by Chris Ames
The Inquiry has updated its FAQ page since Sir John Chilcot’s appearance at the Foreign Affairs Committee. “Frequently Asked Questions” are of course a pretty transparent way for an organisation to get across the information it wants to communicate, rather than a genuine response to questions that get asked a lot.
One point that hasn’t been updated – and is indeed contradicted by what Chilcot said at the FAC – is the story of how Inquiry Secretary Margaret Aldred came to be foisted on the Inquiry by the then Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell. Aldred is a government foreign and defence policy insider who had responsibility for Iraq policy for approximately half the time period covered by the Inquiry. Chilcot told the FAC:
I was well aware when accepting the chairmanship that the secretary would be Margaret Aldred, provided that I agreed.
Chilcot also told the Committee that he was given ten minutes to decide whether to take the job. This contradicts the previous story – that O’Donnell consulted Chilcot about what sort of person would make a good secretary and then nominated Aldred. A while back, Digest contributor Chris Lamb did some FOI digging into Aldred’s appointment and was told that:
The Cabinet Secretary himself decided to nominate Margaret Aldred, and agreed the appointment with Sir John Chilcot, shortly after Sir John himself had accepted his role as Inquiry Chair. Both the Cabinet Secretary and the Inquiry Chair felt that the Secretary needed to be a senior individual with the right experience and skills for the task.
So the story has changed. According to what Chilcot said recently, Aldred was already lined up before he was given his ten minutes to accept the job. At the FAC, Chilcot again sought to play down any concerns over Aldred’s obvious conflict of interest. Bizarrely, and at great cost to his own credibility, having told MPs that:
…the scope of this inquiry is unprecedented. Unlike many inquiries, we are not concerted with a single incident and its aftermath; rather we cover decisions over a nine-year period and the consequences that flowed from them.
He pointed out that:
… the only role in which she was directly engaged with Iraq in the Cabinet Office, as the deputy head of the overseas defence secretariat, started in November 2004, long after the decision to invade and the invasion itself, so she was not in any sense involved in those crucial decisions between 2000, 2001 and 2003.
So it’s an inquiry covering a long time period and not just a single incident and its aftermath, except where its blatantly conflicted Secretary is concerned, when what matters is 2000, 2001 and 2003.
Chilcot also told MPs that the nine year period* covered by the Inquiry’s remit was not something that he was consulted about before accepting the job and the FAQ page repeats this:
Sir John and his colleagues were not consulted on the Inquiry’s terms of reference before their appointment.
Chilcot also batted away suggestions that he should publish evidence now, rather than wait for his long-delayed report, as I described here. Again, the FAQ page now reflects this:
The Inquiry Committee considers that it would be unhelpful to make further documents available, without context, before its report is published.
I’m becoming increasingly aware, and concerned, that out of the 7,000 or so documents that have been fully or partially declassified, only about 1,500 will be published as documents. Chilcot clarified this point after his appearance at the FAC. The rest will be referred to or quoted from, providing the “context”. This means that we will have to trust that the Inquiry is correctly interpreting those documents and not, for example, leaving out those bits that don’t fit its narrative or analysis. The more Chilcot spins over the role of Margaret Aldred, the less he can be trusted.
* In fact, Gordon Brown told the House of Commons in June 2009 that the Inquiry would cover the “period from summer 2001, before military operations began in March 2003, and our subsequent involvement in Iraq right up to the end of July this year”, approximately eight years. It appears that Chilcot has decided to start from 2000, thereby lengthening the period covered.