The Chilcot investigation may know the truth about the build up to the war, but it is unable to reveal all, says Chris Ames
The Iraq inquiry’s public hearings ended last week, possibly for good. It is clear that Sir John Chilcot and co know the truth but, stuck in a quagmire of their own making, are unable to tell it.
For some time now it has been clear that the government’s insistence on secrecy is severely restricting both what the inquiry can tell the public and what it can ask witnesses. Specifically, a protocol that the inquiry agreed with the Cabinet Office under that last government prevents it from publishing or quoting from documents that it has seen without the permission of civil servants who would rather keep the state’s secrets close.
As he wound up proceedings last Friday, Chilcot made clear that the inquiry has still not worked out whether it will need to call back certain witnesses to go through any gaps or contradictions between their evidence and the contemporaneous documentary evidence. That there are contradictions is beyond doubt. Essentially, the majority of government witnesses told the inquiry that Tony Blair was seeking to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction through the UN while the documents, many of which have been leaked, show that Blair was seeking regime change but hatched a plot to tell the world that he and US president George Bush were seeking to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction through the UN.
The new government has disappointed those, like me, who thought that it would adopt a more open attitude than the previous one. Despite promises before the election that the protocol would be reviewed and a very clear promise in June from deputy prime minister Nick Clegg that only national security considerations would restrict publication of documents, nothing of substance has changed and the highly restrictive protocol remains in place. It appears that Clegg does not have the power to overrule the civil service.
More documents have been published than previously, but not the ones that really matter. On Friday, the inquiry showed just how hamstrung it continues to be when Baroness Prashar asked the previous deputy prime minister John Prescott about the letters that Blair had sent Bush in the year before the invasion and the extent to which Blair had committed Britain to the war. When Prescott tried to pretend that no such thing had happened, Prashar resorted to quoting an account of the letters given to it by Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former spin doctor. But Prescott simply said he “wasn’t at that meeting”. You could not make it up.
The inquiry’s dilemma is primarily that if it accepts its witnesses’ version of events in the face of the evidence, it will be a laughing stock and the reputation of its members, including eminent historians, will be damaged forever. But if it is to contradict witnesses in its findings — and indirectly or directly call them liars — it will first have to put the evidence to them. But if it is still not allowed to quote the evidence, it cannot do this.
Rather worryingly, Chilcot suggested that one way of doing this might be “through seeking additional written evidence”, which implies that the contradictions will be addressed though a behind-the-scenes exchange of correspondence.
Chilcot also promised that the inquiry’s eventual report “will include that material which is necessary to explain what happened; and how and why we have reached our conclusions.” He said that “if that involves classified or currently unpublished material, we will seek declassification in accordance with the published protocol we have agreed with the government.” But this is the same protocol that has restricted the inquiry throughout and Chilcot can give no guarantees that publication will be permitted. This raises the prospect of the inquiry limiting its conclusions to what it can evidence publicly, or publishing conclusions that it cannot evidence. Neither outcome would be acceptable.