The Chilcot row highlights Blair’s Iraq legacy: accusations of manipulation, secrets and lies

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It may not be remembered, amid the latest charges of whitewash levelled at Chilcot, that the original plan was to hold the inquiry into the Iraq war in secret. That, it was claimed at the time, was the deal that Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, had done with Tony Blair.

It was the military who fired the first major salvo against this: speaking to The Independent, General Sir Mike Jackson, who was the head of the British Army at the time of the Iraq invasion, stressed that any evidence, apart from the most security sensitive, should not be given in private. He himself would have no problem giving his testimony in public and indeed, he added, there was no reason why witnesses should not be under oath.

Sir Mike was backed in his call by Major General Julian Thompson, the Commandant General Royal Marines and Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former head of Defence Intelligence and deputy chairman of the Join Intelligence Committee and senior officers who had served in Iraq, such as Major General Tim Cross.

Sir John recalled the advice which has been sought from him by members of the Defence Intelligence service unhappy at the “sexing up” of intelligence carried out by Downing Street in the “dodgy dossier” on Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Gordon Brown caved in as criticism mounted at the attempt at secrecy, to the chagrin, we were told, of Mr Blair. The opposition had made repeated calls for transparency, with William Hague and Nick Clegg among the most vocal.

However, now that Sir John Chilcot appears to have capitulated to demands from the Cabinet Office over the correspondence between Mr Blair and George W Bush, we have yet to hear much from the Foreign Secretary or Deputy Prime Minister, part of whose job is to oversee the Cabinet Office. Mr Clegg has called for the report to be published soon, with its shabby compromise of publishing just the “gist” of the letters, rather than the full content.

Tony Blair has been busy saying that this is nothing to do with him, but entirely a matter between Chilcot and the Cabinet Office. He is as keen as the next man, he says, to have the report published. This is disingenuous, as Sir John Major has pointed out, Mr Blair can at any time give the Cabinet Office permission for his correspondence to be released.

General Jackson was the head of the British Army at the time of the Iraq invasion General Jackson was the head of the British Army at the time of the Iraq invasion (Justin Sutcliffe)

The Americans, it has been said, would object to the publication of presidential communications. It is in the interest of Mr Blair and his supporters to promote this, but it is not up to Washington to decide on what this British inquiry should or should not reveal.

There is also the inference that the correspondence shows how Mr Bush had dragged a hesitant Mr Blair into the venture. In reality, the British were anything but bashful over this affair – they were more than ready to propagate bogus “intelligence” on WMDs. A lot of it came from Ahmed Chalabi, a conman and exiled Iraqi politician, who was based in London at the time. The “dodgy dossier”, let us not forget, was the project of Downing Street, not the White House.

Once the dossier was produced, any questioning of it was met with fierce “rapid rebuttal”. When it appeared, in September 2002, I was among a small group of British journalists in Baghdad who arranged with the Iraqi regime to visit some of the sites named as production centres for chemical and biological weapons.

We chose the sites ourselves, picking those that, according to the dossier, were the most prolific for producing WMD agents; we gave the Iraqi authorities notice of two hours before the trip began.

We reported that we had seen nothing suspicious, but stressing the caveat that we were not scientists or weapons experts, and ours was, thus, a superficial impression. But that was enough for Downing Street officials to declare we were “naive dupes” and our newspapers were irresponsible for printing Saddam’s propaganda. We now know of course, through the work of UN inspectors and the Iraq Survey Group, that those sites were not being used for chemical or biological weapons production.

Later, I sat through every day of the inquiry by Lord Hutton. His report was disappointing possibly because he was constrained by the terms of reference, which restricted his inquiry into the death of the scientist Dr David Kelly.

In spite of this, the inquiry’s brilliant counsel, James Dingemans QC, laid bare how the dossier was manufactured at the behest of No 10.

The review of the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction by Lord Butler of Brockwell, with Sir John Chilcot one of his team, took place in camera.

It shed some more light without having the dramatic impact of what unfolded during Hutton. We were told later, by a senior politician, that had we asked the former Cabinet Secretary at the press conference following the publication of his report whether Mr Blair should resign as Prime Minister, he would have responded “yes”. But, we did not know and no one asked.

Will the Chilcot report, when it does eventually come out, have any truly explosive revelations?

We wait to find out if that is the case, although that is probably unlikely; most of the subterfuge behind the invasion has been exposed on both sides of the Atlantic.

What the latest controversy does do, however, is yet again highlight the recurring theme which is Mr Blair’s Iraq legacy – accusations of manipulation, secrets and lies.

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