More from: Secrecy

Humiliation for the Information Commissioner

by Chris Ames

In 2013 I made a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a list of the documents that government departments had so far “declassified” for the purposes of publication by the Inquiry. The point was to establish which and how many documents the Inquiry was at that time sitting on and refusing to publish.

This was refused under Section 22 of the FOI Act on the grounds that this information was intended for future publication, i.e. when the report is finally published. This was factually wrong because, as the Inquiry has made clear, there is no plan to tell the public when specific documents were declassified; it will not therefore be possible to look back and establish which documents were declassified at the time of the request.

The Information Commissioner nevertheless sided with the Cabinet Office. In his decision notice, the Commissioner wrote:

In view of Sir John Chilcot’s comments, which indicate that the Inquiry is in its closing stages (and therefore that publication will follow), he has concluded that in all the circumstances it is reasonable for the Cabinet Office to continue to withhold the information.

The reference to Sir John Chilcot’s comments are to the letter Chilcot sent David Cameron in July 2013. It has now become clear that the Inquiry report will not be published until at least 18 months after the Commissioner decided that it was in its “closing stages”.

Perhaps the Commissioner will be less keen to side with the establishment next time. Or perhaps not.

 

 

 


Chilcot may have compromised less than we thought

by Chris Ames

Sir John Chilcot’s letter to David Cameron is now on the Inquiry website, along with Cameron’s reply. I’m still not clear why Chilcot’s letter couldn’t have been posted yesterday, when it was sent.

Chilcot’s letter does suggest that he has been rather more  than he previously said in getting the government to agree to publication of key exchanges between Tony Blair and George Bush. He says “the Inquiry has reached agreement with Sir Jeremy [Heywood] on the publication of 29 of Mr Blair’s notes to President Bush, subject to a small number of redactions”. He previously accepted that only “gists” of such documents would be published. Either Chilcot is overstating things or he is (eventually) going to disclose more direct evidence than we thought. The number has also increased from 25 notes, perhaps after more were discovered, as Chilcot’s earlier statement suggested.

On the issue of records of conversations, Chilcot says that “Agreement has been reached … consistent with the principles agreed last year”.

Of course the difference between a note and a record of a conversation is that the latter includes what Bush said, which is a much more sensitive issue. There is no fundamental justification for not disclosing what the British prime minister wrote to someone else, unless it contains something that in itself should not be disclosed.

 


If Brown’s promise had been kept…

by Chris Ames

Listening to Lord Wallace erroneously recalling what the previous government promised about how the report would be published, I was prompted to look up what Gordon Brown actually said. On 15 June 2009, when he first announced what was originally intended to be a behind-closed-doors inquiry, Brown told the House of Commons:

while the inquiry will be done in private, the report will be fully published for people to debate in this House. People will be able to see for themselves what conclusions are drawn by the inquiry. At the same time, as I said to the House earlier, I have asked the inquiry to publish all the information other than the most sensitive military and security information. The House will therefore have a chance to debate a fully comprehensive report that covers eight years and covers all issues in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the conflict.

As I pointed out a few months later, Brown broke this promise of openness when the Cabinet Office and the Inquiry agreed a protocol for the disclosure of information that held back documents far beyond “the most sensitive military and security information”. The Inquiry has apparently been significantly delayed by arguments over the disclosure of papers that, had Brown kept his promise, would have been published without the cabinet secretary having a veto.

 


Iraq’s “hidden'” chemical weapons

by Chris Ames

The New York Times reports that:

From 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule.

In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The NYT story focuses on the US Government’s alleged concealment of these discoveries and injuries as well as the fear that remaining chemical agents may have fallen into the hands of IS/ISIS.

Interestingly, the 2004 report of the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group said that

While a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions have been discovered, ISG judges that Iraq unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in 1991. There are no credible indications that Baghdad resumed production of chemical munitions thereafter, a policy ISG attributes to Baghdad’s desire to see sanctions lifted, or rendered ineffectual, or its fear of force against it should WMD be discovered.

Just one of many ironies in this story.


“Everything he wants to publish”

by Chris Ames

According to the Financial Times:

Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary, told a parliamentary committee on Thursday that Sir John Chilcot had written to him recently to say “he will be able to publish everything he wants to publish”.

Heywood was appearing before the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. It seems the rest of what he said was a lot of yes but, no but:

“My starting point for this is I would like to publish everything that the Chilcot inquiry would like to publish. I start from a presumption of maximum transparency.”

He acknowledged this approach conflicted with “longstanding conventions about the publication of documents”, including Cabinet minutes and details of conversations between the then-prime minister Tony Blair and US president George Bush “that one would not normally dream of . . . becoming public for a variety of very strong reasons”.

Discussions had been undertaken with legal advisers, the Foreign Office and the US in considering which could be made public, he added.

Highlighting transatlantic sensitivities, Sir Jeremy added that he wanted to publish “the maximum possible without destroying our relationship with the US [and] without revealing secrets that don’t need to be revealed”.

If you are thinking, well he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Asked by Paul Flynn, a Labour MP and longstanding critic of the Iraq war, whether his previous close working relationship with Mr Blair had influenced his decision about which documents to publish, he insisted it had “nothing to do with my loyalty to a previous prime minister”.


Has Chilcot lost his credibility?

by Chris Ames

Reading between the lines of  John Chilcot’s expression of “pleasure” that an “agreement” has been reached over the disclosure of the most controversial material, it seems that Chilcot himself gave quite a lot of ground some time back and the Cabinet Office has finally accepted his compromise offer.

Chilcot records in his letter that, having accepted that there was no prospect of the documents themselves being published, even in redacted form,

the requests submitted by the Inquiry last summer were for permission to disclose quotes or gists of the content

This explains the frustration expressed in last month’s Independent article:

Sources close to Sir John and his four colleagues say they now regard the Cabinet Office’s attitude towards to their requests as “ridiculous and intransigent”.

It seems pretty clear that, having watered down their demands, Chilcot and co were furious that the Cabinet Office still wouldn’t play ball. Now the Cabinet Office seems to have been given a kick up the backside and told to accept the compromise. As to where that leaves us, I think Gary Gibbon’s analysis is excellent:

The letter from Sir John Chilcot to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood shows two seasoned mandarins in slow motion protocol wrestling.

The younger one, Sir Jeremy, a worthy successor in the mandarin dynasty, is clinging on to the old rules Sir John used to preserve on confidentiality.

The end result is a compromise reached through a process of glacial pace.

Some are reporting this latest letter as “agreement reached on documents.” What they’ve actually agreed is “agreement on the principles” for what will be seen by us of the Tony Blair/George W. Bush phone call transcripts and notes of conversations.

The detail of what will be shared is something that will now be discussed.

There was a similar “principles” agreement on Cabinet minutes and what we could see of them.

It came around July 2013. It wasn’t until about five months later that the older and younger mandarin and their respective teams agreed what exactly would be redacted and what would be published.

The documents they’re now going to clear for (very) partial publication or paraphrasing are even more sensitive. Maybe they’ll get through this lot at breakneck speed but the precedents don’t suggest that.

Chilcot also says in his letter that the Inquiry has concluded that the quotes and gists will be “sufficient to explain our conclusions”. But that requires a huge leap of faith from the rest of us that there isn’t something in the material that isn’t being published that might lead us to reach different conclusions. Based on previous experience of establishment inquiries on Iraq, that is perhaps asking too much.


US loses key Blair letter

by Andrew Mason

The Mail Online and the Independent are reporting that an otherwise unknown UK-based FOI requester has told the Mail that a ‘critical’ letter from Tony Blair to George Bush, previously reported to have contained the words “You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I’m with you”, has been lost by US authorities.

Last night, a British-based source involved in the effort to obtain the release of the letters told The Mail on Sunday: ‘The lawyers are taking months to evaluate the letters and decide whether to release them.

‘However, they claim not to have been able to locate the “with you whatever” letter.’

This is not to say that the Chilcot Inquiry hasn’t already had access to a British copy of the same letter. Indeed, Sir John Chilcot, in his letter of 10 December 2010 to then Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, stated:

Content of Exchanges

8. So far as the content of the notes from Mr Blair and the discussions between him and President Bush are concerned, the Inquiry has asked only for the declassification of views expressed by Mr Blair on issues which, after careful consideration, the Inquiry has concluded are central to its work. The material requested provides important, and often unique, insights into Mr Blair’s thinking and the commitments he made to President Bush, which are not reflected in other papers. It would also allow us to provide a balanced account.


Decisions, decisions

by Chris Ames

On Tuesday, Tony Blair hid behind the self-evident fact that he doesn’t formally decide when the Inquiry report is published as a way of denying, without actually saying very much, that the delayed publication was anything to do with him. That brings to mind another occasion when he sought to deny something by hiding behind a claim that no decisions had been taken, but ended up lying anyway.

In July 2002, Blair appeared before the House of Commons liaison committee. He was asked by Donald Anderson:

Are we then preparing for possible military action in Iraq?

He replied:

No, there are no decisions which have been taken about military action.

As a response to the question he was asked, the “No” was a straightforward lie. The fact that he chose to frame his reply in a phrase that he had rehearsed and deployed earlier does not negate this and only someone bending over backwards in the most contorted denial would say that Blair did not lie here. It had been decided to prepare for possible military action. That was a decision which had been taken.

Blair contradicted his false denial himself – in terms – during his second appearance before the Inquiry, in January 2011 . He was asked by Martin Gilbert:

A critical decision was therefore your decision that we should be prepared to join the Americans in using force and that we should prepare to use force ourselves. Can you tell us at what point you took that decision?

He replied:

I think after September 11th.

 


Blair: not me guv

by Chris Ames

The BBC has reported this evening that Nick Clegg has said that it is time to get on with publishing the Inquiry’s findings. Meanwhile, Tony Blair has taken some of Clegg’s comments as an attack on him and has had a go back.

This is what Clegg said, according to the BBC report, at his monthly press conference today:

 “I can’t comment on exactly the reasons why, given that there was a lot of toing and froing about what is finally produced in published form in the report, exactly what the hold-up now is.

“This involves a lot of people, it involves a lot of legalities and of course deals with a very, very sensitive issue.

“But I really do hope now that everybody involved, including those who know they will be subject to renewed scrutiny within the Chilcot report, that they will now accept that it is just time to get this report published so that the record can be scrutinised in the most objective way possible.”

Mr Clegg also said: “This was one of the most momentous, in my view one of the most catastrophic decisions in British foreign policy – I would say the most catastrophic decision – since Suez.

“It is quite right that as a country we learn the lessons, we understand the truth and that those who might not like to be subject to further scrutiny subject themselves to the further scrutiny which will be included in the Chilcot report.”

Note that he has suggested twice, while claiming not to know “exactly what the hold-up now is”, that people who might be trying to avoid scrutiny are responsible for said hold-up. This could be a reference to Blair, or it could be a reference to the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood. But, according to a further report from the Independent, Blair has gone for the former interpretation:

In an angry response, a spokesman for Mr Blair said: “If Nick Clegg is implying Tony Blair is the reason for the delay that is completely wrong. Tony Blair has as much reason as anyone for wanting the report published.

“Not least because it gives him a chance to defend himself against Nick Clegg’s assertion that removing Saddam Hussein from power was ‘the most catastrophic decision since Suez’, whilst daily the consequences of inaction over Syria become ever more apparent.”

Returning to this morning’s Independent story, which very much looked at the ongoing delay from the point of view of the current Labour leadership, it says that:

Claims that a “compromise agreement” had been reached have proved to be mere optimism.

Or it may have been the Cabinet Office putting a positive spin on it, as it continues to do:

 “The Cabinet Office has been in a constructive dialogue with the inquiry team over recent months, with a clear view to meeting their declassification requests.

“This has involved several thousand documents, subject only to ensuring that national security and foreign policy objectives are not compromised as provided for in the protocol agreed at the outset of the inquiry. That process should be concluded shortly.”

A classic use of the word should there, which as we all know, does not mean yes. But the Cabinet Office is partly right, Chilcot did at the outset give it complete control over what he could publish, as I noted at the time:

[the protocol] gives a long list of reasons why publication might be refused, the majority of which have nothing to do with “national security”. As with the Freedom of Information Act, if ministers and officials want to suppress something, they are spoilt for choice. And they have an absolute veto. In the event of a dispute that cannot be resolved, “the inquiry shall not release that information into the public domain.”

There does seem to be a wide gap between the Cabinet Office saying that things are progressing and the Inquiry sources quoted in the Independent as saying that the process remains stalled. Who knows what the truth is?

 

 

 


Chilcot compromises, Guardian claims

by Chris Ames

Today’s Guardian says that:

Tony Blair is preparing himself for the defining moment of his post-prime ministerial career as Whitehall sources confirmed that Sir John Chilcot will publish his report into the handling of the Iraq war in the new year.

A compromise agreement between Chilcot and the cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who had been resisting calls for the publication of correspondence between Blair and George Bush, is understood to mean that the final stages of the inquiry can be started in the new year.

What exactly “the new year” means is not clear. It clearly isn’t imminent as the inquiry has to pick up where it left of with the “Maxwellisation” process of writing to Blair and others to tell them what the proposed findings are so that they can have them watered down.

It’s a badly mangled report that describes this process, and then says at the end of the same paragraph:

Extracts of the correspondence are now expected to be published in the report in redacted form.

Presumably, despite its context, this refers to the correspondence between Blair and Bush. Given that it’s an establishment inquiry and is reported to have reached a compromise with the establishment, the redacted versions will go something like: “Dear George…. yours ever, Tony”.

The spinning has already started of course.  It’s pretty obvious that this is coming from Nick Clegg:

A senior Whitehall source told the Guardian: “In the new year it seems the Chilcot inquiry is going to be published. Everyone will be assuming: bad hair day for Tony Blair and Jack Straw. The Conservatives can’t say or do very much given that Iain Duncan Smith was further ahead than Blair. But the Conservatives are irrelevant to it.”

And then there is this:

Blair’s office and the Iraq inquiry declined last night to comment on the timing of the publication of the report. But it is understood that the former prime minister is relaxed about the publication of his correspondence with Bush. Some friends of Blair say that the report would lack credibility unless the correspondence is published.

In his evidence to the inquiry Blair said it was important to protect the confidentiality of correspondence between a prime minister and a president. But friends point out that Blair went out of his way to explain the correspondence without breaking confidences.

So the tactic of putting your spin on something that other people haven’t seen is spun as going out of your way to explain the correspondence. Classic Blair.