by Chris Ames
In the Observer, Jamie Doward and I reveal that the documents that the Cabinet Office fought to hard to suppress and Digest contributor Chris Lamb fought so hard to expose, show how the Inquiry was designed to avoid blame for individuals or any finding – for example on the legality of the war – that would incur legal liability for individuals or the government.
The revelation is a severe blow to the credibility of the Inquiry and goes some way to explaining why it pulled its punches and declared itself unable to reach a conclusion to the legality of the war.
The key revelation is that the ideas of learning lessons and avoiding blame were seen as two sides of the same coin. We already suspected that this was the case but it was not made clear. From the outset, Gordon Brown said that the inquiry would not “set out to apportion blame or consider issues of civil or criminal liability”. However, that is very different from saying that it would avoid reaching findings that had such implications.
In fact foreign secretary David Miliband subsequently reiterated that the Inquiry had not been “set up to establish civil or criminal liability” but said: “Everything beyond that will be within its remit. It can praise or blame whomever it likes, and it is free to write its own report at every stage”. This was of course after the format, scope and membership of the inquiry had been designed to “focus on lessons and avoid blame”.
Its also clear that officials were aware of the need to avoid public controversy and saw the benefits of a behind closed doors inquiry in avoiding the daily running commentary that Hutton had attracted. What is astonishing is that neither officials nor Brown appear to have realised how totally unacceptable this would be.
The involvement in the process of setting up the Inquiry of officials who had taken part in the events it was to investigate is both shocking and unsurprising at the same time. We already knew that Margaret Aldred, the Inquiry’s secretary, had chaired the Iraq Senior Officials Group for four and a half years. What we have now learnt is that cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell was expressly warned that the secretariat should not include people with this kind of baggage.
As for the way Aldred was parachuted into the role, which we already knew was distinctly dodgy, again thanks to Chris Lamb, we know learn that she chaired the meeting that planned the appointment of the Inquiry secretariat.
Perhaps she unselfishly volunteered herself for the role?