Inquiry to publish Downing Street documents – but censored

by Chris Ames

The Downing Street documents are a collection of papers leaked to journalist Michael Smith in 2004 and 2005. They record the Blair government’s planning for regime change in Iraq between March and July 2002 and its promises to the Bush administration. Although all the documents have long been in the public domain (albeit with part of one document missing) and one document extensively cited by Tony Blair at the Inquiry, only one has so far been published by the Inquiry. Now the Cabinet Office has stated that the Inquiry will publish the remaining documents alongside its report. The Inquiry has confirmed that it will publish the documents.

This is a very significant development, given the importance of the documents in showing how Blair progressed a covert plan for regime change. But the Cabinet Office has not told the truth as it has implied that the documents will be published in full. In fact, it has insisted on censoring the documents when they are eventually published.

The Cabinet Office statement was made in response to one of a couple of freedom of information (FOI) requests I made a while back, in the knowledge that the Inquiry is sitting on a huge pile of documents that have been declassified but which it is refusing to publish. One FOI request was for everything that the government has declassified for publication by the Inquiry and the other was specifically for the remaining Downing Street documents.

As has been discussed previously on the Digest, the Cabinet Office has used the FOI exemption under Section 22 to block the release of information that will eventually be released by the Inquiry, in spite of the fact that the appearance of the report seems to have become one of those events that, like tomorrow, never comes. Unsurprisingly, the Cabinet Office applied the exemption to both my requests.

In the case of the Downing Street papers, the Cabinet Office initially suggested that the Inquiry might not publish them all in full. In its holding reply while considering the balance of public interest, it referred to some “information requested which is not exempt under Section 22″ but which was allegedly exempt under Sections 27 and 35 of the FOI Act. The clear implication was that not all of the information was due to be published and that, unable to apply Section 22 to this information, it would withhold it from my request for the same or similar reasons.

But the Cabinet Office’s eventual decision was that

“the information you have requested has been prepared for publication by the Iraq Inquiry”

and that it was all therefore exempt under Section 22. It confirmed this decision on review.

I have of course lodged complaints with the Information Commissioner about this decision and the separate refusal to publish all declassified documents, which was also confirmed on review. In the case of the Downing Street documents, I have pointed out that the Cabinet Office is falsely implying that all the information they contain will be published.

I’m also not convinced that Section 22 applies here. Although it does not require that the information will be published by the public body by which it is held, it does require that it is held by that authority “with a view to its publication”. This seems to require a connection between the possession of the information and the intention to publish. But the Cabinet Office held the information in question long before the Inquiry was even set up and the Inquiry will publish the information that it holds, even if the Cabinet Office were for example to lose its copies or cease to exist entirely.

I pointed this out to the Cabinet Office and its review response – probably one of the most inept I have ever seen – made my point. It pointed out, rightly, that

A public authority can still apply section 22 to information it holds even though it does not hold the information itself. In other words, section 22 does apply in cases where the public authority intends to pass the information to another person/body in order for it to be published.

But the Cabinet Office then shoots itself very badly in the foot but stating that:

All of the information you have requested is held by the Iraq Inquiry with a view to its publication.

So the information is not held with a view to its publication by the Cabinet Office, but by the Iraq Inquiry. As the Cabinet Office makes clear, the situation that it describes – where the public authority intends to pass the information to another person/body in order for it to be published – does not apply. The information is already “held by the Iraq Inquiry”.

This situation applies equally to the rest of the declassified information that the Inquiry can publish but is currently withholding. In fact the case for releasing those documents is stronger as the Cabinet Office probably has an insufficient knowledge of which bits of declassified documents the Inquiry intends to publish to be in a position to apply the exemption. Just because the government has declassified a document or a set of documents for publication by the Inquiry, it doesn’t mean that the Inquiry will publish all of that information. Only information that will be published falls under the exemption and if a public body is not able to say that specific information will be published, none of it is exempt.

Having said that, the fact that nearly all the contents of the Downing Street documents is already in the public domain (albeit unofficially in most cases) makes the Cabinet Office claim that

Releasing this information now would risk undermining the Inquiry’s work

completely laughable.


Blair and Islamic State

by Chris Ames

The Telegraph has an interesting piece linking Iraq past and present Iraq and Tony Blair:

Tony Blair has been accused of trying to “erase” his role from history after an article published on his charitable foundation’s website about the rise of Isil made little mention of Britain’s role in the Iraq War.

Badly written as this is, Blair is not accused of trying to erase his role from history but of underplaying the role of the 2003 invasion and regime change in the growth of Islamic State by referring to “Iraq’s descent into chaos between 2003 and 2007″ in this article (by Peter Welby). The Telegraph piece carries a statement from the Blair Foundation, which rather misses the point but may have been a response to the way a specific question from the journalist was worded:

“You are wrong in your assertion that it doesn’t look at events following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In fact just under one third of the piece does exactly that.”

The Blair Foundation article does a little bit gloss over the significance of the invasion in the events that followed it. The story it sets out, in simple terms is that:

ISIS can trace its roots back to 2002, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – a Jordanian who was to gain notoriety in the Iraqi insurgency from 2003-6 – founded a jihadi organisation called Tawhid wal-Jihad in the north of Iraq. Zarqawi had been linked with al-Qaeda while in Afghanistan in the late ’90s, but was not a member of the group and disagreed with the tactic of focusing on the ‘far enemy’ (the West) as opposed to the ‘near enemy’ (rulers in the Islamic world). Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi’s organisation grew more active and affiliated itself to al-Qaeda in 2004, becoming al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

[…]

Zarqawi’s AQI was an influential actor in Iraq’s descent into chaos between 2003 and 2007.

[…]

In late 2006 AQI joined with eight other Islamist insurgent groups to form the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)…

It’s interesting to look at what Blair and others said to the Inquiry about what they knew about Zarqawi being in Iraq before the invasion. In a statement in January 2011, Blair said:

In retrospect as I said in my evidence, the intelligence that al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian AQ leader, had been in Baghdad in May 2002 should perhaps have been given more weight.

Note that Blair uses the passive voice here rather than admitting responsibility himself. During his appearance the same month, he said:

I actually think now when I look back on it the intelligence that Al Qaeda sent to Al-Zarqawi into Iraq in 2002, May 2002, that should have triggered an assessment on our part that was rather different from the assessment we came to, but this is with the benefit of hindsight.

Some small admission of his own involvement in a strategic error but only one that can be seen with “the benefit of hindsight”.

John Scarlett, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, suggested that the JIC did try to alert policy makers to this specific danger:

On the extremist side, what strikes me now is that although we registered very early on that angle of things, and of course we had flagged it up before the conflict as a worry, and more presciently than we had realised at the time, we flagged up Al-Zarqawi’s dispositions inside Iraq in the middle of 2002 and in 2003.

The 2002 JIC assessment to which Scarlett was apparently referring has not been published, but it does look as if Blair was warned.


Iraq and the biggest financial bubble in history

by Chris Ames

The Telegraph has a very interesting article by Jeremy Warner. After asking whether “the judgment of history might be a little kinder” on Tony Blair than it is now, he says:

For the moment, however, Iraq is seen not just as a mistake – based on a delusion assessment of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, if not an outright lie – but a monumental, geopolitical disaster.

Isil’s latest surge, unleashing yet another wave of maniacal vermin on an undeserving and civilised people, only serves to reinforce this damning verdict. If it ever sees the light of day, the doorstopper of a report by the Chilcot committee of inquiry – now coming up for an astonishing six years in the making – is unlikely to provide much in the way of mitigation.

Yet one thing Chilcot will not be touching on is the wider economic consequences of Iraq and the events leading up to it. On many levels, these have proved equally disastrous, and in terms of their impact on Western growth potential, utterly catastrophic. It is not just the direct costs, which including Afghanistan are already estimated at around $4 trillion for the US alone. Even as Keynesian-style stimulus, it is hard to argue that this “investment” will ever reach payback.

Yet much worse are the wider economic and financial effects. For what Iraq also did was light the fuse on a series of policy mistakes in our own backyard, the consequences of which are still very much with us today in the manifest and destabilising mismatch between depressed incomes and booming asset prices.

It is one of the great imponderables of modern economics – was it globalisation and the accompanying Asian savings glut that caused the financial crisis, or was it unduly loose monetary policy and the hubris of bankers? Were central banks merely accommodating wider trends in global markets by cutting policy rates so low, or by doing so were they leading us over the cliff?

To me it seems clear that central banks must take at least some of the blame for where we are today. I have a vivid recollection of the lead-up to the Iraqi invasion, and in particular a speech by Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State, at Davos just a few months before it happened. If it wasn’t already obvious, participants were left in no doubt that with or without international support, the US was about to go to war. In the immediate aftermath of the speech, economists and former policy makers lined up to say that the Federal Reserve would have no option but to cut interest rates to zero and perhaps beyond to counter the damage to confidence. It was the first time I had ever come across the term “quantitative easing”, later to become part of the economic lexicon, but it was this sort of monetary mumbo jumbo that some participants were already talking about.

Ironically, the link in the Chilcot reference is to a report in January that the Inquiry report wouldn’t come out before the election, rather than more recent warnings not to hold our breath.

Warner doesn’t say that everything that subsequently went wrong with the world economy was down to the 2003 invasion but that:

What Iraq did was set the stage for the final, disastrous, blow-off in already grossly inflated financial markets.

Unsurprisingly, his conclusion is that:

it is hard to envisage an age when the Bush/Blair legacy will be seen as in any way an enlightened one.


Helicopters – going round in circles

by Chris Ames

Prince Charles’ assertion that the Lynx helicopter’s “poor performance” in high temperatures was an example of the armed forces not having “the necessary resources” was perhaps one of the more significant revelations from the publication of his letters. In the September 2004 letter, Charles complained that the procurement of a replacement for the Lynx was subject to further delays due to defence cuts. This, as I mentioned yesterday, was an issue that came up at the Inquiry.

The gist of the evidence to the Inquiry was that this delay in replacing the Lynx, and other cuts to helicopter procurement caused by the 2004 cuts in defence spending, did not impact on Iraq, because of the long lead times in bringing the new aircraft into use.

Lieutenant General Sir Robert Fulton, who was Deputy Chief of Defence Staff for Equipment Capability in the Ministry of Defence from August 2003 to 2006, was asked whether the cuts to the helicopter budget had been a problem. He replied:

No, I don’t think so and certainly not in the timescales we are talking about. It was much longer than that and the areas on which that axe fell were not support helicopters in the land environment in the timescale we were talking about.

So for very good reasons, all the reasons you identify, whilst the 1.4 billion cut to the helicopter budget was profoundly unwelcome, it had no effect at all on anything to do with Iraq.

Gordon Brown, who was of course Chancellor at the time of the cuts, was asked a lot about defence spending and whether it was adequate for what the armed forces were trying to do in Iraq. He pointed out in a discussion about procurement that the Lynx replacement was ordered in 2005 but was not, at that time, expected to be available until 2014.

Brown was also questioned about whether there had been enough helicopters generally in 2004 and about a statement in a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report that there was a gap of up to 38% between the numbers of helicopters needed and those available. He quoted the evidence to the same Committee of the then Permanent Undersecretary of Defence, Kevin Tebbit:

In the operational context we have provided and, in my judgment—the military judgment can follow—all of the military operational helicopter assets needed for success.

During that PAC evidence session, Tebbit had actually stated that “the shortage comes through in terms of operational training in the UK, not in terms of actual operations.”

At the Inquiry, Tebbit was asked about an earlier delay to the Lynx replacement in 2002. He argued that:

deferring by a year would not have caused an operational penalty of significance.

There’s a fair amount of well they would say that, wouldn’t they? in all this, but I’m not in a position to contradict it.


Without the necessary resources

by Chris Ames

The Guardian, which secured the release of Prince Charles’ letters to Labour ministers, reports that:

Letter to then-prime minister Tony Blair, September 2004

Prince Charles expresses strong concern over difficulties faced by the military in Iraq, particularly resources and the poor performance of Lynx helicopters.

“The aim of the Ministry of Defence and the Air Army Corps to deploy this equipment globally is, however, being frustrated by the poor performance of the existing Lynx aircraft in high temperatures.

Despite this, the procurement of a new aircraft to replace the Lynx is subject to further delays and uncertainty due to significant pressure on the defence budget.

I fear this is just one more example of where our Armed Forces are being asked to do an extremely challenging job (particularly in Iraq) without the necessary resources.”

The letter, which mainly deals with agricultural issues, is on the Cabinet Office website, along with Blair’s reply. Interestingly, Blair does not dispute Charles’ very strong assertion that the armed forces, in more cases than this, do not have “the necessary resources”. Instead, he concedes that the limitations of the Lynx, particularly in Iraq, are well recognised by the MOD and suggests that its eventual replacement and replacement of the Gazelle may “deliver a future fleet that is fully capable of deployment in all anticipated operational environments”.

The effect of defence cuts on the plan to replace the Lynx was the subject of some discussion at the Inquiry. It appears that Charles was well-informed. I shall cover this in more detail in a separate post.


Don’t disrupt the Inquiry!

by Chris Ames

The Cabinet Office has now completed its internal review of its own refusal to disclose the minutes of two pre-war Cabinet meetings in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Digest contributor Chris Lamb. Chris wrote about the issues as he saw them last month.

The whole history of the FOI request can be found on the What do they know website.

First the good news:

To clarify: information on Iraq contained within the minutes of Cabinet meetings of 13 and 17 March is intended for publication by the Inquiry, either in its report or on the Iraq Inquiry website, at the same time as the Iraq Inquiry report is published.

That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Except that, typically, the Cabinet Office does not say that all such information will be published by the Inquiry. This is a common Cabinet Office trick, in my experience, in the use of the Section 22 exemption on information intended for future publication: they apply the exemption irrespective of whether all requested information will be published.

Unsurprisingly, the Cabinet Office is upholding the use of the exemption and therefore refusing to release any information. The public interest grounds are that do release information at this point:

would be likely to disrupt and undermine the work of the Inquiry

This is a particular risk, apparently, during the interminable process of Maxwellisaton, through which individuals who might be criticised are entitled to seek to persuade the Inquiry to withdraw or tone down criticism. Obviously what can’t possibly happen, as has been discussed many times before, is for the evidence to be published so that we can make up our own minds.

To publish a reliable account in full and in immense detail but to draw no conclusions, to offer  no analysis leaves individuals and the whole story open to every kind of out of context misunderstanding. It’s very important to add the analysis, both at strategic level and at the level of individuals on top of that account so that the whole thing can be seen in the round at the same time.

We have to see the evidence through the Inquiry’s eyes and analysis, even if that analysis has been rewritten to the liking of the people being criticised.


The Double Deception and the Road to War in Iraq

by Eric Herring and Piers Robinson

The US-instigated invasion of Iraq in 2003 continues to have profound and disastrous consequences for the region, including the partial disintegration of Iraq itself and the fuelling of a wider war in the Middle East aimed at dividing Sunni and Shia into crudely polarised identity groups. Central to the ongoing conflict are regional power politics between key players such as Saudia Arabia and Iran, and the involvement and influence of external actors including the US, Russia and China. In terms of how Britain and the US came to initiate such an ill-thoughtout war, the British public remain, to a significant degree and probably more than they realise, in the dark. The Chilcot Inquiry panel has thus far failed to deliver its report and there remains uncertainty as to the extent to which it will get to the truth.

From the perspective of the British public and political system, however, there has been a persistent and widely held view that some level of deliberate deception occurred in order to mobilise support for the invasion of Iraq. For many, perhaps most, the British and US Governments set about a policy aimed at removing Saddam Hussein through force for undeclared reasons and misled their publics by disguising the war as a defensive act aimed at protecting the world from Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). For those politicians and officials involved in UK policy, however, their position has remained resolute: Britain sought to disarm Iraq by peaceful means and did so primarily because of the threat posed by Iraq. From this latter perspective, the Iraq War was primarily a consequence of intelligence failure in which analysts provided politicians with faulty assessments as to the WMD capability of Iraq. Of course, the implications of there having been a deliberate deception are serious and include substantive concerns about the workings of the British political system, its democratic credentials, the legality of the war and the probity of the politicians and officials involved.

A Double Deception

Whatever the ongoing claims and counter claims, there now exists a significant body of evidence in the public domain which has allowed us to develop a good understanding of the extent to which deception was deployed by UK (and US) officials. Two deceptions, performed via a carefuly orchestrated propaganda campaign, can be identified. The first concerns the allegation that Iraq was producing WMD and the second the claim by the British Government that its principal objective was the disarmament of Iraq via the UN and that regime change was not Britain’s objective.  Drawing upon our recently published studies, Report X Marks the Spot in Political Science Quarterly and Deception and Britain’s Road to War in Iraq in the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, we summarise the evidence for each of these deceptions.

The September Dossier and Deception Over WMD

The question of lying and deception over WMD has been the most widespread and well known alleged example of deception and continues to fuel allegations that officials, in particular Tony Blair and George Bush, lied with respect to the presence of WMD in Iraq. In fact, as we show in Report X Marks the Spot, the deception in this case was not one of a straightforward lie whereby the British government claimed that Iraq possessed WMD when they knew that there were no WMD. Instead, this was a case where officials intentionally exaggerated the certainty and threat assessment of their intelligence regarding possible WMD in Iraq through acts of omission and distortion. The most prominent example of this, in the UK context, was the 2002 September Dossier.

The dossier was conceived of as part of a campaign of organised persuasive communication aimed at mobilizing support for the invasion of Iraq. Between March 2002 and September 2002, under the direction of the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir John Scarlett, intelligence on Iraq, which was known to be limited and uncertain, was strengthened so as to create the impression that Iraq was known for sure to be a current WMD threat. One prominent example of the strategy of deception occurred when John Scarlett advised that other more serious WMD threats (Iran, North Korea and Libya) be removed from the dossier so as to ‘obscure’ the fact that Iraq was not an exceptional WMD problem. However, the most serious, and to date poorly understood, act of deception involved the use of what has come to be known as ‘Report X’. Report X involved little more than a promise, from a source on trial, that evidence would be provided of active chemical and biological weapons production. Despite the suggestion during the Chilcot hearings from MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) chief Sir Richard Dearlove that he insisted the information could not be used in the dossier, it was in fact used to harden claims that Iraq was actively producing chemical and biological agents, underpin the claim that these could be fired within 45 minutes of an order to do so, and allowed Blair to state in the foreward to the dossier that the intelligence was ‘beyond doubt’. To date, there is still no clear understanding of precisely who was responsible for electing to use such a flimsy piece of information, merely the promise of intelligence to come, to strengthen these key claims in the dossier, other than that senior officials, including Blair, were party to the process.

The ‘UN Route’

In some ways the persistence of controversy regarding deception over WMD has obscured a second significant deception with regard to the path to war in Iraq. To date, leading officials have maintained that the objective of British policy was to seek the disarmament of Iraq through peaceful means if possible. As both Tony Blair and Jack Straw have repeatedly claimed, if Saddam had fully complied with UN resolutions, then he could have stayed in power and war would have been averted. At the most extreme, key officials such as Sir Jeremy Greenstock (UK Ambassador to the UN) have presented British pressure to go the ‘UN route’ as a heroic attempt to force compliance from Saddam and to avert war.

The problem with this claim is that contemporaneous documentation now available shows that the purpose of pursuing the ‘UN route’ was primarily designed to create legal cover for British involvement in a US-led invasion of Iraq, whilst also helping to build domestic and international support for military action against Iraq. As we set out in Deception and Britain’s Road to War in Iraq, as early as March 2002 UK policy was firming up around supporting a US-led invasion of Iraq in order to remove Saddam from power. A key problem, recognised as early as November/December 2001, was that a policy aimed at regime change would be illegal under international law. By March 2002, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was advising Blair that military action had to be rationalised as part of an attempt to disarm Iraq if adequate legal cover was to be secured. At best, the ‘UN route’ was likely mainly about gaining legal cover for the invasion of Iraq with only an outside belief that it may avert war. In this scenario, and at best, UK officials would appear to have deceived through omission and distortion: omitting the fact that the major rationale for the UN route was primarily one of obtaining support for war and legal cover for British involvement, and exaggerating the idea that going the UN route was ever likely to avert war. At worst, officials are guilty of a more direct deception: claiming that their goal was to avert war via the UN route, UN inspections and Iraq compliance when, all along, their greatest concern was that Iraq might comply sufficiently and in a way that would prevent them from getting the war they wanted.

Broader implications

From many quarters, the 2003 Iraq invasion is now seen as a seminal case of deception in politics. The implications of this for British (and US) democracy are far reaching, suggesting that politicians have a considerable degree for freedom of manoeuvre when it comes to misleading their publics, and highlighting the ways in which organised persuasive communication slips easily into propagandistic manipulation and deception. Of course, the implications for Iraq and the region are, undoubtedly, of a different order. Whether the Chilcot Inquiry, when it finally reports, grapples with these deeper issues remains to be seen. It would be easy, and convenient, to sweep the issues of deception and propaganda underneath the carpet whilst assuming the upstanding and honest intentions of all those involved. However, if any substantive lessons are to be learned from this case, and ones which might contribute to improving the accountability of the government and encouraging a more ethical (i.e. non deceptive) mode of persuasion and communication, then the deceptive manner in which the invasion of Iraq was sold needs to be fully investigated, understood and brought to light. The opportunity to start such a debate now lies with Chilcot.

This post was edited on 13 May 2015 at the request of the authors.


Straw on the Straw Paradox

by Chris Ames

I wrote here about John Williams’ reference, to the Straw paradox – the idea that Iraq could only be induced to comply with the UN by threat of force that might then have to be used. Jack Straw himself also discussed this issue at his last appearance at the Inquiry, which was four years ago.

It is very significant that if you look at the last meeting of the Security Council that took place on 7th March that nobody, not a single delegate, suggested that Iraq was complying. Now the argument was in the context they were not complying and they were required to comply. That was the difficulty. The other problem here is what Sir Jeremy Greenstock described as the Straw paradox, which is this, that —
SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: You initially called it the Straw paradox.
THE RT. HON. JACK STRAW MP: It is a pretty straightforward point and my name is tagged to it, which is that we wanted to resolve it peacefully. The only way we could resolve the matter peacefully was through compliance. The only way you could get compliance was through the threat of the military action, I mean the real threat.
Indeed, that paradox was actually, mainly inadvertently, brought out by President Chirac in that interview he gave on 10th March 2003 where he says —  before he says “we are going to veto” — he says that there has been some advance in compliance, but he thinks it is almost certainly because of the troops sitting outside Saddam’s door. That for sure was true.

Straw is so duplicitous that he “inadvertently” manages to contradict himself within a few lines at the same appearance at the Inquiry. No-one thought Saddam was complying, indeed they all thought he was not complying. Except that Chirac thought that there has been some advance in compliance, which Straw agrees with.

You couldn’t make it up. Well, not like Straw, anyway.

 


Campbell’s non denial

by Chris Ames

During the Inquiry’s hearings, Alastair Campbell was asked about the possibility that government spin doctors may have had some input into the inclusion of the 45 minutes claim in the dossier, particularly in changing the wording from “munitions” in the secret JIC to “chemical or biological weapons”. As Lawrence Freedman pointed out:

“munitions”, that really conveys battlefield use, whereas “weapons” could be anything; they could  be long range weapons. I’m just wondering whether you or members of your team were involved in the discussion of how this 45 minutes was going to be introduced in the drafting and whether this distinction was one that was understood by your team or mattered.

You would imagine that Campbell would be quick to deny any suggestion that he or other spin doctors had anything to do with this issue, which was the fundamental allegation at the heart of the whole Kelly/Gilligan row. Instead, he set off on a long-winded diversion: Readmore..