More from: Evidence

The Straw paradox and the straw man

by Chris Ames

Former Foreign Office director of communications (and therefore press secretary to Jack Straw) John Williams was at the heart of efforts to persuade parliament, Britain and the wider world that it was necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussien to tackle the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Williams has been keen to present his involvement – and indeed that of Straw – as a genuine attempt to address the WMD issue, by peaceful means if possible. But a media strategy that Williams wrote in September 2002 shows clearly that he was planning to justify military action with or without the so-called “UN Route”.

In a statement to the Inquiry, Williams set out what he called “the Straw Paradox”:

… My chief concern was with explaining to the media the efforts being made to draft, agree and secure what became Resolution 1441, and then the efforts to use its ‘final opportunity’ to achieve a peaceful outcome. The diplomatic effort did involve what the Foreign Secretary used to call ‘the Straw paradox’: that Saddam Hussein could be induced to comply with the UN only by a threat of military action that was credible and therefore would have to be used if there was no compliance.

21. I was responsible for helping the Foreign Secretary prepare his responses to the reports given to the UN by Hans Blix after the weapons inspectors were re-admitted to Iraq (which seemed to us evidence that the Straw paradox was applying sufficient pressure to make the UN process work). My recall of the Foreign Secretary’s press conferences and interviews is that, in citing a short list of weaponry unaccounted for, we relied on inspectors’ reports rather than the dossier, but this may be hindsight wisdom at work.

22. As the UN process approached failure, I was involved with Alastair Campbell, at David Manning’s request, in highlighting the importance of the statement by the President of France that he would veto a second resolution whatever the circumstances.

The fundamental problem with this version of events is that what Williams describes as the “failure” of the UN process happened at a time when Blix had not made a smoking gun WMD find and was reporting no serious obstruction from Iraq but the hope that he might “resolve the key remaining disarmament tasks” . The failure was the failure of the UK and US in these circumstances to secure a second UN resolution expressly authorising the use of force, whether or not that was French President Jacques Chirac’s fault. The UK/US strategy for regime change via the UN route depended on the inspections process achieving a justification for war.

Straw and Williams may have believed, based on intelligence reports, that the failure to find WMD reflected Iraqi concealment rather than the fact that they did not exist but in the same statement Williams describes the weakness of that intelligence, even after he drew out “the strongest points” in his own version of the dossier:

I felt the result was underwhelming, commenting to colleagues that there was nothing much new in it.

Clearly, Williams’ own assessment of the strength of the intelligence should have been that it was too weak to justify a war in the absence of Iraqi obstruction, a smoking gun WMD find or a UN resolution. He appears to realise this:

My recall of the Foreign Secretary’s press conferences and interviews is that, in citing a short list of weaponry unaccounted for, we relied on inspectors’ reports rather than the dossier, but this may be hindsight wisdom at work.

But here Williams floats the same defence that Straw used and which Blix shot down at the Inquiry. At the time and at the Inquiry, Straw misrepresented the inspectors’ “clusters document”, which Blix described as “the basis for our selection of key remaining disarmament issues”, as evidence of concealment. As I described here:

Blix found it “ironic” that the paper “came to be used actually to the meaninglessness of inspections rather than as a means which would have helped to continue inspections.”

This irony highlights the deception within the Straw paradox: inspections were not meant as an alterntive to war but as a means of justifying it, as the Iraq Options Paper shows.

Towards the end of his statement, Williams takes the fallacious line adopted by some of  Tony Blair’s most determined defenders – that no-one would be foolish enough to make false claims about WMD while knowing that they did not exist:

I had never imagined for a moment that of all the outcomes of this intense process, the truth would be that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. I believe the same is true of the Foreign Secretary and all those I worked closely with at that level, though as noted earlier I have since learned that some middle-ranking officials did have doubts. Some journalists are convinced we must have known. But no spokesman would knowingly subject a Foreign Secretary – and himself – to the humiliation of going before the media empty-handed, as we had to a few weeks after the invasion.

But his is a straw man approach – overstating the allegation in order to disprove it. The allegation against Blair, Straw and Williams is not that they claimed Iraq had WMD when they knew there were none but that they claimed certainty when they knew there was none. Williams has admitted that he knew Blair’s claim of certaintly was could not be justified.

 


Might we get there in the end?

by Chris Ames

The Guardian’s Richard Norton-Taylor has posted a blog piece pointing out that the arguments over what the Inquiry could publish – and therefore the delay – were of John Chilcot’s making in the first place.

The trouble is Chilcot, a former Whitehall mandarin himself (and member of the Butler review on the use and misuse of intelligence on Iraq) had already agreed that Whitehall would have the final say over what could be published.

The inquiry protocols drawn up in Whitehall and signed off by Gordon Brown said the inquiry would receive “the full cooperation of the government. It will have access to all government papers…” With no hint of irony, they add: The cabinet secretary is writing to departments to underline the need for full transparency”.

The protocols read like an invitation to sweep any embarrassing information under the carpet. They refer to the need to avoid releasing any information “likely to cause harm or damage to the public interest…including, but not limited to, national security, defence interests, or international relations..”

Paragraph 15 of the protocols contains this key passage: “Where no agreement is reached about a form in which the information can be published, the inquiry shall not release that information into the public domain. In such circumstances, it would remain open to the inquiry to refer, in its report, to the fact that material it would have wishes to publish has been withheld”.

I did mention the protocol a while back. On the other hand, it does look increasingly as if Chilcot’s stubbornness over the issue has paid dividends, although Civil Service World suggests that Jeremy Heywood is after the credit:

Sir Jeremy said that he had a “bias towards transparency” and there would be a “very, very open approach” to the report.

“You will see a very, very open approach to the release of cabinet minutes, the Bush-Blair memos, all those sorts of issues previously being disputed and held back by departments,” he stressed.

I don’t think any of the other coverage has referred to the release of cabinet minutes, repeatedly blocked under FOI.

 

 


Call for Chilcot to release Iraq documents ‘immediately’

by Chris Ames

In the Observer, Jamie Doward and I report that:

Senior politicians have called for the immediate publication of all documents cleared for release by the Iraq war inquiry.

With the report not being released until after the election, the issue now is why the Inquiry is insisting on holding back in the meantime what could amount to thousand of documents that have already been declassified. It seems to be suggesting that what it will eventually release will be linked to its findings, raising fears that it may withhold evidence that doesn’t fit with its version of events or relates to evidence that supports findings that participants in the “Maxwellisation” process have persuaded it to remove.

With one MP due to raise the issue in this week’s parliamentary debate and another prepared to challenge Chilcot at a hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee, it will be interesting to see whether Chilcot sticks to his current approach, which is set out here.

 


More on Tony Blair’s ‘untruths’

by Andrew Mason

In a letter to the Observer published yesterday, John Morrison wrote:

You quoted Tony Blair last week as saying: “What we now know from Syria is that Assad, without any detection from the west, was manufacturing chemical weapons. We only discovered this when he used them.” He (Blair) adds: “We also know, from the final weapons inspectors’ reports, that though it is true that Saddam got rid of the physical weapons, he retained the expertise and capability to manufacture them.”

As well as being DCDI from 1994 to 1999, Morrison had been head of the intelligence analytical staff and the secretary to the JIC. He was also the founder and head of the ‘Rockingham cell’, a small intelligence unit set up within DIS which coordinated with UNSCOM personnel, Dr David Kelly and quite likely Charles Duelfer amongst them. After leaving the civil service in 1999, Morrison became the ISC’s first formal ‘investigator’. His contract was ended in 2004 after he told the BBC’s Panorama programme that he “could almost hear the collective raspberry going up around Whitehall”, after Blair had asserted that the threat from Iraq’s WMD was “current and serious”.

As holder of these various positions within the intelligence community, Morrison would have been well aware of the Iraqi ‘Air Force document’. This had a fairly long history, going back to July 1998, when it had been initially discovered during an UNSCOM inspection of the operations room at the Iraqi Air Force headquarters building in Baghdad.

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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.


Still no wiser about knowing the unknowns

by Andrew Mason

Most regular readers here will be aware of the recent wider US and international release of documentary maker Errol Morris’ film “The Unknown Known”. This production, filmed in 2013 partly by means of the director’s own ‘Interrotron’ projection technique, is largely an extended interview with former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The movie was constructed around 30+ hours of conversation, conducted over the course of 11 days.

This work has already met with fairly critical reviews mostly due to Rumsfeld’s seemingly simplistic, or perhaps somewhat slippery, evasiveness. Rupert Cornwell, writing today for Independent Voices, continues this analysis, variously describing the film as “fascinating stuff” whilst also calling it “unsatisfying and ultimately disappointing”. He continues his appraisal by writing that: “The end product is an old emptiness”.

The following is an insightful interview with the director, conducted by Homi Bhahba of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, following an early November 2013 US screening:

Continuing UK screening of the film are listed on documentary distributor Dogwoof’s website at the following link:

http://dogwoof.com/theunknownknown/screenings

A short trailer for the production is also available at the same link.


The US five-year rule

by Andrew Mason

Today is the fifth anniversary of US President Barack Obama first taking the oath of office to assume ultimate responsibility for the well-being of his nation – put another way it is also exactly five years since the end of George W. Bush’s presidential administration.

This means that it is now possible for anyone, anywhere in the world, to request the records from the second President Bush’s term in office.

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum has now marked this occasion with the following statement:

Bush Library to Begin Accepting FOIA Requests January 20

DALLAS (1/17/14) – The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum will begin accepting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for presidential records from the Bush presidency beginning at 12:01 a.m. CST on January 20.

Access to the Bush presidential records is governed by the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 which says, among other provisions, that records may be requested by the public five years after the end of a presidential administration – for the administration of George W. Bush, that date is January 20, 2014.

Any individual – regardless of citizenship – as well as organizations, companies, and state and local governments will be able to submit FOIA requests.

All requests must be in a written format (e-mail, mail, or fax) and must state that the records are being requested under the “Freedom of Information Act” or “FOIA.” If you are e-mailing your request please include your name in the subject line.

The contact information is as follows:

E-mail: gwbush.library@nara.gov

Address:

George W. Bush Presidential Library c/o FOIA Coordinator
2943 SMU BLVD
Dallas, Texas 75205

FAX: 214-346-1558 (please include cover sheet if possible)

January 20 will be the first day the Bush Library can accept FOIA requests for records pertaining to the Bush presidency and all FOIA requests will be processed in the order in which they are received.

Incoming requests will be placed in a queue – and requestors should note that, given the laws and regulations, the volume and complexity of presidential records, and the process of making materials available, the process will take time.

“Still, the Library remains committed to providing access to our holdings and will make every effort to provide records in a timely manner,” said Alan Lowe, the director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

“This is an exciting and important event in the life of the Bush Presidential Library and Museum,” he added. “Our dedicated staff stands ready to respond to requests and to provide our customers with invaluable information about a tremendously consequential time in our nation’s history.”

Located on the campus of SMU – which is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas enrolling nearly 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students from throughout the world in seven degree-granting schools – the facility is the 13th Presidential Library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration.

To learn more about the Freedom of Information Act and the Presidential Records Act of 1978 please go to www.archives.gov, and for more information on this story please e-mail bush43media@nara.gov.

If anyone would now care to attempt to obtain under the US FOIA laws, say for example, the transcripts of conversations between Tony Blair and George Bush in 2001/2/3 from the American end of affairs, they are now perfectly at liberty to do so. Please form an orderly queue!


Is Heywood to blame – or Chilcot?

The BBC follows the Mail and Times in reporting that

The UK’s top civil servant should no longer have responsibility for deciding which documents sought by the Iraq Inquiry should be declassified, a former foreign secretary has said.

Lord Owen said Sir Jeremy Heywood should not be the final “arbiter” because he worked closely with Tony Blair ahead of the 2003 invasion

The Lord Chancellor should decide on behalf of the government, he added.

The BBC wrongly states that this is dispute over “access to key material”.

According to the Mail:

 A Cabinet Office spokesman said: ‘The Inquiry and Government agreed in the Inquiry’s Documents Protocol that the Cabinet Secretary should be the final arbiter of declassification – that remains unchanged and has the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s full support.

As I have been pointing out for a while, the Inquiry is in a hole of its own making – or more precisely made by its Secretary Margaret Aldred, who was deliberately chosen for her previous involvement in Iraq policy.

Of course, in the never never land of the establishment, no-one ever has a conflict of interest. Not never.


Obama’s own smokeless gun?

by Andrew Mason

With three new ‘dossiers’ on Syrian WMD capabilities now published, all saying much the same thing and none providing any hard evidence of Bashar al-Assad’s direct involvement in the August 21 chemical incidents in the Ghouta district of Damascus, it is probably worth revisiting one particular previous US claim about the existence of a number of ‘smoking guns’ – in other words prima facie evidence strongly suggesting implied proof of the case that the US wanted to make.

In February 2003 US Secretary of State Colin Powell played and then translated (from Arabic) to a plenary session of the United Nations Security Council parts of the content of three intercepted conversations between Iraqi military officers discussing what was said to be WMD concealment efforts involving a ‘modified’ vehicle, nerve agent and ‘forbidden ammo’. This third claim, actually the second chronologically in the speech, was not a verbatim report of what had actually been said.

Powell not only did not place this communication into proper context, whereby the Iraqi authorities, as part of their increasingly proactive efforts to account for any remaining proscribed weapons, had just agreed with UN inspectors that they would search their vast ammunition dumps for lost, stray, or otherwise empty chemical warheads which had been left over from previous wars, he also added fictitious detail into his version of the transcript to make it sound far more incriminating towards the Iraqi regime, in so far as this then allowed for the possibility that such weapons had been at some point deliberately retained.
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