The Inquiry as an exercise in damage limitation

by Chris Ames

I have uploaded the six documents disclosed by the Cabinet Office under the Freedom of Information Act, showing the advice and thinking at the highest level of government as the Inquiry was planned in May and June 2009.

13 comments to this article

  1. Peter Beswick

    on November 22, 2016 at 11:48 am -

    Well done Chris L (& A)

    But this no time for celebration, Chilcot somehow managed to make the disaster of Iraq worse.

  2. Lee

    on November 22, 2016 at 11:53 am -

    Seriously now, is anyone surprised ?

  3. John Bone

    on November 22, 2016 at 12:05 pm -

    I see that poor old Chilcot gets his name spelt as Chilcott a number of times, even in official documents!

    The anxiety betrayed by these documents is not only about an Inquiry leading to blame and prosecution, but also about re-opening investigation of the events covered by Hutton, Butler et al. However the outside pressure for an Inquiry was precisely because the previous Inquiries had failed to adequately answer the question “Why did the UK take part in the invasion of Iraq while WMD inspections were still in progress, on the grounds that it was an established fact that Iraq had WMD, when in fact Iraq had no WMD?”

    In the event the Chilcot Inquiry has gone over the ground covered by Hutton, Butler et al and reached different conclusions. It was probably untenable to maintain the fiction that the story started in mid-2002 with the analysis that led to the Dossier of September 2002. Chilcot’s report therefore takes the narrative right back to Blair making commitments to George Bush in December 2001 and to the way in which the idea of overthrowing the regime developed in the minds of Blair (and those around him) from 1997 onwards.

    Perhaps we forget how inadequate the Hutton and Butler reports were: it was all a long time ago. Even though Chilcot’s report doesn’t signpost the fact, it tells a very different story from that told by Hutton’s and Butler’s report.

  4. Chris Lamb

    on November 23, 2016 at 9:25 pm -

    Just a few points; these six papers offer an insight into the behind the scenes setting up of the Iraq Inquiry but by no means the full picture. They provide leads for further official information to be mined by FoI requests, notably meetings of the small cabal of senior civil servants who had the main steer over creating the machinery of the Inquiry- such as the meeting of 15 May 2009- and a meeting of Permanent Secretaries of Departments affected. The potential results from these requests may greatly enrich our understanding of how power was deployed in selecting the Inquiry Panel and setting the remit.

    Secondly, the outcome of this request has wider importance in successfully challenging the government’s use of ‘chilling effect’ and related arguments in blocking disclosure of information concerning policy formulation at senior levels of central government. That could prove a significant benefit for future freedom of information requests covering a wide range of policy areas.

    Thirdly, the disclosures from this request may not offer anything new to those who know-it-all, but they do provide evidence and some of it of not inconsiderable importance. My take on these papers is that they show the senior civil service to be far more key and pro-active over the thinking behind the logistics and setting up of the Iraq Inquiry than I appreciated. It is clear to me that although one cannot say that there was control over the Inquiry in terms of the content of its Report, it was certainly embedded in a structured environment from which the project and its outcome was managed to the liking of the civil service cabal which remained at its heart in various roles throughout.

    The key to understanding this lies not in the content of the report but rather in the parameters laid down prohibiting the Inquiry from areas of investigation – emphatically specified in the hitherto confidential recommendations of Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell for the Inquiry’s terms of reference, signed off by Brown but left vague for public consumption.

    Clearly, legal liability was the central fear of this civil service cabal in launching an inquiry.

    ‘In its Report, the Committee- (ie Panel)- should not reach any conclusion on questions of law or fact which create circumstances which expose organizations, departments and/or individuals to criminal or civil proceedings or judicial review. If the Committee in the course of its work identifies such issues which warrant further consideration, it should discuss those with the government’.

    This severe restriction could hardly be more starkly described and begs the question whether ‘such issues’ were identified and whether they were referred to the government for’ further consideration’ and with what outcomes.

    Some might say it is a restriction which even places those who may be culpable of an offence in law above the law.

    Despite the superlatives in the reporting of its ‘criticisms’, I think it can safely be said that, by and large, the Chilcot Inquiry and Report abided by this substantial restriction.

  5. Peter Beswick

    on November 24, 2016 at 3:03 pm -

    Chris L

    Whilst more than highly commendable your perseverance has been, the bulk of the public knew it was rotten at the outset, you provided proof which sadly in the circumstances counts for nothing.

    Those that followed this from the start may have been surprised at the highlighted extent of the decay in government policy making, the civil service active corruption (the sacrificial anode) and the bleak despair of public confidence.

    Not just in the UK but in the US also, Brexit and Trump are very real symptoms, these will worse.

    Government and the helpers in chaos is not conducive to a viable society. We got what we voted for.

    Now we will reap the benefits unless Blair and co are brought to account.

  6. Peter Beswick

    on November 24, 2016 at 4:36 pm -

    And the Deepcut soldier who committed suicide by shooting himself 3 times in the chest.

    Again and again we are coached to accept obvious skulduggery. There’s nothing we can do!

    That no longer works.

    The public are tolerant, not stupid. the Political elite a intolerant and stupid, Stretch that elastic rotting gut too far and it will snap.

  7. BobM

    on November 24, 2016 at 10:33 pm -

    Some of this stuff should be picked up by Armando Iannucci and co.

    What GOD had to say about not wanting lawyers involved (they might be legalistic, not sticking to “lessons learned” ); and about The Ministry of Defence (not wanting to put up any retired military), is grimly hilarious.

    I am not sure that I agree with Chris Lamb about the extent of civil service control that might have been expected in arranging the terms of reference and format of the enquiry.
    I find none of it surprising , except for the repeated internal ventilation of concerns about local budgets.
    (One might have thought that, on a matter of such moment, they might have conducted the budgeting stuff off-line. But given the private preoccupations of these particular individuals, perhaps not. Perhaps we should be grateful to see how much store they placed on that issue, in this context.)

    I am in no doubt that Chris’ venture was a necessary and useful one.
    Thank you, Chris.

  8. Peter Beswick

    on November 25, 2016 at 3:30 pm -

    Given his stringently controlled remit it is not surprising that Chilcot had so little the say, the astonishing part however is the number of words he took not to say it.

    He absolved Blair (not in his remit) from deliberately deceiving Parliament, there are plenty of MP’s that voted for action in 2003 that have said they would not have voted for British involvement if the had been told the truth, many have quite rightly said they believe the deceit was deliberate and they were lied to.

    And on this point I have some sympathy with Chilcot’s other instructed view that if Ministers, at the time, had had the balls to keep Blair in check the abomination would not have come about.

    So what of the Ministers, ex Ministers and MP’s done about their quite rational views that they were deliberately deceived and lied to?

    Fuck All!

    And that is not Blair’s fault.

    And that is why we have May as PM, Corbyn Leader of the Opposition, an exit from an increasingly disintegrating EU, and Trump as POTUS regent.

    And that is why an election winning proportion of the public will not be voting at the next general election and why Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood prediction is now more likely that ever before.

    And all because our ruling elite cannot tell the truth.

  9. Lee

    on November 28, 2016 at 12:36 pm -

    The picture that emerges is too flat to be real. Its a type of snapshot without the dynamics. It is not credible that Brown was just the passive recipient of the advice cobbled together by a self-serving civil service cabal (though they are revealed to be that, for sure). There would have been interchange, Brown would have expressed what he wanted to see, there would have been disagreements, documents would have been finessed by those who carried the most power, drafts would have been scrutinised and changed. What we have is the output. That is, of course, a type of reality. But just one variety. It is impossible for me to believe that Blair was not consulted, did not play a role, despite the fact that this was not a happy time for the Brown-Blair relationship. Brown’s arse was on the line as the financier of war crimes. He wasnt a neutral party. What is missing is the sweaty lobbying, the fears, the compromises that brought about this result. I also dont believe Chilcot was brought in once all of this process was over. That is not how the British civil service works.

    The upshot is that the process that led to these documents would have had as much impact on the way the inquiry was conducted, as the documents posing as decision-making. Brown is the last politician who would meekly sign off on something prepared by others.

  10. Chris Lamb

    on November 28, 2016 at 6:53 pm -

    As I stated earlier these six papers lend an insight into the decision process which set up the Iraq Inquiry. They do not furnish the whole picture. They provide leads to other top level meetings for future FoI requests to fill out the picture.

    Some changes were made to former Cabinet Secretary, (Lord) Gus O’Donnell’s recommendations to Brown, but evidence does not show that Brown resisted this official advice or went out of his way to get his own personal preferences adopted. The changes made included a concession to hold some witness statements in public in response to widespread pressure for a full public inquiry- a concession Chilcot later claimed to be of his own initiative- and the inclusion of Sir Martin Gilbert, a personal friend of Brown’s, on the Panel. This was no doubt at Brown’s behest.

    O’Donnell’s letter to Sir Peter Ricketts (10 June 2009)simply states that Brown agreed to his recommendations on all points and the setting up of the Inquiry with its Secretariat was going forward. Why should Brown resist the official advice given him? The constitutional role of the Cabinet Secretary and Cabinet Office is to support the Prime Minister and government of the day and there is no evidence that Brown reacted to these recommendations in any other way than accepting them as supporting his and his government’s cause over an Inquiry into Iraq.

    Furthermore, Chilcot was ‘not brought in once the process was over’. Chilcot was the primary official recommendation to chair the Inquiry from the earliest stages.

    It is quite fanciful that Blair was involved in this process as he ceased to be an MP or to have a Parliamentary presence since July 2007.

    In my view, the Cabinet Office’s strong opposition to disclosure and its use of the ‘chilling effect’ argument had less to do with secrecy allegedly guaranteeing candid and frank advice than the imperative that the public should not see the wide divergence between what the public were demanding- an independent and public judicial inquiry- and the government interest it was serving- to have a so-called ‘lessons’ based inquiry which ruled out any legal examination of the issues.

    I would suggest to Lee Roberts that if he holds strongly a different view, he should walk his copious talk and craft a freedom of information request to elicit evidence to corroborate this view. Otherwise his theories remain conjecture and nothing more.

  11. Lee

    on November 30, 2016 at 2:12 am -

    Chris you have not understood what I have said. I dont believe it is possible to understand what happened simply from these documents. You are free, of course, to do so. I am just not convinced. For example, the fact that Brown so readily accepted what was given to him, tells me (based on his record) that they gave him what he wanted. Brown has never been the kind of passive agent you seem to suggest he was.

    The fact that there is no trail of evidence to show how Brown interacted with the civil service, is not at all surprising. And as I have already stated that I see the documentary evidence as “flat”, why on earth should I be tempted to seek out more ? I think we just see the world in very different ways. I do not understand why you are so snippy, given that I have many times expressed appreciation for your tireless efforts. But please have the grace to allow others to think differently from yourself.