More from: Secrecy

Cabinet Office still blocking advice to Brown

by Chris Ames

In the Observer, Jamie Doward and I report that the government is still refusing to release the secret advice to Gordon Brown about setting up the inquiry, dispite Digest contributor Chris Lamb’s successful information tribunal appeal (and despite the Cabinet Office’s attempt to appeal to the upper tribunal being rejected).

The advice could show why the panel of privy counsellors was picked, why it was set up as a lessons learned inquiry and why it was unable to rule on the legality of war,

Chris Lamb is quoted in the article, as is Philippe Sands QC.

Will a censored Chilcot be worth the wait?

by Chris Ames

I have posted a piece for Comment is Free this afternoon. Here is the original version:

The end to the seemingly interminable Iraq Inquiry is in sight, for sure. A couple more months perhaps and with scope for another dose of farce and some more censorship. To use a cliché that predates even the inquiry, the glass is half full. Or is it still half empty?

On the positive side, we are on track for publication of the inquiry report (in parliament and simultaneously on the Inquiry’s website) in June or July, as per the timetable set out by Sir John Chilcot in October.  But why it will take quite so long is inexplicable.

Sometime this week, and possibly as you are reading this, a near-final version of the report will be winging its way from the ”independent” inquiry to the government, which will then complete a process of national security checking within two weeks.

Reassuringly, Cabinet Office minister John Penrose told MPs on Thursday that the process “cannot be used to redact or censor material that … might prove embarrassing to Ministers or officials”.

But this is only reassuring until you remember that Gordon Brown told MPs when he launched the inquiry that “the final report will be able to disclose all but the most sensitive information—that is, all information except that which is essential to our national security”. Officials then drew up a list as long as your arm of reasons why information might need to be withheld. “National security” covers a multitude of sins.

Penrose also said that Chilcot would give a firmer timetable for publication after this, 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?

Penrose gave MPs an assurance that the government will publish the report “as soon as it is delivered to us in its final form by the inquiry team, whenever that may be.” This is good news, as ministers had previously said that the report could only be published if MPs were available to debate it. Even if Chilcot fails to provide the report before the summer recess on 21 July ministers will (probably) not hold onto it.

What will the report say? If Sir John has forgotten the question, the Iraq Inquiry Digest has a list. I think it can safely be assumed that the Iraq misadventure will not be rewritten as a roaring success. There has been plenty of speculation about who will be criticised most, and for what. Military and establishment figures will be “singled out” for criticism, or the blame will be apportioned “widely”. Again, it depends which way you look at it.

My own area of interest has always been how we got into the debacle, not the debacle itself. We can still only speculate about what Chilcot will say about the legality of the war, or whether he will say Tony Blair lied about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or lied when he told MPs that it had not been possible to get “a” second UN resolution because Jacques Chirac said France would veto any resolution “whatever the circumstances”.

We should remember both that there is a traditional squeamishness within the establishment about accusations of lying and that the inquiry has no particular protection against a defamation action if it accuses someone of bad faith. It has probably already been threatened by the lawyers of “Maxwellees”, who have been given advance sight of criticism.

What I do know is that the inquiry will publish documents that set out clearly how Blair promised US President George W Bush a year before the invasion that he would back regime change to overthrow Saddam Hussein but proposed setting a trap for the Iraqi dictator based on his alleged WMD, on which intelligence was ‘poor’. But even here we are back to that half-empty glass.

The documents in question are often referred to as the Downing Street documents, because they include a revealing record of a meeting at No. 10 in July 2002. They were leaked many years ago to journalist Michael Smith and have been available online, almost in their entirety, ever since.

The good news is that the inquiry cannot publish these documents and produce a narrative that ignores what they show. For example, a Cabinet Office paper from March 2002 set out two options: one was to try to use the UN and a threat of force to try to disarm Iraq of WMD; the other was to use WMD as a pretext for regime change. At the time, Blair told his cabinet and the rest of us that his policy was the former.  In 2011, he explained to the Inquiry why this wouldn’t have worked and why he chose the latter.

The bad news is that both the inquiry and the Information Commissioner have told me that these documents will be partially censored at the government’s request.

It is well established that there has been a lot of argument between Chilcot and the government about what the inquiry can publish, particularly regarding Blair’s intercourse with Bush. If you are an optimist you will trust Sir John when he says he can publish enough evidence to stand up the story he wants to tell. If you are a pessimist you will be very worried when Sir John says he will publish only the evidence that stands up the story he wants to tell.





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.