The government’s control over what the Chilcot Inquiry can publish and the questions it can ask is providing a watered-down account of why Britain went to war and an easy ride for witnesses argues Chris Ames
A week into the Chilcot Inquiry, the government’s witnesses are doing their best to present a sanitised version of how Britain went to war and the inquiry is doing its best to make it possible. The inquiry is either unwilling or able to publish the evidence that would challenge the witnesses’ version of events. Neither is it able to quote from this evidence. The government has control not only over what the inquiry can publish but what questions it can ask. In the absence of real evidence, leaked documents are once more making the running.
Four weeks ago, the Cabinet Office published a protocol setting out the rules for disclosing government information and for the publication of such information by the inquiry. I commented at the time that the process by which the inquiry had to seek permission for every piece of information it wanted to publish, with the government having the final say, made the type of mass publication carried out by the Hutton Inquiry unlikely.
Now that the hearings have started, the inquiry has not put a single new document into the public domain and the only new information has come, once again, from leaks to Sunday newspapers. Last week Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg criticised Gordon Brown on this issue, accusing him of “suffocating” the inquiry. But it’s worse than that. The inquiry is being gagged.
What few people have yet realised is that the government’s veto over what the inquiry can disclose extends to the questions it can ask. The protocol states that:
“Where the inquiry decides that any information provided to it by HMG, or reference to such information, constitutes relevant information which it wishes to include in its final report or at any point in its proceedings, it shall first follow the procedure set out for agreeing with HMG the form in which the information is made public or referred to publicly.”
So if the inquiry wants to make reference “at any point in its proceedings” to information provided by the government, it needs permission. It apparently does not have such permission. This undermines inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot’s claim that witnesses will not bother misleading the inquiry because, “the stuff is there on paper anyway”.
The result is that the Committee is giving witnesses an easy ride. Yesterday’s (Monday) session with Sir David Manning, formerly Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser is a case in point. Manning denied that Blair agreed in March 2002 to join the US plan for regime change in Iraq, but he set out a fallback position that regime change didn’t actually mean overthrowing the regime. Yet documents exist that easily disprove these assertions. A memo from Manning to Blair in March 2002 records that Manning told the then US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice that Blair “would not budge” in his support for regime change. An “Iraq Options” paper of the same month — produced from within Manning’s section of the Cabinet Office — concludes that “the use of overridng force in a ground campaign” should be the government’s policy on Iraq.
Yet, although these documents have long been in the public domain and have undoubtedly been given to the inquiry, they have not been published and not once did the inquiry members raise them. Neither did they raise another allegedly revealing document from Manning, a note of a meeting between Blair and George Bush in January 2003, in which Blair is said to have promised support for the invasion whatever the outcome of the UN inspections that were taking place at the time.
Dr Brian Jones, formerly of the Defence Intelligence Staff and a contributor to Iraq Inquiry Digest, called the panel’s performance “pitiful”.
He said: “They didn’t get close to exploring the implications of what was in the documents we know about. They pointed up but did not explore differences between Christopher Meyer and David Manning’s evidence, and most importantly they did not pursue “Iraq: Options” of 8 March 2002 which laid out a blueprint of how to get to military action. It was written by the Overseas and Defence Secretariat which reported to Manning, and was, I am almost certain, seen by the Butler Review. Perhaps Chilcot is not covering what he sees as old ground covered by previous inquiries but that hardly adheres to one of the main objectives of a public inquiry – convincing the public that things are being done thoroughly and forensically.”
There are some occasions when the witnesses refer to the document themselves, which seems to liberate the panel to refer to them, however briefly. But they do not quote their contents and their comments are easily batted away by the witnesses.
At the time the protocol was published, the inquiry claimed that the panel was able to answer whatever questions it chose to ask. But the panel’s failure to quote from the documents contradict this. I have since asked the inquiry’s media spokesperson why it has not so far published any documents, whether it has plans to do, whether it has asked permission to disclose their contents and whether the panel have so far asked any questions deriving from them.
I got a single answer that merely replicates the statement on the Inquiry website: “As we’ve said all along, the Committee intends to publish the key evidence with its report at the end of the inquiry. It may also publish material on the website as the inquiry progresses where this will help increase public understanding of its work.” The inquiry clearly recognises that publishing documents might increase public understanding but seems to have no immediate plans to do so.
The widespread mistrust of previous inquiries into Iraq stems partly from the subsequent disclosure, through leaks or freedom of information requests, of documents that contradict the government’s version of events. Now that leaked versions of some of these documents are in the public domain, people feel that the job of the inquiry is to acknowledge these documents and confront government witnesses with them. If they won’t — or can’t — do this and simply accept government claims at face value, they may as well not bother.