Chilcot Inquiry: Public will never hear what George Bush said to Tony Blair in run up to war

 

Whitehall Editor

The public will never be told what George Bush said to Tony Blair in the run up to the Iraq War, despite a request by the official inquiry into the conflict for documents detailing their exchanges to be published.

Sir John Chilcot, who heads the inquiry, today conceded partial defeat in his attempt to publish records from more than 130 conversations between the former Prime Minister and then US President.

But in a compromise the inquiry will be able to publish some details of what Mr Blair said to Mr Bush although not what the President said to the Prime Minister.

The details of over 200 Cabinet-level discussions on the Iraq war will also be made available for publication or reference by the inquiry.

The agreement means that the publication of the inquiry’s final report is likely to take place well ahead of the next General Election.

After months of detailed negotiations the Cabinet Office and the inquiry have now agreed in principle which extracts can be published – ending a year-long delay in the inquiry’s progress.

A Cabinet Office source stressed the agreement meant that far more information would be put into the public domain than had been previously been anticipated.

Under the deal that has been thrashed out, the information being disclosed of discussions between Mr Blair and Mr Bush will be limited to “quotes or gists” and the inquiry's use of the material “should not reflect President Bush's views”.

However there is likely to be more extensive reference to what Mr Blair said to President Bush, including the partial publication of 25 notes from Prime Minister to the President. Under the previous Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell this had been ruled out on the grounds that it could damage US/UK relations.

The inquiry will now go back to the Cabinet Office for specific clearance on which documents it can quote or refer to and in which context.

The deal was struck by the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who was principal private secretary to Mr Blair in 10 Downing Street in the run-up to the war, and Sir John.

In a letter, Sir John told the Cabinet Secretary: “I appreciate that the inquiry's requests for disclosure raised difficult issues of long-standing principle, which have taken some months to resolve: recognition of the wholly exceptional nature of this inquiry has allowed that to happen.

“My colleagues and I judge that this material is vital to the public understanding of the inquiry's conclusions."

He added: “Following our recent agreement on the principles for disclosure of material describing communication between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States, detailed consideration of the gists and quotes requested by the inquiry has now begun.

“Consideration will be based on the principle that our use of this material should not reflect President Bush's views. We have also agreed that the use of direct quotation from the documents should be the minimum necessary to enable the inquiry to articulate its conclusions."

Sir John said some “potential gaps” in material had been identified which had now been addressed, “including some material received by the inquiry very recently”.

The inquiry completed public hearings in 2011 and today's announcement comes amid mounting criticism over the delay in releasing the report. Officials said the date of publication is yet to be agreed.

Earlier this week, Mr Blair insisted he was not the reason for the delay.

“It certainly isn't me who is holding it up,” he told the BBC. “The sooner it is published the better from my perspective as it allows me to go and make the arguments.”

Letters must be sent out to individuals facing criticism in the report before it is published under the “Maxwellisation” process to give them an opportunity to respond.

Once that is complete, the report can be finalised and sent to David Cameron, who has previously said he hopes it will be published by the end of the year.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “The Government is pleased that agreement on a way forward on both Cabinet papers and UK/US exchanges has now been reached with the inquiry.

“This allows for the declassification and publication of the material the inquiry believes it needs to explain its conclusions. Resolving this issue has taken longer than originally hoped but these are sensitive issues. The UK/US Head of Government channel is very important and must be handled sensitively.

“The Government and the inquiry are working to ensure the inquiry's report is published as soon as possible and the Government is doing everything it can to facilitate that.”

Timeline: The Chilcot Inquiry

June 2009 
Gordon Brown announces an inquiry will be set up to “learn the lessons”  of the Iraq war, led by former civil servant  Sir John Chilcot, but says it will avoid  “apportioning blame”.

November 2009
After public hearings finally getting underway, a former Foreign Office official Sir William Ehrman tells the inquiry that the UK received intelligence days before invading Iraq that Saddam Hussein may not have been able to use chemical weapons.

January-February 2011
The inquiry holds its final round of public hearings.

November 2011
The inquiry announces its  findings will not be published until the summer of 2012, six months later than anticipated,  only to be delayed again as it approaches a  million words in length.

March 2013
The Independent reveals that early drafts of the report “challenge previous accounts of what happened” in the run-in to the 2003 war.

June 2013
New forecast date for the start of the inquiry’s “Maxwellisation” process – in which public officials criticised in the report are allowed to see the findings in advance of publication.

November 2013
Sir John tells David Cameron it is “regrettable” that the Government and his inquiry have failed to agree on the disclosure of “difficult categories of documents”.

April 2014
Inquiry admits that the  Maxwellisation has yet to start, while  The Independent reveals that the inquiry  could finally be published in the run-up to  the 2015 general election.

May 2014
The inquiry says the full transcripts of Tony Blair’s conversations with US  President George Bush will be withheld,  days after Blair insists he is not causing the delay to the report’s publication.

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