The openness of the Iraq inquiry has been thrown into doubt again after its chairman, Sir John Chilcot, censored its public proceedings for the first time yesterday.
A live feed of the evidence being given by Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s former ambassador to the United Nations, was blacked out for more than a minute as the diplomat discussed US post-war planning. Sir John said he had severed the coverage because it had contained “sensitive information”.
He said that the protocol agreed between the Government and the inquiry team gave him a responsibility to suspend the feed. “I interrupted the broadcast briefly this morning because there was a mention of sensitive information as it is defined in out published protocols,” Sir John said. A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office would only say that the cut was not a technical problem.
A member of the audience in the inquiry chamber said that Sir Jeremy’s censured remarks were merely evidence that the former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, had used British intelligence reports about the situation in Iraq because they were more accurate than the assessments sent to Washington by Paul Bremer, the US administrator of post-invasion Iraq. It emerged that there was other sensitive information that had to be blocked.
Concerns over the inquiry’s transparency had already been raised after it emerged that Government departments have been given broad scope to block the publication of sensitive documents by the committee. The protocol lists nine areas in which Whitehall can veto the publication of documents, while the country’s top civil servant, Sir Gus O’Donnell, has the final say.
Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesman, asked Sir John to confirm that he pulled transmission on grounds of national security and not political embarrassment. “Any suggestion that the inquiry would be party to suppressing political mistakes – whether by Americans or Brits – would be highly damaging to its credibility,” he said.
Sir Jeremy, who became Britain’s special representative to Iraq in late 2003, had been telling the inquiry that the US had been over-optimistic in its attitude towards rebuilding Iraq after the invasion. He said Mr Bremer had refused to make him his deputy as Britain was cut out of the decision-making process for the reconstruction effort. “He did not want to hand over to a non-American as acting administrator when he left the country to return to Washington,” he said. “We were having to follow the Americans in almost everything that we did. We could not fill gaps where we perceived gaps unless the Americans did most of the heavy lifting.”
Sir Jeremy also revealed that he was ordered by Tony Blair to make improving the media image of the coalition overseeing Iraq one of his three priorities, alongside training the police and improving security. “He felt [the media operation] was going badly,” he said. “He was concerned that we hadn’t put enough investment into a sophisticated media operation in Baghdad and internationally and we were asked to concentrate on that.” Mr Blair also gave him just three months to train the Iraqi police force, despite Sir Jeremy’s advice that the process would take at least a year.
He said that as late as two weeks after the invasion had begun, Britain had still not clarified its role in the reconstruction effort. He said that the US had ignored warnings that the invasion could be a “catastrophic success”, with troops reaching Baghdad ahead of schedule, but without a credible plan for rebuilding the country.
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