Bid to keep No10 files secret halts Iraq report: Cabinet Secretary blocks attempt to declassify 130 conversations between Blair, Bush and Brown - MPs last night voiced fears that the Chilcot Inquiry may never conclude
7 November 2013
The long-awaited report into how Britain went to war in Iraq has been delayed indefinitely by a row over new transcripts of conversations between Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and George W. Bush.
Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot has revealed that he has asked for ‘more than 130 records of conversations’ between the three men to be declassified.
His demands have been blocked by Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, Britain’s most senior civil servant.
n a letter released on the inquiry website, Sir John says the snarl-up has led him to delay the ‘Maxwellisation process’, which requires him to inform senior politicians and civil servants if he plans to criticise them in his final report.
MPs last night voiced fears that the inquiry may never conclude and that it is ‘beyond a joke’ to let the costs to taxpayers spiral further than the £7.4million it has already cost.
The Chilcot Inquiry was established by Mr Brown when he was prime minister.
But senior civil servants are blocking the publication of private communications between the two Labour premiers and the former US president on the ground that it might prejudice future relations between leaders.
The hold-up also involves whether to make public ‘25 notes from Mr Blair to President Bush’ and ‘some 200 Cabinet-level discussions’, Sir John said.
In his letter, Sir John said he and his colleagues ‘have agreed that the inquiry should not issue those provisional criticisms without a clear understanding of what supporting evidence will be agreed for publication.
‘The inquiry has therefore contacted the relevant individuals to notify them that the Maxwellisation timetable has been delayed and that we are not yet able to confirm when we will be in a position to provide them with the material they expect.’
In a letter of reply to Sir John, David Cameron said he was ‘aware of the scale of the task declassification has presented to a number of government departments’.
He added: ‘I appreciate consideration of the disclosure requests for the remaining sensitive categories of information must be handled sensitively and carefully but I hope that consideration of the final sets of papers can be concluded as soon as possible.’
A senior Tory MP, who has taken a close interest in the Chilcot Inquiry, said: ‘You do wonder whether the Chilcot Inquiry will ever report.
‘It gets to the point where you wonder if there will be any point publishing the conclusions.’
Elfyn Llwyd, Plaid Cymru leader in the Commons, said it was ‘absolutely unacceptable’ for the documents not to be published.
He said: ‘This is preposterous now – it has got beyond a joke.
'It would be in everyone’s best interests for all the available evidence to see the light of day so the inquiry can come to a measured and proper conclusion on all the available relevant evidence.’
Neither Mr Brown nor Mr Blair was prepared to comment, but allies of Mr Brown said he had no objection to the publication of the documents.
DOMINIC SANDBROOK asks: So what is it that Blair has to hide?
Increasing numbers of people – especially the young – believe our political system is a closed circle: secretive, impenetrable and corrupt.
If you want to know why so many feel alienated, just take a look at a story that speaks volumes about the unaccountability of our political masters.
Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, it turns out, has ground to a halt.
The inquiry wants to release the details of some 25 notes that Tony Blair, who was prime minister during the 2003 invasion, sent to the then US president George W. Bush.
He also wants to publish 130 conversations that Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, had with the American president, as well as information relating to 200 Cabinet discussions about the invasion and its aftermath.
Quite understandable, you might think. For such an inquiry must shed light on these murky matters. Why bother having one at all if you are going to suppress vital information?
But the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, has dug in his heels and is refusing to release the documents.
As a result, even though Chilcot and his team have seen them, and have drawn on them when writing their report, you and I are barred from reading them. Thus there is no way for us to weigh up Chilcot’s conclusions, which means that whatever he may decide, the origins of the Iraq War will probably remain as controversial as ever.
Alas, none of this is very surprising.
Whitehall has long been engulfed in a culture of secrecy, and the lamentable urge to block, obfuscate and cover up is deeply engrained in our political culture.
At one level, all this merely confirms the general pointlessness of public inquiries.
The Chilcot operation is in fact the third inquiry into the Iraq imbroglio, following the Hutton and Butler whitewashes. As usual with inquiries of this kind, it has ballooned into a grotesque and vastly expensive circus, and is unlikely to shed any new light or to change anybody’s opinion.
When Gordon Brown set it up, he promised it would take about a year. That was in June 2009. We are now in November 2013, and still we are no nearer to discovering the truth.
As for the costs, they have so far come to a whopping £7,474,400 – with plenty more to come.
The astonishing thing is that, by the standards of public inquiries, Chilcot has not proved especially expensive. The Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday took 12 years and cost a staggering £200million.
It would have been cheaper just to apologise and give the bereaved families £10million each. But no: the Government thought it was better to give the money to the legal profession instead.
Yet there is something particularly galling about the Chilcot impasse, because the invasion of Iraq left a permanent stain on our political culture. Although it is now more than ten years since Tony Blair sent in British troops, the scars of the conflict have yet to heal.
Iraq itself is still cursed by regular car bombings, while 179 British families are still mourning their fallen sons and daughters.
A decade on, it is clear that the decision to invade was a defining moment, not merely for Mr Blair’s premiership, but for a generation’s attitude to politics. Quite apart from its other costs, it fundamentally altered the way many people thought about the political process, and not for the better.
While some two million people marched against the war, many more were profoundly disturbed by the suspicion that our government had lied and dissembled in order to please the Americans.
For young people in particular, the controversy seemed to confirm that politics was inherently corrupt.
In this context, the ludicrous farce of the Chilcot Inquiry is even more damaging. To many people, it will inevitably appear that the Whitehall establishment is protecting its own.
My own suspicion is that these messages that the Cabinet Secretary won’t make public will probably turn out to be less exciting than we think. Much as we love to believe in stunning revelations and smoking guns, the reality is usually muddier and more mundane.
But as the popularity of conspiracy theories suggests, people always like to believe the worst.
What, they will wonder, do Blair and Brown have to hide? What did they tell President Bush? What promises did they make, and what secrets are lurking in the documents?
The great irony, of course, is that the Chilcot Inquiry was meant to shed light on the dark corners of British foreign policy, to heal the wounds of the Iraq invasion, and to restore public faith in the political process.
Yet all of this is so unnecessary. For decades, successive governments have come to power promising to roll back the culture of secrecy, yet none of them has done it.
Why the mandarins and their political patrons are so frightened of openness is simply beyond me.
Their American friends, for example, are much quicker and keener to open their archives and to air their dirty linen in public, and it never does them any harm.
Truth and openness are the building blocks of any successful democratic society. The more you hide, the more people suspect and fear you – and the more you play into the hands of juvenile nihilists who prattle about revolution without really understanding what it means.
It was President Richard Nixon, of all people, who put it best. ‘What really hurts in matters of this sort,’ he told an aide during the Watergate scandal, ‘is not the fact that they occur... What really hurts is if you try to cover it up.’
Alas for Nixon, he did not take his own advice. But our politicians really ought to learn the appropriate lesson.