x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Iraq inquiry 'like a chat in a Whitehall club'

Observers fear that British government may be engineering a cover-up by giving ministries the right to censor the final report on the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, addressing MPs recalled from recess in September 2002  to discuss the Iraq crisis.
Tony Blair, the British prime minister, addressing MPs recalled from recess in September 2002 to discuss the Iraq crisis.

LONDON // The British government's inquiry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq is facing increasing criticism for failing to quiz key players vigorously enough to get to the truth. There are also fears that the government itself might be engineering a cover-up by giving individual ministries the right to censor sections in the draft of the final report. Although the chairman of the inquiry - Sir John Chilcot, a privy councillor and former senior civil servant - has promised that his investigation "will not be a whitewash", an increasing number of voices in Britain are suggesting that, less than three weeks after the start of evidence gathering, it might turn out to be just that.

Concerns came to a head earlier this week with the appearance before the board of inquiry of Sir John Scarlett, regarded as the first "hostile" witness to give evidence. It was Sir John who, as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, prepared the "dodgy dossier" which the then-prime minister, Tony Blair, presented to the House of Commons in September 2002, apparently to "prove" that Iraq had missiles armed with chemical warheads capable of being deployed within 45 minutes.

Both Mr Blair and the US president, George W Bush, used this dossier as a central justification for the invasion in March the following year, even though it later turned out that the dossier was really only referring to battlefield weapons. It also transpired later that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. Yet, although the former head of MI6 admitted to the inquiry this week that the dossier was confusing and might have been worded more clearly, there were no attempts by the board, who are all regarded as members of the establishment, to press him on whether or not the document had been "sexed up", as claimed, for the sake of political convenience.

On the very morning of his appearance, it was also said that one of the main sources of intelligence for the 45-minute claim was a Baghdad taxi driver who had overheard a conversation between two army officers in the back of his cab two years earlier. Before the questioning even started, Sir John Chilcot ruled out any questions on the taxi driver, but said they would come up if Sir John agreed to a behind-closed-doors session at some later date.

The British newspapers were scathing. The questioning was "like a chat in a Whitehall club",The Guardian said. The Daily Mail described the "comatose" questioning as "a disgrace", adding: "It seems the plan is that [the inquiry] should find no great fault in anyone and that, beyond gently rapping one or two knuckles, it should avoid anything that might be interpreted as censure." Some observers have commented that the most cogent criticisms in the first 12 days of testimony - particularly, damning condemnations of the complete lack of planning for post-war Iraq - have come despite, rather than because of, the inquiry board's questioning.

Other concerns are now being raised by Dr Brian Jones, a former member of the Defence Intelligence Staff who was responsible for analysing all intelligence on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. He has long voiced misgivings over the intelligence basis for the claims in the September 2002 dossier and he has now taken the unprecedented step of publishing online his witness submissions to previous inquiries that had looked at pre-invasion intelligence gathering.

Dr Jones said yesterday that he had done so "to add to public understanding of the two issues on which I feel best qualified to comment: weapons of mass destruction and intelligence analysis". "These are complicated matters and there is a risk that the Chilcot inquiry will miss significant facts. So far the inquiry has provided precious little documentary evidence as background to its hearings. "If the Chilcot inquiry does not demonstrate more openness and show that it is taking a critical approach to what it hears, it will lose the confidence of the public."

Additionally, the prime minister, Gordon Brown - who was forced to make a U-turn on his original proposal that all the Chilcot hearings be held in private - has been accused of trying to suffocate the inquiry. Although Mr Brown said that national security would be the only reason why parts of the final report would not be published, it has now emerged that the Cabinet Office has issued a set of protocols giving Whitehall departments power to veto sections.

These additional restrictions would allow ministries to remove parts of the final report if, for instance, they were deemed to put Britain's commercial or economic interests at risk. Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the only one of the UK's three main political parties to oppose the invasion, condemned the move. Mr Clegg put it to Mr Brown in the House of Commons: "It is vital that the Iraq inquiry is able to reveal the full truth about the decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

"But how on earth are we, and the whole country, going to hear the whole truth about decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq if the inquiry is being suffocated by your government's shameful culture of secrecy?" Mr Brown replied that the issues that would require the panel to take a more cautious line were those of national security and international relations and added that the inquiry team had not complained.

A spokesman for the inquiry said they were confident that the government would allow them to publish as they wished. However, this assurance has failed to convince everyone. The family of Margaret Hassan, 59, a British aid worker who was kidnapped and killed in Baghdad in 2004, have also said that they feel "betrayed" by the inquiry following its questioning of Edward Chaplin, the former UK ambassador to Iraq.

Mrs Hassan's two sisters had been asked beforehand by the inquiry about what questions they would like asked. In the event, however, Mr Chaplin's evidence regarding Mrs Hassan, who had worked in Iraq for 30 years, lasted just three minutes. Deirdre Fitzsimons, one of the sisters, said: "We have been waiting years for the chance to hear what happened to my sister but she was worth so little that she received just three minutes.We are disappointed that they didn't ask the right questions because we presented them with the right evidence. The ambassador did not tell the full story and the panel did not ask the right questions."

The acid test of whether or not the board can ask the right questions will arrive early in the new year, when Mr Blair himself is due to face the overly polite inquisitors. @Email:dsapsted@thenational.ae