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John Kampfner: Witnesses bent on self-exoneration

The Chilcot inquiry, which marks its first anniversary this weekend, was flawed from the start. Its purpose was not to apportion blame. Everyone realised from the outset that Blair would get away with it scot-free.

In the autumn of 2003, six months after the invasion of Iraq, when public opinion was still quite supportive of the war, I addressed a meeting of the military top brass. My visit was part of a tour promoting my book Blair's Wars. In deference to my audience, I decided to tone down my thesis that Tony Blair had committed British forces into action on the basis of a simplistic and hubris view of foreign affairs.

At the end of my presentation, the applause was embarrassingly lukewarm. I feared that even having minded my Ps and Qs, I had overstepped the mark. The questions then came thick and fast. Did I not realise that the military had been woefully under-prepared? Which of the two did I believe: that the prime minister had lied or merely stretched the evidence?

I had committed the easy error of believing that senior army officers largely supported the venture. I should have known better. Theirs was a mix of ire and disdain, seeing in their leader a man who was both weak in the face of an extreme US administration and a man who used the military to posture on the world stage. But the criticisms of Tony Blair and those around him were made in typically establishment fashion, off the record and deniable.

Experiences such as these helped to inform my view of Whitehall as I watched the inquiries on the Iraq war over the years. Alongside the parliamentary investigations by MPs hopelessly out of their depth, there has been the whitewash of Hutton and the lost opportunity of the Butler inquiry, to which I was asked to give evidence.

In each case, the evidence was laid out for all to see. A compelling narrative emerged of a prime minister desperate not to be outflanked by the Conservative opposition and desperate to keep on the right side of his mentor in the White House. Blair's instruction to his advisers, the military, security chiefs and diplomats was to do whatever it took not to let Saddam Hussein off the hook. If that meant massaging the evidence, exaggerating the threat and preparing for war while insisting until late on to the armed forces that no such plans were being hatched, then so be it.

We have long known that Blair committed himself to joining Bush in military action at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002. We have long known the extent to which the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, did what was required of him and retuned his brain to delete his concerns about the legality of war.

Therefore the main argument about Blair's war is relatively narrow: do Manichean ends justify consciously or subconsciously devious means?

The Chilcot inquiry, which marks its first anniversary this weekend, was flawed from the start. Its purpose was not to apportion blame. Everyone realised from the outset that Blair would get away with it scot-free. It has been deeply dispiriting to watch many of those who either goaded Blair into war or bit their lips and nodded it through – the entire Conservative front bench, several Labour leadership contenders and several in MI5, MI6, the Foreign Office, the armed forces and more – as they now scoff at his decisions.

Gordon Brown encouraged briefings to suggest his discomfort but at every public turn, including his testimony to Chilcot, he fell into line. He was little different from the others. Their cowardice is surely more disreputable than the shallow enthusiasm of the advocates of war.

Chilcot has therefore achieved the classic Whitehall feat of completing the picture on Iraq, while leaving the participants entirely unscathed.

It has done so in characteristic mandarin style. The inquiry's questioning of Blair and other senior figures was embarrassingly deferential. Witnesses provided soupçons of information, for which the questioners were grateful. They wafted their way through the sessions with consummate ease.

The May general election changed the choreography. With the fall of the ancien régime, the politicians (as opposed to most of the civil servants) who took the decisions were gone. Much of the impetus of the inquiry and media interest went with them. Yet with little attention focused on the hearings, so witnesses have made more intriguing assertions. Sir Richard Dannatt, the former head of the Army, suggested that his forces were close to seizing up in 2006. Carne Ross, a former senior diplomat at Britain's UN mission, challenged the workings of the committee itself, accusing it at one point of mendacity. Of the threat posed by Saddam and reported by the government, he said it was "intentionally and substantially exaggerated in public government documents".

Almost certainly inadvertently, one of the achievements of Chilcot is to show the establishment in its worst "did nothing at the time, but told you so afterwards" light. Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5 at the time of the war, told the inquiry that ministers had been guilty of an "over-reliance on fragmentary intelligence". Was she saying this to them at the time? If she was, and they didn't listen, did she simply bite her lip?

To cap the "I always had my doubts but forgot to air them" school of self-exoneration came John, now Lord, Prescott's testimony yesterday. The man who would furiously condemn public doubters of the war announced to the inquiry that some of the intelligence was based on little more than "tittle tattle". He joins the ranks of Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and a growing cast of government doubters. The brass neck of these individuals is quite something.

All of this will provide rich pickings for historians. More immediately, it will lead to major changes in the way Whitehall works. In many ways that has already happened. Even under Gordon Brown the processes of government had become more formal. It is unlikely that Britain will go to war again on the basis of matey chats.

In any case, the new foreign policy that is being worked out by the coalition Government, largely on the hoof, is predominantly mercantilist. National interest, it seems, will drive UK's global priorities and will determine whether Britain's overstretched forces will be deployed in action.

The biggest of Blair's many errors over Iraq is to have all but destroyed the otherwise laudable goal of internationalist humanitarian intervention. That is something for mandarins to ponder as they glide effortlessly, and guiltlessly, from one administration to the next.

John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship and author of 'Freedom for Sale' and 'Blair's Wars'