Chilcot Report Analysis: Overstated Threats, Uncertain Legality And Post-War Planning Disaster

Why it was no 'whitewash' - and worth the wait

06/07/2016 19:28 | Updated 06 July 2016
Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

Sir John Chilcot was barely a minute into his statement on the Iraq War when it became clear that he meant business.

The man whose very name has become a byword for dither and delay surprised many as he swiftly got stuck into the damning criticism for which he may now instead be remembered.

“We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted,” he said. “Military action at that time was not a last resort.”

He sounded nervous at first, as if acutely aware of the enormity of his judgement, but ploughed on with an increasingly robust tone. Judgements about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s allege WMD were presented by the Tony Blair government “with a certainty that was not justified”.

Explicit warnings were ignored about the consequences of the invasion, post-war planning was “wholly inadequate” and the former Prime Minister had “overestimated his ability to influence US decisions”.

Packing the airless room in the QEII conference centre in central London where Chilcot had taken testimony from 150 witnesses over two years, the world’s media twitched and whispered as Chilcot made plain this was no sterile summary of evidence.

BEN STANSALL via Getty Images
The mother of Gunner Lee Thornton, who died in Iraq

And, highlighting the one Blair memo that may now forever be used as a shorthand for his relations with the Bush White House, he said the ex-PM had promised his friend George he would be with him “whatever”.

Chilcot and his Iraq Inquiry team had come not to praise Blair, but to bury him under sheer weight of evidence of their 2.6 million-word, 12-volume report.

This was certainly not going to be the ‘whitewash’ that some critics had feared when Sir John and his fellow panellists (dubbed the ‘Four Knights And a Baroness’) were first unveiled, seven long years ago. Whitehall’s very own Godot had stopped the waiting and everyone was suddenly taking notice.

Grounded in evidence, carefully written and utterly rigorous, the Iraq Inquiry report is everything that the Blair government’s WMD dossier was not. It makes no claims without backing them up with extensive, exhaustive documentation.

Chilcot’s statement was quietly devastating about the failures of the Blair government, the military and intelligence community. And Blair himself was singled out for telling the inquiry that the post-war problems could not have been known in advance.

“We do not agree that hindsight is required,” Chilcot said, at his most caustic. “The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and Al Qaeda activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion.”

This line rebutting Blair's constant claim that his critics were merely displaying 'hindsight' reminded me of my old friend and contact, Dr Brian Jones.  Former Defence Intelligence Staff analyst Jones was in my view the 'star' witness of the Hutton Inquiry way back in 2003.

He rang me up to during the Hutton Inquiry, breaking his anonymity to explain how he had been one of the few to challenge the infamous 'WMD' dossier of 2002. His views were ignored by those above him. Brian sadly died before seeing today's report finally published. But he would probably have been impressed.

Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images
The report in full

Crucially, the former senior civil servant talked of the human cost, to Britons and Iraqis. He talked of the “deep anguish” of the families of the 200 British citizens who died in Iraq, but also the 150,000 Iraqis – “probably many more” – whose deaths marked this out as a foreign policy disaster of the new century.

The hackneyed approach to Chilcot had been that it would tell us nothing new, that it would be an ‘Establishment stitch-up’ and that it everyone had long ago made up their minds about the Iraq War’s merits or demerits.

But the exhaustive nature of the report – with many top secret documents declassified decades before they were due to be – ensures it is a comprehensive history of the conflict. The 30 separate memos, notes and emails from Blair to Bush – published in full for the first time – are a fascinating glimpse into high level diplomacy and the exercise of power and influence.

I attended nearly every day of the Iraq Inquiry, just I did the Hutton Inquiry years earlier, and have been a student of the Butler Report into intelligence failures (a panel on which Chilcot also sat) and the Foreign Affairs Committee and Intelligence and Security Committee takes on the Iraq saga.

Chilcot revealed an avalanche of new documents and testimony. From Jack Straw claiming he could have stopped the war to MI6 chief Mark Allen’s colourful descriptions of the lack of intelligence about Saddam’s regime, it certainly filled in many of the blank, and redacted, spaces in the story.

The Rock
Hollywood movie fantasy

Today’s raft of evidence includes gems such as the revelation that MI6 were asked just why it had failed to properly verify claims about chemical or biological weapons.

One intelligence source claimed chemical weapons and nerve agents were being stored in glass containers. But it was pointed out that the ‘intelligence’ sounded strangely like a Sean Connery Hollywood movie, The Rock, which wrongly depicted nerve weapons carried in glass beads.

Just as importantly, the report is not mere documentary. It has judgements on what went wrong, as Chilcot’s opening statement made clear. Yes, there were Sir Humphrey-like understatements, such as saying the UK military’s role in Iraq “ended a very long way from success”. Yet it was the methodical, forensic criticism of the Blair years that gave the report its weight.

Chilcot is unforgiving about the lack of “challenge” by civil servants, intelligence officials, and Cabinet ministers. He clearly loathes not just the ‘sofa government’ of the Blair era but the wider lack of structures and accountability. "There were no substantive discussions of the military options, despite promises by Mr Blair," he says at one point.

STEFAN ROUSSEAU via Getty Images
Tony Blair

So what about the two key issues many wanted ‘closure’ on: did Blair mislead the nation and was the war legal?

Chilcot doesn’t in any way suggest Blair ‘lied’, but he does leave open the way politics and the drive to make a case for war muddied what should normally be a very distinct matter of careful caveating.  “There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that Number 10 improperly influenced the text,” the report says

But the intelligence "had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons". And there was a "deliberate selection of a formulation which grounded the statement in what Mr Blair believed, rather than in the judgements which the Joint Intelligence Committee had actually reached". We are allowed to join the dots ourselves.

The problems of uncaveated intelligence assessments continue to this day. For all David Cameron's words in the Commons today that the Joint Intelligence Committee now previews his statements on such assessments, the Syrian experience is not exacly a happy one. Don't forget Cameron repeatedly claimed that '70,000' ground forces were ready to help against Assad, a claim discredited by many since - and yet apparently approved by the JIC.

And on the legality of the war, Chilcot makes clear the inquiry’s job was never to rule on this. But it does not rule out the International Criminal Court taking action (which I understand could only happen with a majority vote in the UN General Assembly, as it has in the past with Israel). Sir John says the issue “could” be only be resolved by a ‘properly constituted and internationally recognised court’ [ie the ICC]. But the actual report itself says the issue “can” be resolved by such a court, which to me sounds a bit stronger.

Aside from any prosecution, the report says that the Inquiry has “however, concluded that the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory." It’s not saying that the legal judgement was itself at fault, but is clearly saying that the ‘circumstances’ were.

Fiona Hanson/PA Wire
Former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith

And here’s why. The final decision on legality was taken by Tony Blair himself, not the Cabinet or the government’s legal officers. The Attorney General is quoted in a document saying that “this is a judgement for the prime minister”.

The specific decision was as to whether Iraq was in material breach of UN resolution 1441, so that military action could be legally justified without a further resolution. A letter from No10 adviser Matthew Rycroft states that “it is indeed the prime minister’s unequivocal view that Iraq is in further breach”.

But Chilcot is, again, quietly scathing: “It is unclear what specific grounds Mr Blair relied upon in reaching his view.” And his report adds that the Rycroft letter was written “in terms that can only be described as perfunctory”.

“In accordance with that advice, it was Mr Blair who decided that, so far as the UK was concerned, Iraq was and remained in breach of Resolution 1441. No formal record was made of that decision and the precise grounds on which was made remain unclear,” the report states.

So here we have something new. The letter from Blair’s office shows that on the key legal question of whether or not Saddam was in ‘material breach’ of his UN weapons commitments, it was Blair who made the call – just days before the invasion. His attorney wanted an answer, and got one.

The PM seemed to be setting himself up as judge and jury - and witness - on this crucial legal point. The Chilcot report points out it was not at all clear that Saddam was ‘in breach’ in March 2003.  At the time the head of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Authority] reported Saddam had no nuclear programme and UNMOVIC [the UN weapons inspection body] was reporting improved cooperation.

In possibly the most damning paragraph of the entire report, the Iraq Inquiry concludes: “Mr Blair did not seek and did not receive considered advice from across Government specifically examining whether the evidence was ‘sufficiently compelling’ to provide the basis for a judgement of this magnitude and seriousness.”

Sir John Chilcot

Although Blair today conceded mistakes in planning and process and Cabinet government, he was notably tetchy about Sir John’s statement.

In a delicious irony, at one point he even seemed to suggest the inquiry chairman had himself ‘sexed up’ (though of course he didn’t use that phrase) his report with a headline-grabbing statement.

“He struck a different tone from the report,” Blair complained, referring to Chilcot’s firm line on why the war was premature and not treated as a 'last resort'. The ex-PM added: "What isn’t fair is to say ‘I don’t think you should have done that, but I don’t have a view on what you should have done’."

Blair also said today that he “stands by” his main decision to go to war.

Yet this is perhaps why he was most upset with Chilcot. The Iraq Inquiry had not said he’d lied about WMD. Its verdict was in fact more damning: Blair had just been plain wrong to invade Iraq, without giving further diplomacy a chance – and without planning for its horrific aftermath.

Blair won three general elections, including - crucially to his defenders - one after the war itself.

But he knows his domestic legacy, from reduced child poverty to a revived NHS and social reform, will always be overshadowed by his foreign policy disaster.

And he knows more than most that ‘Chilcot’ now isn’t synonymous with delay. It is synonymous with ‘damning’.

Suggest a correction