Will a censored Chilcot be worth the wait?

by Chris Ames

I have posted a piece for Comment is Free this afternoon. Here is the original version:

The end to the seemingly interminable Iraq Inquiry is in sight, for sure. A couple more months perhaps and with scope for another dose of farce and some more censorship. To use a cliché that predates even the inquiry, the glass is half full. Or is it still half empty?

On the positive side, we are on track for publication of the inquiry report (in parliament and simultaneously on the Inquiry’s website) in June or July, as per the timetable set out by Sir John Chilcot in October.  But why it will take quite so long is inexplicable.

Sometime this week, and possibly as you are reading this, a near-final version of the report will be winging its way from the ”independent” inquiry to the government, which will then complete a process of national security checking within two weeks.

Reassuringly, Cabinet Office minister John Penrose told MPs on Thursday that the process “cannot be used to redact or censor material that … might prove embarrassing to Ministers or officials”.

But this is only reassuring until you remember that Gordon Brown told MPs when he launched the inquiry that “the final report will be able to disclose all but the most sensitive information—that is, all information except that which is essential to our national security”. Officials then drew up a list as long as your arm of reasons why information might need to be withheld. “National security” covers a multitude of sins.

Penrose also said that Chilcot would give a firmer timetable for publication after this, but has suggested that this will still see publication in June or even July. He said the delay will not be because of the EU referendum, but because the report’s size means “it will take a number of weeks to prepare it for publication”. Has William Caxton been engaged to do the work, or should we be suspicious of some shabby fix?

Penrose gave MPs an assurance that the government will publish the report “as soon as it is delivered to us in its final form by the inquiry team, whenever that may be.” This is good news, as ministers had previously said that the report could only be published if MPs were available to debate it. Even if Chilcot fails to provide the report before the summer recess on 21 July ministers will (probably) not hold onto it.

What will the report say? If Sir John has forgotten the question, the Iraq Inquiry Digest has a list. I think it can safely be assumed that the Iraq misadventure will not be rewritten as a roaring success. There has been plenty of speculation about who will be criticised most, and for what. Military and establishment figures will be “singled out” for criticism, or the blame will be apportioned “widely”. Again, it depends which way you look at it.

My own area of interest has always been how we got into the debacle, not the debacle itself. We can still only speculate about what Chilcot will say about the legality of the war, or whether he will say Tony Blair lied about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or lied when he told MPs that it had not been possible to get “a” second UN resolution because Jacques Chirac said France would veto any resolution “whatever the circumstances”.

We should remember both that there is a traditional squeamishness within the establishment about accusations of lying and that the inquiry has no particular protection against a defamation action if it accuses someone of bad faith. It has probably already been threatened by the lawyers of “Maxwellees”, who have been given advance sight of criticism.

What I do know is that the inquiry will publish documents that set out clearly how Blair promised US President George W Bush a year before the invasion that he would back regime change to overthrow Saddam Hussein but proposed setting a trap for the Iraqi dictator based on his alleged WMD, on which intelligence was ‘poor’. But even here we are back to that half-empty glass.

The documents in question are often referred to as the Downing Street documents, because they include a revealing record of a meeting at No. 10 in July 2002. They were leaked many years ago to journalist Michael Smith and have been available online, almost in their entirety, ever since.

The good news is that the inquiry cannot publish these documents and produce a narrative that ignores what they show. For example, a Cabinet Office paper from March 2002 set out two options: one was to try to use the UN and a threat of force to try to disarm Iraq of WMD; the other was to use WMD as a pretext for regime change. At the time, Blair told his cabinet and the rest of us that his policy was the former.  In 2011, he explained to the Inquiry why this wouldn’t have worked and why he chose the latter.

The bad news is that both the inquiry and the Information Commissioner have told me that these documents will be partially censored at the government’s request.

It is well established that there has been a lot of argument between Chilcot and the government about what the inquiry can publish, particularly regarding Blair’s intercourse with Bush. If you are an optimist you will trust Sir John when he says he can publish enough evidence to stand up the story he wants to tell. If you are a pessimist you will be very worried when Sir John says he will publish only the evidence that stands up the story he wants to tell.

 

 

 

 


No further forward

by Chris Ames

Today’s debate on the National Security Checking process does not appear to have taken us beyond what has already been reported this week – that publication of the report is more likely to be delayed by the preparation of the report for publication rather than the checking process or the EU referendum.

Cabinet Office minister John Penrose told MPs:

we expect the inquiry’s report to be ready for national security checking in the week beginning 18 April—that is, some time next week. Once Sir John indicates that that is the case, the work will begin. As the Prime Minister promised, it will take no longer than two weeks.

Once that is done, the inquiry team will prepare the report for printing and publication. I should make it clear that at that stage, even when the national security checking process is complete, the report will still be in Sir John Chilcot’s hands and will not be released to the Government until everything is ready. The inquiry team has said that it will complete the remaining work as swiftly as possible, and Sir John Chilcot indicated in his letter to the Prime Minister last October that he expects publication in June or July this year.

He also said:

I want to reassure everybody, in Parliament and elsewhere, that the process will not and cannot be used to redact or censor material that does not need to be secret, or that might prove embarrassing to Ministers or officials from the time covered by the inquiry. I am also pleased to inform the House that I understand that the inquiry team expects to announce a firmer publication date soon after the national security checking process is complete

and:

I should also reassure the House that I have checked with senior officials in the Cabinet Office and been assured that nothing in the rules of purdah for the EU referendum could provide a reason to delay the publication of Sir John’s report once he delivers it to the Government. We will therefore publish the report as soon as it is delivered to us in its final form by the inquiry team, whenever that may be.

This last commitment does not even appear to be dependent on the government getting the report before the summer recess, although that seems almost certain now,

Meanwhile, the Guardian speculates about what the report might say, although this also seems to get us no further forward:

Senior military figures may be singled out for criticism in the long-awaited Chilcot report into the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which is due to be handed to Downing Street next week.

This is almost meaningless. The ‘may’ is speculative, while ‘singled out’ is contradicted by the rest of the piece and contradicts a controversial story six months ago that blame would be spread ‘far and wide’.

It seems that:

Ministers in focus will be the former defence secretary Geoff Hoon, former foreign secretary Jack Straw, and former international development secretary Clare Short, as well as Blair.

specifically:

The Chilcot report is certain to point to Hoon’s instruction to the then chief of defence staff, Lord Boyce, to delay military preparations so as not to alert parliament and the public, that war was a given, as one well-placed source put it to the Guardian.

So we’re back to ‘far and wide’, with ministers as likely to be criticised as generals, and no further forward.


Commons to debate national security checking

by Chris Ames

Tomorrow (Thursday) the House of Commons will debate a motion on the national security checking process that is due to begin next week, and specifically the motion:

That this House calls on the Government to conclude the National Security checking of the Iraq Inquiry report as soon as possible in order to allow publication of that report as soon as possible after 18 April 2016, and no later than two weeks after that date, in line with the undertaking on time taken for such checking by the Prime Minister in his letter to Sir John Chilcot of 29 October 2015.

Tory MP David Davis, one of those putting forward the motion, is quoted in heraldscotland as saying:

A lot of the reason it’s delayed already is haggling over what they can and can’t use. If they weren’t security clearing at that time, I don’t quite know what they think they were doing.

There’s really no argument for it taking any more than two weeks.

I think we’ll win the battle. If not, frankly, there will be an uproar.

Labour MP Paul Flynn is quoted as saying:

This is an attempt to keep it outside of the referendum and the political fallout from both sides.

I think they could publish it ahead of the referendum, but they won’t.

We all want to get things settled and to be informed and to know the truth about these events which took place, in our lifetimes.

The delay is sinful, damaging and wicked. The debate will be a chance to get some answers from the Government.

The trouble is, the Sunday Telegraph reported at the weekend the government is still saying it can complete national security checking in two weeks and that any subsequent delay will be because of a tortuous printing process, rather than the EU referendum.

Perhaps the debate will clarify this.


Tortuous printing process to delay Inquiry report

by Chris Ames

According to the Sunday Telegraph, “a team of national security officials has been prepared to go to the offices of the inquiry next week to start the national security vetting process”.

This is as expected but the paper also suggests that the report will be delayed not because of the European Referendum as claimed previously, but because the Inquiry needs even more time. It says John Penrose, the minister in charge of the Government’s response to the report,

said the process would take just two weeks to complete, however the Government had agreed with Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry’s chairman that the report would not be published until June or July.

He said: “Nobody wants this to take any longer than it has already. The process of checking by security officials will take no more than two weeks to complete.

“Sir John can then complete the process of preparing his report for publication on the timetable set out in his letter to the Prime Minister last October. We look forward to seeing the final report then.”

Last October, Sir John did indeed say:

“The very considerable size of our report – more than two million words in total – means that it will take some weeks to prepare for printing and publication … We will complete that work as swiftly as possible.  I consider that once National Security checking has been completed it should be possible to agree with you a date for publication in June or July 2016.”

I understand local printer Mr William Caxton is on standby.


EU referendum may delay Inquiry report

by Chris Ames

The Telegraph reports that:

David Cameron is set to postpone publication of the Iraq War inquiry report until after the EU referendum, leading to accusations that he is deliberately postponing controversial announcements.

Senior Government sources confirmed that it is likely to be published after the June 23 vote, despite the fact it will be handed to ministers next month. Mr Cameron had previously suggested that he wanted to publish the report within two weeks of receiving it.

The prospect of a further delay was last night condemned by families who lost loved ones in the conflict amid accusations that the Government is attempting to avoid anything which could turn the public against them.

It’s no surprise and has been hinted at before. The usual pre-election Purdah rules will be applied in the run-up to the referendum.

But it gives the lie once again to David Cameron’s claim that the timing of the report’s publication is not something he can control.

As the Telegraph reports:

Matthew Jury, a solicitor representing the families of servicemen and women who died in Iraq, added: “The inquiry is meant to be independent. Once the report is completed and delivered, whatever the reason, the Government should have no right to delay its publication.

“The Cabinet’s Office only job is to use every reasonable effort and resource to ensure the report is published as soon as is possible.

“The Government has no right to pick and choose the date of publication to suits its own political agenda, whatever that might be.

On the other hand, it’s just a question of holding back the report until after the election, there should be plenty of time to publish the report before the Summer recess.


Heywood row strengthens my Iraq Inquiry FOI case

by Chris Lamb

Last week it was reported that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood had introduced new guidance for civil servants to withhold official papers appertaining to the EU from government ministers supporting the campaign for the UK to exit from the European Union.

This intervention has now blown up into a full scale row with the Cabinet Secretary being accused of conspiring with Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a ‘constitutional coup’ to undermine the authority of ministers backing Brexit.

This row over civil service impartiality under Heywood’s regime lends a considerable boost to the demand that any role which Heywood played, currently obscured in secrecy, in the setting up of the Iraq Inquiry should be made transparent and opened to accountability. It strengthens the objective of my freedom of information request for the Downing Street official advice to Gordon Brown on the selection of the Chilcot panel and the setting of the Inquiry’s remit to be disclosed.

Heywood has been summoned to appear before the House of Commons Public Administration Committee to explain his actions. According to reports in the Sunday Times, the committee chairman Bernard Jenkin- who supports exiting the EU- stated that the committee

will be raising concerns about civil service impartiality and the ability of ministers to carry on the business of government and the accountability of departments to government.

He continued that ‘the rules (introduced by Heywood) have ‘left ministers blindsided by their own departments’ and that;

This cannot be right and we want an explanation. It is vital that the impartiality of the civil service is not compromised or that there is any suspicion that that the prime minister is pressurizing the civil service.

The Sunday Times reports that Heywood’s guidance to ban official papers from Brexit ministers has a wider impact than originally thought. It was supposed to apply to documents directly related to the forthcoming referendum, but civil servants are apparently also stopping ministers from seeing correspondence addressed to them if it mentions the EU at all. Officials in the departments with senior ministers supporting Brexit have been ordered to send government statistics bolstering the case for staying in the EU direct to the Cabinet Office without getting them signed off by the Secretaries of State concerned. This is potentially in breach of ministerial legal responsibility for their departments.

The six Cabinet ministers backing Brexit are, according to the Sunday Times report, set to demand from Sir Jeremy Heywood a written clarification of his guidance complaining that the ban on them seeing official papers has ‘paralyzed’ the government.

David Davis, the prominent Conservative backbench MP and government critic, has accused the government, through this guidance, of ‘trying to rig the system in its favour’ and describes the impact of the ban as ‘a constitutional offence’ and ‘abuse of power’. The Sunday Times quotes a civil servant source stating that ‘it is outrageous that Jeremy Heywood is willing to threaten the impartiality of the civil service like this’.

 

 


Cabinet Office dates dossier wmd draft

by Chris Ames

A year ago, I made a freedom of information request to the Cabinet Office to find out more about who wrote certain drafts of the dossier. It’s a long story but it has finally elicited some new information that clarifies something that has been baffling me for years, i.e. going back to the Hutton Inquiry.

I asked which draft dossier (or section thereof) was circulated with a handwritten note by John Scarlett dated 6 September 2002, which was at an early stage of the re-writing of the wmd dossier published later that month.

It always appeared as if the document circulated with the note was a version of the wmd section of the dossier headed “Section 6” that was adjacent to the note on the Hutton Inquiry website.

But if this document was produced and circulated on 6 September 2002, that didn’t seem to fit with other evidence about the drafting of the dossier. Various other documents released to me under FOI, including documents dated 9 September, contain comments with page and paragraph numbers referring a draft dossier said to represent the state of drafting on 5 September.

However, the Cabinet Office has told me that the document circulated by Scarlett was indeed the “Section 6” on the Hutton website. This fills in a few gaps in the chronology.

For a start it does show that comments from the Defence Intelligence Staff were on a draft dossier that had already been superseded.

But foreign office spin doctor John Williams was aware when he produced his ‘9 September’ draft, which the Cabinet Office persuaded Lord Hutton was not relevant, that the wmd section had been updated. He wrote: “I don’t propose to rewrite this until I take delivery of the new version.

The new wmd section was produced very soon after it was identified as section 6 of a newly structured dossier at a meeting on the afternoon of 6 September. The document is very similar to the earlier draft except that the historical parts have been removed.

It was also produced and sent soon after the DIS sent over a form of words describing illicit revenue generation and wmd funding at 15.29 on 6 September. The same words appear in the draft.

It isn’t clear who made the handwritten changes to the draft but both they and the typed changes can be found in the 10 September draft dossier attributed to Scarlett, along with elements of Williams’s drafting.

The remaining hole in the story appears to be Williams’ rewrite of the intelligence section.

 

 


Chilcot has less freedom than arms to Iraq inquiry, Lord Scott says

by Chris Ames

My colleague Richard Norton-Taylor has written an interesting piece for the Guardian:

The long-awaited inquiry by Sir John Chilcot into the British invasion of Iraq in 2003 has infinitely less freedom than the inquiry into how Britain secretly helped to arm Saddam Hussein decades earlier, the Guardian has been told.

Speaking before the 20th anniversary of the release of his arms to Iraq report, Lord Scott said he had been given complete freedom to publish what he wanted.

Scott, now a retired law lord, told the Guardian that he had “huge freedom” over what information relating to his inquiry, which opened in 1992, could be disclosed. “I had the final decision on publication,” he said.

In contrast, the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, will have the final say on what is published in the inquiry report on the invasion of Iraq.

Norton-Taylor points out that:

Scott withheld only a few pages – passages dealing with current MI6 activities – of a report that provided great encouragement to those campaigning for more open government, eventually leading to the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.

He told the Guardian that the advantage of a judge leading an inquiry was that they were accustomed to making decisions based on evidence. “The only person who can decide is the judge”, Scott said.

Of course, the Cabinet Office doesn’t want us to know why the Labour Government chose to set up the Iraq inquiry in the format that it chose, with such limited powers that it has to get the permission of officials to publish anything.


Is Sir Jeremy Heywood at the centre of blocking my FoI request?

by Chris Lamb

In drafting my case for appealing the Information Commissioner’s decision backing the Cabinet Office’s refusal to disclose the official advice and discussions around the setting up of the Iraq Inquiry, I have been presented with the task of fleshing out the meaning of the so-called “chilling effect”.

The alleged “chilling effect” of the disputed information – deterring the candour of civil servants in offering advice to ministers in future and driving decision making into backroom, unrecorded channels – is the key reason put forward by the Cabinet Office, and accepted by the Information Commissioner, for blocking this request.

Reputable academic commentators on the “chilling effect” – such as the Constitution Unit at University College, London – have described it as a very slippery concept and have found very little evidence to suggest that it exists at central government level. The Constitution Unit, in surveying civil servants, has found that adhering to conventions based upon civil service professional ethics – such as being impartial and objective and recording decisions – takes precedence over a so-called “chilling effect”.

My task in searching out meaning for “chilling effect” in relation to the information I was requesting was made particularly difficult because neither Cabinet Office correspondence or the Information Commissioner’s Decision Notice offered clues to work out answers for the most basic questions. Logically, one would ask who, or which civil servants stand to be “chilled” by the discosure; how and why would they be?

The appeal process, through the First Tier (Information) Tribunal, has not been more helpful in this respect.

I have been forced to argue my case against a wholly abstract “chilling effect”, operating upon unspecified civil servants – except for the known quantity that they are central government senior civil servants – with next to no evidence explaining the how and why. All the Information Commissioner’s Office and Cabinet Office have to say of the matter is that if I knew the content of the information I would understand the “significant and notable” chilling effect accorded to it, but as I do not know unfortunately I cannot understand this.

It appears an information blocking fait accompli. Readmore..


Cabinet Office shambles delays Inquiry

by Chris Ames

The Information Tribunal has rejected my appeal against the Information Commissioner in my attempt to have all documents declassified for publication by the Inquiry released now, rather than having to wait for the Inquiry to publish its report. The question of whether it is reasonable and in the public interest for the information to be withheld so that the public do not try to make sense of it without guidance from the great and the good was not decided. During the appeal, the Cabinet Office introduced a new exemption under Section 12 of the FOI Act – that the cost of retrieving the information would exceed the relevant limits. They won the case because they convinced the Tribunal – and indeed me – that their record keeping is a complete shambles.

But the case did reveal a new reason for the delay to the Inquiry, particularly in the long-running process of getting documents declassified. For reasons that are unclear, where the Inquiry should have written to the relevant government department for permission to publish each piece of information, it instead addressed all its requests to the Cabinet Office, which then had to write to the relevant department, which then wrote back to the Cabinet Office, which then wrote back to the Inquiry – and so on.

The notorious protocol governing publication of information sets out very clearly what should happen:

The Inquiry will notify the department, agency or service within HMG which is the originator of the information or that was the recipient of the information if it originated from outside HMG (the “lead government department”) …

The lead government department, following consultation with other government departments with an interest in the information and, where applicable, any third party source of that information, will respond to the Inquiry, in writing, as soon as possible…

Rather surprisingly, the Cabinet Office’s witness – a deputy director – told the Tribunal that, as the sponsoring department for the Inquiry, the Cabinet Office was the “lead department” for all requests. Clearly, the lead department changes according to a specific piece of information. The Cabinet Office claims to have been facilitating the declassification process and making sure deadlines were met, which is pretty laughable in the circumstances. It seems control freakery provides a better explanation. Of course, the inquiry secretary is Cabinet Office insider Margaret Aldred.

The protocol doesn’t actually refer to declassification either but to the Inquiry being allowd to publish documents or extracts. Another interesting distinction that emerged during the hearing was that the original documents have not themselves been declassified, just the versions held by the Inqiury. Astonishingly, it appears that the Inquiry is both redacting the documents as instructed and stamping them “declassified”. Because the Cabinet Office’s record keeping is so bad, it is largely having to trust the Inquiry to do this as instructed.

Although in its written submissions, the Cabinet Office claimed that the Inquiry would publish its report and the evidence in June or July 2016, as suggested in Sir John Chilcot’s recent letter to David Cameron, its witness had to admit that there is no guarantee that it will even come out this year.

So here we are in 2016. We may see the end of the Inquiry this year. Or we may not.