The current head of MI6 did mislead the Inquiry

by Chris Ames

Evidence published on Friday shows that Sir John Sawers, currently head of MI6, misled the Inquiry about his role in the exclusion of the Department for International Development (DFID) from a review of Iraq policy when he was Tony Blair’s foreign affairs adviser.

A letter released by the inquiry contradicts Sawers’ claim that he had not excluded DFID from the 2001 review, which followed Blair’s first meeting with President George Bush in February 2001. The letter shows that Sawers had himself been responsible for circulating a draft paper on the review and had only asked for it to be shown to then foreign secretary Jack Straw and defence secretary Geoff Hoon.

Sawers also copied the letter and draft paper to other officials but not to international development secretary Clare Short or her department. Short subsequently complained to No 10 that DFID had been excluded. She gives evidence to the Inquiry on Tuesday where she will be questioned on the issue.

When Sawers first gave evidence to the inquiry on 10 December, he was asked about the exclusion of DFID from the review. The department’s former permanent secretary Sir Suma Chakrabarti had previously told the inquiry that Short had complained to the cabinet secretary about the issue. Sawers said: “I didn’t exclude them. As I say, responsibility was with the Foreign Office and coordinated by the Cabinet Office…. Now, you would have to ask others in the Cabinet Office exactly why they were why they were excluded, if indeed that is the case.”

Panel member Sir Roderick Lyne suggested that Sawers “might just want to look back at some of the papers” and reconsider his evidence when he returned the following week – a clear suggestion that he believed that Sawers’ evidence was incorrect. At the second session, on 16 December, Sawers admitted that a letter on the review and other papers had not been copied to DFID but did not mention that he had written the letter.

Sawers’ letter appears to contradict his claim that the Cabinet Office – as opposed to No 10 – was co-ordinating the paper, with his contribution limited to comments. It appears to have been the other way round. He wrote: “I enclose a revised version of the proposed new policy framework on Iraq, incorporating comments from the FCO, MOD and Cabinet Office.”

The letter was addressed to Sherard Cowper-Coles of the Foreign Office and summarised the new policy, which the Inquiry also released. It concluded: “I should be grateful if the paper could now be submitted to the Foreign and Defence Secretaries… I am copying this letter to Julian Miller (MOD), ‘C’ (SIS), Christopher Meyer (Washington), Jeremy Greenstock (UKMis New York), Michael Jay (Paris) and Richard Abel and Tom McKane (Cabinet Office).”

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office, to which MI6 is accountable, pointed me towards Sawers’ evidence on 16 December in which he acknowledged DFID were not deeply involved and that not all papers, including “the letter with an outline paper” was not copied to the department. Sawers also said that DFID took part in a Cabinet Office meeting and were more involved after complaining to No 10. The spokesperson said: “To suggest that Sir John Sawers misled the Iraq Inquiry is wrong. He has been completely honest and open with the inquiry and has given absolute clarity to the inquiry as to why DFID was excluded.”

But it is clear that the Inquiry gave Sawers a chance to correct his account of his personal involvement and he failed to do so. Neither Lyne nor Inquiry Chairman Sir John Chilcot made any comment on this. Both thanked Sawers for his additional evidence. This raises questions about the Inquiry’s ability or willingness to deal with misleading testimony in the absence of an oath or legal sanction, an issue that was raised when it was first established.

Chilcot has previously said that he expects witnesses to tell the truth for fear of damage to their reputations. When the Inquiry was launched he said: “If someone were foolish or wicked enough to tell a serious untruth in front of the inquiry like that, their reputation would be destroyed utterly and forever. It won’t happen.” At the start of the public hearings, Chilcot said the fact that “the stuff is there on paper anyway” would deter people from misleading the inquiry.

A spokesman for the Inquiry declined to comment on either Sawers’ evidence or the Inquiry’s response to it. He told me: “The Inquiry does not comment on witness evidence.”

10 comments to this article

  1. stuart brown

    on February 1, 2010 at 11:27 pm -


    Very interesting. Curiously enough, I was going to comment on this, because it was something that had stuck in my mind from the previous hearings. It seemed to me that Sir John Sawers’ explanation was absolutely a non-explanation, and I’ve been waiting for the follow-up. The phrase “economical with the truth” seems to apply. I know that Roderic Lyne said “Thank you, that’s very helpful”, but I’ve come to realize that in mandarinese this formulation can mean anything from what it says to “You’re a bloody liar, but I can’t prove it”. However, I did think from what Lyne then went on to say, pointing out that they were later going to be taking evidence from numerous representatives of DIfD, including the Secrertary of State herself, that he wasn’t actually satisfied with Sawers’ account, and he was going to check up. And of course, Alistair Campbell’s evidence later suggested that Sawers’ explanation was to say the least disingenuous. It’ll be interesting to see what Clare Short says.

  2. Lee Roberts

    on February 2, 2010 at 7:00 am -

    If Sawers didnt just make a mistake, what would have been his motivation ?