Chilcot inquiry: Bush-Blair communications not so secret after all...

Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell told Sir John Chilcot in 2011 that there was 'no prospect' of them being 'disclosed in their entirety, even with redactions'

The Chilcot inquiry is near the end of negotiations with the Civil Service about what it can publish from the letters and phone calls between Tony Blair and George Bush. Sir John Chilcot said in May that he wants to publish "gists and quotes" from 25 notes from Blair to Bush and more than 130 records of conversations.

Last week Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, told MPs he was "sorry it has taken as long as it has" to agree.

The complexity of these decisions can be gauged from a Freedom of Information request made by Stephen Plowden, a private citizen. He asked in 2010 for the record of a phone conversation between Bush and Blair on 12 March 2003, in which they discussed the timing of the invasion, and of the vote in the House of Commons that would precede it. The Information Commissioner ruled that the record should be disclosed, although he later changed his mind, and it took nearly four years of appeals before the Upper Tribunal decided that it should not be published. That decision, in January, has not been reported until now.

In the past, this document would be subject to the 30-year rule, extended in some cases of national security to 50 years. The 30-year rule was changed to a 20-year rule five years ago, after a review chaired, in one of Gordon Brown's wittiest acts as Prime Minister, by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail.

The rule is there for a reason, as Dacre accepted, and as the Foreign Office argued at the information tribunals. It is to allow frank and confidential discussion between Cabinet ministers and between heads of government: Barack Obama would be more circumspect in what he says to David Cameron if he thought it could be published soon.

Plowden objected that the Iraq war was seven years ago (when his request was made), and that Bush and Blair had both left office. Besides, the Iraq war was a special case. The Foreign Office responded that, if you have a 20-year rule and change it to seven years in one case, it would be harder to resist an even shorter period in another case.

Then, in June 2012, while Plowden's request was winding its way through the system, an account of precisely that telephone conversation was published – in the fourth volume of Alastair Campbell's diaries, The Burden of Power:

Bush said when do you anticipate a vote? TB said we had pencilled in next Tuesday. Bush: "Erm." Long pause. TB: "You want to go on the Monday?" Correct. TB: "My military have given me formal advice re the full moon." It's not a problem, said Bush. "What – are they taking away the Moon?" TB said he would have to check it out. There was a clear tension between Bush wanting sooner and TB wanting later... [The vote took place on the Tuesday; the invasion began overnight on Wednesday.] ... TB said there was a danger the Tories would see this as their chance to get rid of him … Bush said they would make it clear to the Tories that if they moved to get rid of TB "we will get rid of them". He said he wouldn't speak to "Iain Duncan Baker [Smith]" himself – TB didn't correct him – "but he'll know my message".

So the conversation was now not even secret. Yet the Upper Tribunal still ruled against publishing the official record. It said that a diary is informal and to an extent deniable; publishing an official record on the other hand would be one nation deliberately breaching the confidence of another.

A lower tribunal had tried to compromise, ruling that what Bush said should remain confidential, but that Blair's side of the conversation could be published – except for "any comments of Prime Minister Blair which would reveal or indicate information provided by the US". The higher tribunal thought that, apart from requiring laborious line-by-line decisions, this was wrong in principle. It ruled that the communications were confidential in their entirety, and overturned the decision.

Sir John Chilcot, on the other hand, has been forced to go down the line-by-line route, because he wants to publish more than is required by the 20-year rule and Freedom of Information law. In May, Sir John agreed that "our use of this material should not reflect President Bush's views".

It should be clear by now that Tony Blair is not involved in the declassification discussions. I don't know what his view is, but a friend of his says it would be in his interest for everything to be published, because it would show how well Blair made his case. However, it is not up to Blair – or Bush – to say what should or should not be published. The principle at stake is the confidentiality of future communications between presidents and prime ministers, not of past ones.

That is why it was surprising that John Major said that Blair should ask for the papers to be published. His eagerness to avenge his 1997 thrashing seems stronger than his commitment to good government.

The Chilcot inquiry was never going to publish all the documents in full. It agreed a "Protocol" with the Cabinet Office in October 2009, in which it was agreed that it could see any confidential papers it wanted, but that anything it wanted to publish would have to be agreed with the Cabinet Secretary – then Sir Gus O'Donnell. If he thought publication of a document was against the public interest, on grounds of "national security, defence interests or international relations", it would not be published. Sir Gus told the Chilcot inquiry in 2011 that there was "no prospect" of the Bush-Blair communications being "disclosed in their entirety, even with redactions".

The negotiations over what can and cannot be published are complicated and difficult, not because anyone wants to hide information about the Iraq decision, but because the civil service rightly wants to protect the national interest in maintaining the confidentiality of discussions with the leaders of other countries.

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