More spin from Blair

by Chris Ames

Writing on the CNN website, Tony Blair both tells us that it is too early to tell whether invading Iraq was a good idea and rehearses some of his excuses:

The actual lesson of Iraq is not complicated but clear. When you remove the dictator — no matter how vicious and oppressive — you end one battle only to begin another: How to stabilize and govern the country when the ethnic, tribal and particularly religious tensions are unleashed after the oppression has been lifted.

This is the true lesson of both Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it doesn’t mean that it is right to keep the dictator in place. Or possible. Because the lesson of what used to be called the “Arab Spring” — beginning in 2011 — is that with young and alienated populations deprived of political rights, these dictatorships no longer had the capability of maintaining control.

The real choice for the Middle East was, and is, reform or revolution. So when we come to reassess Iraq, it is possible to disagree strongly with the decision to remove Saddam Hussein in 2003, to be highly critical both of the intelligence on WMD and the planning for the aftermath, and yet still be glad that he is gone.

Blair again tries to suggest that it was the intelligence that he was given that was at fault, rather than his misrepresentation of it. He is so addicted to spin that he just can’t help it. This from the man who told us that intelligence described by the Butler Review as relatively thin and full of caveats was “extensive, detailed and authoritative“.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph reports General Lord Dannatt as telling Blair he should “maintain a dignified silence” until the Inquiry reports. Rather more interestingly, it also reports that Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has written to David Cameron urging him to ensure that national security checks do not further delay publication:

Mr Farron said: “It is simply not good enough for this process to be continually delayed and the report must be published as soon as possible.

“The Prime Minister must now set out his own timetable and let the families know just how long his National Security Council needs to go through the report and get it out in the public domain”

Matthew Jury, from McCue and Partners who represents the families of servicemen killed in Iraq demand to know more detail about the national security vetting process to ensure the report was not a whitewash

He told The Telegraph: “This ‘vetting’ is another process that may, if mismanaged, misapplied or abused, cause further delay to the Report’s publication.

“The families have a right to know what the vetting process entails, who oversees it and, most importantly, how long it will take.

“From the very outset, a timetable and deadline must be imposed and adhered to.”

Sir John Scarlett and nuggets of gold

by Rod Barton

A recent Freedom of Information request by Chris Ames for the release of an email sent by John Scarlett in March 2004 to the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) has been declined by the FOI team in the Cabinet Office.  In the scale of the Chilcot Inquiry does this really matter? What is the significance of one email sent so long ago?

I believe it is important for a couple of reasons.

Sir John Scarlett was in March 2004 the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in the Cabinet Office. This was the very same JIC that in September 2002 published the distorted assessment on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in the notorious ‘dodgy dossier that was instrumental in taking the UK to war with Iraq. The claims made by the JIC, and others in the Coalition, that Iraq had secretly manufactured WMD were subsequently investigated by the ISG. And in early March 2004 the ISG was in the final stages of issuing a Status Report on its findings; I was the editor of that report.

Although the ISG was led by the CIA, it had small contingents of inspectors from the UK and Australia and therefore comments on the draft Status Report were sought not only from Washington but also London and Canberra. And that is how John Scarlett became involved. I clearly remember the morning of 8 March 2004 in Baghdad when I received Scarlett’s suggestions for the report. I was shocked and dismayed.

I was a former Australian director of intelligence and had in fact, on a posting to London in the late 1980s as the Australian Defence Intelligence Liaison Officer, attended many JIC meetings. A prime role of the JIC, which comprised all the heads of the various UK intelligence agencies and other senior civil servants as appropriate, was to consider and approve national intelligence assessments. Discussions of the JIC usually revolved around whether an assessment was fairly based on the available evidence and whether its wording accurately reflected the uncertainties of the intelligence – in other words, whether an assessment was balanced and objective.

I was greatly impressed by the JIC process as it ensured, as far as possible, that an assessment was free from bias. Australia at that time had no equivalent mechanism.

Scarlett’s proposals in his email of March 2004, deviated from the very principles of good intelligence assessment that the JIC, at least at one time, had aspired to. His email suggested that 8 or 9 “nuggets” be inserted into the Status Report to give it more substance. These “nuggets” had been picked out of a September 2003 ISG report and Scarlett should have been well aware by regular feedback from the ISG that there was in fact no substance to these intelligence leads of six months earlier. Readmore..

More spin from another Cabinet Office minister

by Chris Ames

In today’s debate on the motion from Lord Morris

to ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the case for discharging the Chairman and members of the Chilcot Inquiry, and inviting the Cabinet Secretary to set out a mechanism for an interim report to be produced on the basis of the evidence gathered

no-one really thought it was a good idea. But it was interesting to watch what the government had to say.

Cabinet Office minister Lord Bridges first referred to Sir John Chilcot writing to David Cameron by 3 November with a timetable for the completion of the report.

Therefore, by early next month we shall know when the report will be delivered.

He then said:

In less than two week’s as I’ve just said, we’ll have a timetable for publication…

So either he knows something we don’t or he is mixing up the Inquiry giving the report to the government and the publication of the report. Bridges also claimed that the “protocol on sensitive information” between the Inquiry and the government:

established strict parameters within which the government could seek redactions, principally on national security or international relations grounds.

Here’s the list of thngs that can be withheld:

anything the disclosure of which would, or would be likely to:

a. cause harm or damage to the public interest, guided by the normal and established principles under which the balance of public interest is determined on grounds of Public Interest Immunity in proceedings in England and Wales, including, but not limited to,

i.national security, defence interests or international relations;

ii.the economic interests of the United Kingdom or of any part of the United Kingdom;

b. endanger the life of an individual or otherwise risk serious harm to an individual;

c. make public commercially sensitive information;

d. breach the principle of legal professional privilege (LPP);

e. prejudice, in the case of legal advice (following any voluntary waiver of LPP) rather than material facts, the position of HMG in relation to ongoing legal proceedings;

f. breach the rules of law which would apply in proceedings in England and Wales under the provisions of Section 17 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000;

g. breach the rules of law applicable to the disclosure of information by the Security Service, SIS or GCHQ, the third party rule governing non-disclosure of intelligence material or other commitments or understandings governing the release of sensitive information;

h. breach the Data Protection Act 1998; or

i.prejudice the course or outcome of any ongoing statutory or criminal inquiry into matters relating to the information proposed for release.

So Bridge’s “strict parameters” include a “not limited to” list of things that it is not in the public interest to release.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that:

Sources close to the Iraq Inquiry have indicated chairman Sir John Chilcot may write to David Cameron with a timetable for his report before 3 November.

But then, the word “by” was always in Chilcot’s announcement last week.

The Inquiry has informed the Prime Minister that Sir John intends to write to him by 3 November to provide a timetable for the completion of the Inquiry’s work.

Government blocks Scarlett email again

by Chris Ames

In March 2004 John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and one the man technically responsible for the sexed-up September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, sent an email to Charles Duelfer, the head of the CIA-led Iraq survey group (ISG), asking him to sex-up up the ISG’s interim report by inserting nine or so “nuggets” of claims about WMD that were already known to be false.

In 2008, I made a freedom of information request for the Scarlett email, which the Cabinet Office turned down, largely based on Section 27 of the FOI Act, which relates to possible damage to international relations. I wrote about that episode here.

A month ago, I made a new request, on the basis that the passage of time and the possibility that the Iraq Inquiry would publish the email would have taken the sting out of the alleged damage releasing the email would cause. For once the Cabinet Office did not cite the Section 22 exemption, based on forthcoming publication by the Inquiry. Instead it claimed, rather confusingly that:

Most of the information you have requested is exempt under section 23(1) of the Act, because the information relates to the bodies dealing with security matters, or was supplied to the relevant authority by one of these bodies.


All of the information requested that is not exempt from disclosure under section 23(1) is exempt under section 24(1) of the Act, which exempts information from disclosure if its exemption is required for the purpose of safeguarding national security.


some of this information is being withheld under Section 27(1)(a), (c) and (d) of the Freedom of Information Act which exempts information if its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other State; the interests of the United Kingdom abroad; or the promotion or protection by the United Kingdom of its interests abroad.

It’s not clear that any of this is true and I have asked for a review. But it is interesting that the Cabinet Office has not relied on Section 22. This may be because the Inquiry is steering clear of the story and will not publish the email. Or it may be that the Cabinet Office has finally realised that the exemption does not apply to information that the public authority of whom a request has been made does not itself intend to publish or have published.

Ironically, in an interview with Civil Service World, Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood described how he pushed the boundaries of what the Inquiry could publish:

[With] intelligence material, material relating to Tony Blair’s correspondence with George Bush, government departments basically took the line: ‘We’d never release this stuff. Of course the inquiry should see it, but we’d never release it publicly’.

“Actually, ironically, even though the newspapers accuse me sometimes of trying to cover things up, or whatever phrase they use, I took the view after a lot of deliberation – not months, but several weeks, to be fair – that it was right in this very exceptional case that this material should in general be published. And it will be, as a result of that judgement that I took. So I was really trying to find the right balance between what the inquiry wanted to do, and what departments wanted to do, with government lawyers. And in the end, I basically sided with the inquiry because I think in this very exceptional case, for Tony Blair’s memos to George Bush not to be published wouldn’t be right. For the Cabinet minutes not to be published wouldn’t be right.”

“So you will see, when it is finally published, that there’ll be a lot of material that would never previously have been published alongside an inquiry of this sort. And I think that was the right judgement to make. So it frustrates me a little bit, to be honest, that I’m being accused of trying to get in the way, or covering things up, because that is just absolutely not the way in which I’ve approached it.”

Has Chilcot seen the Powell memo?

by Chris Ames

The Mail on Sunday reports that:

A bombshell White House memo has revealed for the first time details of the ‘deal in blood’ forged by Tony Blair and George Bush over the Iraq War.

The sensational leak shows that Blair had given an unqualified pledge to sign up to the conflict a year before the invasion started.

It flies in the face of the Prime Minister’s public claims at the time that he was seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

The story is based on a memo from secretary of state Colin Powell to George Bush a week before the April 2002 Crawford summit.

The Mail comments that:
The disclosure is certain to lead for calls for Sir John Chilcot to reopen his inquiry into the Iraq War if, as is believed, he has not seen the Powell memo.

(More) delay upon delay upon delay

by Chris Ames

A statement on the Inquiry website says that:

The Inquiry has informed the Prime Minister that Sir John intends to write to him by 3 November to provide a timetable for the completion of the Inquiry’s work.

Once that has happened, the Inquiry intends to publish the correspondence on its website as normal, subject to the Prime Minister’s agreement.

So there is now a timetable for a timetable. But note that the statement only refers to the “completion of the Inquiry’s work”, not publication. Rather worryingly, the Daily Mail raises the prospect of further delay once the Government has the report.

But some fear that even when the report is handed over it faces more than a year of extra delays as national security checks are carried out to ensure it does not contain sensitive military and intelligence information.

They are concerned that military, intelligence and security chiefs who are criticised in the report may be reluctant to see key details uncovered.

After the checks are completed, the million-word document will then be returned to Sir John for release and he can then deliver it to the Cabinet Office.


In a letter to the families, Sir John has now pledged to ‘write to the Prime Minister with a realistic timetable for delivery of the inquiry report (for national security checking, an essential process for any inquiry which draws on highly-classified material)’.

Although David Cameron claimed at PMQs yesterday that he “cannot wait” for the report to be published, there remains a danger that his government will sit on it. Cameron and his government have been lying through their teeth for the past ten months in claiming that publication of the report is a matter for the Inquiry. In fact, it needs Cameron to publish it.


Is Corbyn also waiting for Chilcot?

by Chris Ames

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Conference speech yesterday did not include the predicted apology for the invasion of Iraq. The Manchester Evening News reported what he did say on the subject:

“It didn’t help our national security when we went to war with Iraq in defiance of the United Nations on a false prospectus. It didn’t help our national security to endure the loss of hundreds of brave British soldiers in that war while making no proper preparation for what to do after the fall of that regime.”

This wasn’t quite the full apology for Labour’s role in the invasion. That may come later – perhaps when the Iraq Inquiry reports.

It’s speculation of course, but perhaps Corbyn is waiting for Chilcot. Not so much to decide whether an apology is necessary, but as a way of reducing the damage to Labour.

Meanwhile, the words of Digest Contributor Richard Heller did make it into Corbyn’s speech, to his apparent surprise.

Families demand announcement on publication within one month

by Chris Ames

The Daily Mail (and others) report that:

Bereaved families of British soldiers killed in Iraq will today give Sir John Chilcot a final ultimatum to publish his long-delayed report.

Now that all those criticised in the document have responded, the Iraq inquiry chairman has no excuse not to fix a date for its release, they say.

And they have demanded he announce this date within a month.

The hardest hitting part of the families “open letter” to Chilcot is the allegation that he has treated them “with contempt” while favouring Maxwellees:

While the Maxwellees – those individuals allegedly who deployed our loved ones to fight in a controversial war, whose misconduct sent them into battle ill-equipped and, thereby, to their deaths … have been given every attention and possible courtesy, we have been sidelined and ignored. While they were given every chance to stall publication, you have fought us at every turn – when all we have done is urged you to tackle the delay.

While they were given the assistance of taxpayer-funded government lawyers, you threatened us with costs for even daring to challenge you.

You claim that your inquiry is open and fair – maybe to the Maxwellees, but not to us … It is with regret that we must tell you that such hypocrisy is astonishing.

We do not intend to go away … in the absence of any reasonable, transparent and full explanation why you cannot, we expect you to write to the Prime Minister within one month with a date for publication, which should be by the end of the year.

By your own admission, now Maxwellisation is over, there is nothing to prevent you doing this. If you fail to do so, we will continue with our legal challenge.’

The letter has been sent not as part of the threatened legal action, but as a pause before possibly resuming it. Presumably, Chilcot’s statement that he needs to assess Maxwellisation responses before setting out a timetable means that the families have to give him time both to do that and to publish. In neither case have they actually set an ultimatum.


Maxwellisation responses in – no timetable for a while yet

by Chris Ames

The Foreign Affairs Committee has published a further letter from Sir John Chilcot to its chairman Crispin Blunt. In the letter, Chilcot confirms that the Inquiry has now received “the last Maxwell responses” but says that:

There is, inevitably, further work for my colleagues and I to do to evaluate those submissions, which are detailed and substantial, in order to establish with confidence the time needed to complete the Inquiry’s remaining work. As soon as I am able to I shall write to the Prime Minister with a timetable for publication of the Inquiry’s report.

So the ball is now back in Chilcot’s court and he is signalling that it will be a while before he can play it. He has again broken down what needs to be done to complete the report into two stages: 1) work out what needs to be done; 2) do it. He doesn’t know how long either stage will take so we should not hold our breath.

In the meantime, the justification for not releasing the evidence gets thinner and thinner.

The FAC has also published an earlier exchange of letters in which Blunt asked Chilcot to confirm that the Inquiry was getting all the help it needed from the government and that extra government resources would not speed things up and Chilcot’s reply, in which he confirmed the former, although the latter would appear to follow. Chilcot also confirmed that when he writes to David Cameron with the elusive timetable, he will publish that letter “once it has been sent”.


Cameron’s drone justification highlights Chilcot’s failure

by Chris Ames

In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins sceptically compares David Cameron’s justification for the extra judicial execution of Reyaad Khan and others to Tony Blair’s reference to “an imminent threat” (his inverted commas) from Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction as justification for regime change in that country.

It’s an obvious but important point, leaving aside the fact that Blair avoided using the phrase, even if he tried to imply it with claims that WMD could be used within 45 minutes, concealing along the way the fact that the dodgy intelligence on which it was based referred to short range weapons.

Jenkins has a point when he claims that:

Blair killed stone dead the thesis that such assertions by ministers should be taken on trust.

It matters little whether the Inquiry concludes that Blair deliberately misled us or takes the traditional establishment line that mistakes were made by people acting in good faith. Blair claimed that the intelligence had “established beyond doubt” that Iraq had WMD. If anything, the excuse that this was merely his reading of the intelligence makes things worse for his successors. He did indeed kill stone dead the thesis that such assertions should be taken on trust.

The other clear parallel with Iraq is Cameron’s statement that the attorney general judged the proposed action to be lawful. Given what the Inquiry has already shown about how Lord Goldsmith was leaned on (and lied to) about Iraq, it is hard to see the dual role of attorney general as politician and government lawyer surviving the Inquiry’s verdict.

But I speculate of course: twelve or more years on we don’t have the Inquiry’s verdict on this or any other point. Any “lessons learned” from Iraq remain stuck behind the shambles of Maxwellisation, which puts individual self interest behind the public and national interest.