Alarm over Iraq war inquiry leaks to the US

Senior MPs have questioned the position of the Iraq inquiry’s top official after it emerged that she gave US diplomats information from inside the inquiry while still working in her permanent role as a government foreign policy adviser.

According to a US embassy cable disclosed by Wikileaks, inquiry secretary Margaret Aldred briefed an embassy official about the inquiry’s secret plans to visit Washington for “private” discussions about Iraq.

The new revelation places Aldred at the heart of a plan to protect US interests during the inquiry. It adds to concerns about the process by which Aldred was appointed to the inquiry and supports claims that she has a conflict of interest. I raised these issues in a piece for Index last month.

Aldred is on secondment to the inquiry from her role as deputy head of the foreign and defence policy secretariat at the Cabinet Office, where she had extensive involvement in Iraq policy.

Her appointment was announced on 6 July 2009 but she did not take up the role full-time until that September. On 15 July, two weeks before inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot formally launched the inquiry at a press conference, Aldred briefed a US diplomat about its plans.

According to the leaked cable, Aldred briefed the official on the timing of the inquiry’s report, which she said “could not come out before the end of July 2010”. Having disclosed the inquiry’s plan to visit Washington, she “noted that the committee would not have subpoena powers in the United States [and] promised to coordinate the committee’s planned travel with embassy London.”

Aldred’s Cabinet Office expense claims shows that she flew to Washington in late May 2009, two weeks before Gordon Brown announced the inquiry, for “UK/US discussions”.

A previously leaked US embassy cable from September 2009 revealed that a British civil servant told a US state department official “that the UK had “put measures in place to protect your interests during the UK inquiry into the causes of the Iraq war”.

This assurance was given at the time Aldred took up her role as inquiry secretary. The inquiry has suggested that the civil servant was referring to a controversial Cabinet Office protocol on sensitive information. This was recently used to stop the inquiry publishing records of what Tony Blair told US president George Bush in the run-up to the war. It has also disclosed that the protocol was negotiated with the Cabinet Office by the inquiry secretariat, of which Aldred is head, before it was seen by the Chilcot committee and was then signed by Aldred.

Plaid Cymru parliamentary leader Elfyn Llwyd, who raised concerns over Aldred’s position in a Commons debate two weeks ago, told me: “This new revelation confirms my view that Margaret Aldred’s position is untenable. She is clearly unable to separate her role at the Cabinet Office from her highly sensitive position at the inquiry.”

Ed Davey, formerly a Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman and now a Business Department minister, said Aldred’s appointment “raised serious questions” about the inquiry’s independence.

A spokesman for the Iraq Inquiry told the Telegraph that the chairman, Sir John Chilcot, and his colleagues were aware of Mrs Aldred’s role as deputy head of the Foreign and Defence Policy Secretariat. He said “The committee is satisfied that its procedures are capable of ensuring balance in its work.”

Key Blair aide's Iraq evidence behind closed doors

If you wanted to know what really went on in the run-up to the Iraq war, Matthew Rycroft would be the person to ask. He was Tony Blair’s private secretary for foreign affairs from 2002-4 and saw just about everything that happened at first hand. No doubt that is why the Iraq inquiry has just seen him in secret.

The inquiry has just published an update on what it has been doing since public hearings ended in July. It visited Iraq, as promised, and has published the names of some of the people it spoke to, but not what they said. It has also revealed that it saw two witnesses in what it insists on calling “private hearings”. Of the two, Rycroft is undoubtedly the more significant.

What is intriguing about Rycroft’s secret session is that we are not told why. The inquiry coyly points to its protocol on witness evidence, which states that most witnesses will be seen in public but sets out reasons for secret hearings. These include the usual issues of “national security” and “vital national interests” but also “to protect any [junior official] who may wish to give evidence that runs counter to others”.

This is the Iraq inquiry in a nutshell. Are they trying to sit on sensitive information to protect the British state from embarrassment? Or trying to make it easier for people to blow the whistle? We won’t know until the report is published — early next year — and even then we won’t know what, if anything, we are not being told.

What we do know is that Rycroft would be the perfect whistleblower. He wrote many of the documents that the inquiry has failed to publish and was at Blair’s side at virtually all of the key meetings. He was, for example, the author of the notorious Downing Street memo, which recorded a crucial meeting at No 10 in July 2002, and was present at the White House six months later when Blair told George Bush, that Britain was solidly behind the war, whatever the outcome of UN inspections. He saw the very unwelcome advice from attorney general Lord Goldsmith a day earlier — that war would be illegal without a new UN resolution — and apparently wrote on the memo: “specifically said we did not need further advice [on] this matter.”

But if Rycroft has spilled the beans, it is far from clear whether his evidence will see the light of day. The inquiry is still dithering about whether to call back key witnesses, like Blair, to go through any gaps and contradictions — which could now include what Rycroft has said. And in its press release today, it claims that its protocol “sets out the approach the Inquiry will take to considering how best to draw on and explain in public what was covered in private”. Except that all the protocol says is that the inquiry will “careful consideration” as to how best to do this.

If Rycroft’s evidence does not feature, we’ll have to draw our own conclusions.

Iraq inquiry: What will the election hold?

In the run-up to the general election, the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war is being kept out of the public eye, with no new documents published during the campaign in order to keep out of party politics. But the result of the election could well impact on the inquiry. Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties have both promised to rethink the way it operates if they are in government after Thursday’s poll.

The Liberal Democrats have said they would introduce a fast-track freedom of information procedure and ensure the publication of key documents that the inquiry has been prevented from publishing. The Tories have repeated a threat to “revisit” the terms of the inquiry.

Since Gordon Brown announced the inquiry last June, he has come under fire from opposition parties for its lack of transparency. The prime minister initially said the inquiry that would sit in secret, but had to backtrack after fierce criticism from MPs on all sides and former mandarins, including former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, who led a 2004 inquiry into the use of intelligence in the run up to war.

In November, as public hearings began, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg ambushed Brown in the Commons after it became clear that a Cabinet Office protocol would severely limit the inquiry’s ability to publish and publicly discuss the documents that, according to chairman Sir John Chilcot, form the “great bulk” of its evidence.

Chilcot and other committee members have since expressed their frustration during hearings at the restrictions. In January, Tories and Liberal Democrats called for the “gag” on the inquiry to be lifted after former attorney general Lord Goldsmith said while giving evidence that he did not agree with the government’s decision to prevent publication of key papers.

The inquiry has not published any new documents since early February. I asked its spokesman whether this was because none had been cleared by the government or because the inquiry had chosen not to publish any during the run-up to the election. He referred me to Chilcot’s closing statement [pdf] on 8 March that “The Iraq Inquiry intends to remain out of the public eye over the period of the election.” The implication of this is that if the inquiry has documents that it is entitled to publish it has chosen to deny voters knowledge of their contents.

But a new Liberal Democrat or Tory government or coalition could see significant changes to the way the inquiry operates. Liberal Democrat shadow foreign secretary Ed Davey told me: “Labour has suffocated the Iraq Inquiry with rules and red-tape, effectively preventing publication of key documents. Liberal Democrats will review the protocol and appoint an arbitrator between the Cabinet Office and the Iraq Inquiry to rule on the publication of documents. This will act as a fast-track freedom of information procedure and ensure transparent and swift publication of documents.”

A Conservative spokesman said: “We have always said that a Conservative government will reserve the right to revisit the terms of the Inquiry. At the same time we have accepted that the Inquiry needs to hold some of its sessions and proceedings in confidence.”

The Labour party did not take up my invitation to comment but neither Labour nor ministers have given any indication that they plan to loosen the existing restrictions on the inquiry.