Inquiry still seeking declassification of documents

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Tuesday, February 3, 2015

by Chris Ames

The Cabinet Office and the Inquiry have both confirmed to me that the process of seeking the declassification of documents for publication by the Inquiry is not finished, contrary to what the Inquiry has implied and a government minister has told Parliament.

As this briefing by the House of Commons Library points out, although it has recently been suggested that Maxwellisation – awaiting replies from people the Inquiry intends to criticise – is behind the Inquiry’s failure to publish its report before the election, the real cause of the delay has been the very slow pace of declassification requests.

At the end of  last Thursday’s Commons debate, Cabinet Office minister Rob Wilson said this about the declassification process:

As Sir John has confirmed, the process of declassifying the most difficult and sensitive documents has been completed. In respect of other documents, Departments continue to meet every request made.

The Cabinet Office has confirmed that this is indeed the position. The Inquiry’s spokeswoman also told me that while discussions over Cabinet Minutes and Blair-Bush communications have been concluded…

Other declassification activity continues, and is likely to do so until the Inquiry’s report is finalised.

Reading Chilcot’s recent letter to David Cameron carefully, it did indeed refer only to agreement on Tony Blair’s notes to and conversations with George W Bush. It is now clear that requests are still being “met” by the Cabinet Office, although how quickly and whether met with agreement or refusal is not entirely clear. I’ve also asked the Inquiry whether outstanding requests were made some time ago or more recently.

Either way, the current position directly contradicts what Wilson’s fellow Cabinet Office minister Lord William Wallace told the House of Lords last month:

The further question, which has taken rather longer than anticipated, was the subsequent discussion as to how many of those documents should be published. After all, some of them are highly classified and deeply sensitive about British foreign policy and relations with other major Governments and allies. I understand that that process is also now complete. When the report comes out, it will contain more than 1 million words and will publish substantial documentation from more than 200 Cabinet meetings. That is all agreed and under way.

Indeed, Wilson himself told Parliament in October:

When declassification has been completed, Maxwellisation can begin.

It seems that Maxwellisation has begun without the completion of declassification, which may explain reports of delays in sending supporting documents. The Inquiry may still be waiting for some documents to be cleared. In any case, if the process of delassifying supporting evidence has not been completed, the report would not be ready for publication even if there were no Maxwellisation, or if all Maxwellees said tomorrow that they accepted its findings.

It’s a continuing shambles and one of the Inquiry’s own making. Whether the outstanding declassification requests were made some time back or more recently, the fault must lie with an Inquiry that agreed to the process in the first place.

 

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Waiting for Chilcot – or not

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Sunday, February 1, 2015

by Chris Ames

The Guardian reports that:

Labour will on Monday promise to embrace the results of the Chilcot inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq war and say that the repeated delays to the report’s publication have paralysed British foreign policymaking, including the ability to restore public trust.

In his major pre-election speech on foreign policy, the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, will argue that the unforeseen delays to the report have acted as a barrier to building a consensus on future UK foreign policy.

But the article also says that:

Alexander will go further in his criticism of the war than just the fundamental error of the absence of weapons of mass destruction, arguing that long-term repercussions were not considered.

“What has also subsequently emerged is that removing Saddam and empowering the [Shia] majority, without ensuring adequate safeguards for the Sunni Arab minority, exacerbated sectarian frictions within the country. Iraq became seen as a country supporting Iranian ambitions, rather than balancing them, thereby further destabilising an already volatile regional power-balance.”

Not for the first time, someone argues that we need to see the Inquiry’s conclusions but simultaneously sets out what they have concluded without the help of the Inquiry.

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The laughing stock of the world

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Thursday, January 29, 2015

by Chris Ames

Today’s debate on the Inquiry was both poorly attended and, so far, largely ignored by the media. The Guardian’s politics blog gave it good coverage, while the BBC reports that:

Delays to the inquiry into the Iraq war could make Westminster “the laughing stock of the world”, Plaid Cymru’s parliamentary leader has warned.

The Chilcot report will not now be published before the general election.

Elfyn Llwyd said the investigation, which began in 2009, had been “cowed by the establishment”.

In a special debate on the delay, the Dwyfor Meirionydd MP said the inquiry was becoming an “expensive farce” and “an affront to democracy”

Two MPs asked why the Inquiry could not now publish the mass of evidence it is sitting on. Cabinet Office minister Rob Wilson sided with the Inquiry on this issue

At the end, the motion was carried.

 

 

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Today’s debate

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Thursday, January 29, 2015

by Chris Ames

During this afternoon’s debate, Respect MP George Galloway slammed MPs for, amongst other things, a very poor attendance. In particular, he said, only 7 Labour MPs were present.

Here’s a shot of Tory MP Dominic Grieve being interrupted by colleague Bernard Jenkin. In the background Rory Stewart is playing with his phone paying close attention.

 

debate

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Straw – I’m a Maxwellee

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Thursday, January 29, 2015

by Chris Ames

Speaking second in today’s debate after a very good speech from David Davis, former foreign secretary Jack Straw all but admitted that he is subject to the Maxwellisation process. Straw told the House of Commons that people who were part of the process but nevertheless he would say what he could about his role as a witness.

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Inquiry delay to be debated in London and Edinburgh today

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Thursday, January 29, 2015

by Chris Ames

In addition to the well-publicised debate in the House of Commons this morning, the Scottish Parliament will be discussing the Inquiry this afternoon.

According to the UK Parliament website:

The debate will take place in the House of Commons Chamber on Thursday 29 January 2015 and will begin from around 11.15am – 11.30am. Any timings are approximate and Parliamentary business may be subject to change, for example if any Urgent Questions or Ministerial Statements are granted on the day.

The motion to be debated is:

“That this House regrets that the Iraq Inquiry has decided to defer publication of its report until after 7 May 2015; and calls on the Inquiry to publish a timetable for publication and an explanation of the causes of the delay by 12 February 2015.”

You can watch the debate here.

Interestingly, the Scottish debate will still focus on calls for the report to be published before the election. The motion in the name of first minister Nicola Sturgeon is:

That the Parliament calls for Sir John Chilcot‘s official inquiry into the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent war to publish its findings and all evidence ahead of the UK general election; acknowledges that the Iraq war resulted in the deaths of 179 UK service personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians; notes that the cost to taxpayers of the war is estimated at £9.6 billion, and believes that, six years after the inquiry was established and three years after hearings concluded, it is in the interests of transparency, accountability and democracy that the report is published as soon as possible and that any further delay in publication is completely unjustifiable.

According to the Herald Scotland website:

The First Minister is expected to receive cross-party backing from the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in arguing that the findings of the inquiry, which began in 2009, should be published ahead of May’s General Election. Labour will also back the Scottish Government’s motion.

That debate should begin some time after 2pm and you can watch it online on the Scottish Parliament t.v. channel.

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What’s the story?

By admin - Last updated: Wednesday, January 28, 2015

by Richard Heller

There was an interesting development at yesterday’s session of the Commons public administration committee, which grilled Sir Jeremy Heywood on the delays to the Inquiry report. I had previously put to the committee my Yorkshire Post article, suggesting that Parliament subpoena the report as it stands and publish it in time for the election. Labour MP Paul Flynn put this to Sir Jeremy,  who said that this would be a matter for Parliament but suggested that it would be preferable for everyone to wait until the complete report was published, as Chilcot and his team intended. (That of course would mean, after they have agreed to any watering down of their conclusions in response to the Maxwellees.)

However, I had also put an alternative proposal to the committee. Chilcot could publish a “narrative verdict” on the Iraq war, as an interim report by the end of February, that is to say a full account of all the key decisions and events in the relevant period, citing all the sources they had used as far as they were allowed. This report would not pass judgment on any individual. The British people could then draw their own conclusions. Of course, all the political parties and the media could try to exploit this narrative verdict during the election campaign, but at least they would all be using a common, authoritative source and those who obviously misused it could be quickly exposed. The Inquiry would complete the Maxwellisation process and submit its final report, with its judgments on individuals, to the new Parliament after the election.

This idea was put to Sir Jeremy by Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland and it seemed to cause him some discomfort. He suggested that Chilcot and his team might find it impossible to “disentangle” their judgments from the factual passages in their report. I disagree – assuming that he and his team have done their job properly, and based their judgments on the full evidence that they have studied and presented. Their report is written: they have identified the critical passages and put them into Maxwell letters. All they need to do is remove those critical passages from the report and publish all the rest. (The excisions might conceivably create some discontinuities or non-sequiturs in the report, but these should be easy to remedy). I suggested to the committee that preparing this “narrative verdict” would not be too onerous a task for Chilcot and his team – who currently have nothing to do but wait for Maxwellisation responses. They could be given additional temporary staff. As Mulholland pointed out, this proposal circumvents all the delays created by the Maxwellisation process, whether these are reasonable or deliberately obstructive.

I believe that such a narrative verdict could be a valuable resource for British voters before the election. It could go some way to meeting the feelings of the victims of the Iraq war, who have waited so long for Chilcot.

The video of the session is here.

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Might we get there in the end?

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Tuesday, January 27, 2015

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.

 

 

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Chilcot to appear before Foreign Affairs Committee

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Tuesday, January 27, 2015

by Chris Ames

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has announced that:

Sir John Chilcot will give evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee at 10.00am on Wednesday 4 February on the preparation of his report and on the obstacles which remain before he can submit it to the Prime Minister.

But Chilcot has set limits to what he will say, in a statement posted on the Inquiry website:

Sir John explained that he would not:

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Heywood questioned by MPs

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Tuesday, January 27, 2015

by Chris Ames

Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood has been appearing before the House of Commons public administration committee and has been asked about the Inquiry.

The Guardian’s rolling coverage is here and this is Andrew Sparrow’s summary:

“I do not think I have been responsible for delays to the Chilcot process.”

Explaining the role he had played, he said that it had been his job to resolve disputes about what could and could not be published, but he implied this only took some weeks.

“There was a disagreement, a discussion between departments and the inquiry as to whether or not certain very sensitive documents, which previously would never have been contemplated for publication, should be published, as [Sir John Chilcot] wanted to. That issue came to me in line with the protocol that was agreed. And over a passage of weeks we resolved that.”

He said his team would talk to Chilcot after the inquiry was over to consider what lessons could be learnt about management of the inquiry.

According to the Telegraph, Heywood said that waiting for “witnesses” to respond to criticism was holding up the report but he was sure that they were “trying to reply within a reasonable period of time”, whatever that means.

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