprived of political rights, these dictatorships no longer had the capability of maintaining control.

The real choice for the Middle East was, and is, reform or revolution. So when we come to reassess Iraq, it is possible to disagree strongly with the decision to remove Saddam Hussein in 2003, to be highly critical both of the intelligence on WMD and the planning for the aftermath, and yet still be glad that he is gone.

Blair again tries to suggest that it was the intelligence that he was given that was at fault, rather than his misrepresentation of it. He is so addicted to spin that he just can’t help it. This from the man who told us that intelligence described by the Butler Review as relatively thin and full of caveats was “extensive, detailed and authoritative“.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph reports General Lord Dannatt as telling Blair he should “maintain a dignified silence” until the Inquiry reports. Rather more interestingly, it also reports that Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has written to David Cameron urging him to ensure that national security checks do not further delay publication:

Mr Farron said: “It is simply not good enough for this process to be continually delayed and the report must be published as soon as possible.

“The Prime Minister must now set out his own timetable and let the families know just how long his National Security Council needs to go through the report and get it out in the public domain”

Matthew Jury, from McCue and Partners who represents the families of servicemen killed in Iraq demand to know more detail about the national security vetting process to ensure the report was not a whitewash

He told The Telegraph: “This ‘vetting’ is another process that may, if mismanaged, misapplied or abused, cause further delay to the Report’s publication.

“The families have a right to know what the vetting process entails, who oversees it and, most importantly, how long it will take.

“From the very outset, a timetable and deadline must be imposed and adhered to.”

Sir John Scarlett and nuggets of gold

by Rod Barton

A recent Freedom of Information request by Chris Ames for the release of an email sent by John Scarlett in March 2004 to the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) has been declined by the FOI team in the Cabinet Office.  In the scale of the Chilcot Inquiry does this really matter? What is the significance of one email sent so long ago?

I believe it is important for a couple of reasons.

Sir John Scarlett was in March 2004 the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in the Cabinet Office. This was the very same JIC that in September 2002 published the distorted assessment on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in the notorious ‘dodgy dossier that was instrumental in taking the UK to war with Iraq. The claims made by the JIC, and others in the Coalition, that Iraq had secretly manufactured WMD were subsequently investigated by the ISG. And in early March 2004 the ISG was in the final stages of issuing a Status Report on its findings; I was the editor of that report.

Although the ISG was led by the CIA, it had small contingents of inspectors from the UK and Australia and therefore comments on the draft Status Report were sought not only from Washington but also London and Canberra. And that is how John Scarlett became involved. I clearly remember the morning of 8 March 2004 in Baghdad when I received Scarlett’s suggestions for the report. I was shocked and dismayed.

I was a former Australian director of intelligence and had in fact, on a posting to London in the late 1980s as the Australian Defence Intelligence Liaison Officer, attended many JIC meetings. A prime role of the JIC, which comprised all the heads of the various UK intelligence agencies and other senior civil servants as appropriate, was to consider and approve national intelligence assessments. Discussions of the JIC usually revolved around whether an assessment was fairly based on the available evidence and whether its wording accurately reflected the uncertainties of the intelligence – in other words, whether an assessment was balanced and objective.

I was greatly impressed by the JIC process as it ensured, as far as possible, that an assessment was free from bias. Australia at that time had no equivalent mechanism.

Scarlett’s proposals in his email of March 2004, deviated from the very principles of good intelligence assessment that the JIC, at least at one time, had aspired to. His email suggested that 8 or 9 “nuggets” be inserted into the Status Report to give it more substance. These “nuggets” had been picked out of a September 2003 ISG report and Scarlett should have been well aware by regular feedback from the ISG that there was in fact no substance to these intelligence leads of six months earlier. Readmore..