Chilcot inquiry: Leading figures in British political Establishment accused of plotting to discredit investigation into Iraq war

Exclusive: Panel considered mass resignation in protest at Establishment’s attacks, as Sir John's team accuses Whitehall and No 10 using smears to discredit them

James Cusick
Thursday 20 August 2015 08:00
Sir John Chilcot, Chairman of the Iraq Inquiry, ‘has been subjected to hatchet jobs’
Sir John Chilcot, Chairman of the Iraq Inquiry, ‘has been subjected to hatchet jobs’

Leading figures in the British political Establishment are behind a plot to discredit the Chilcot inquiry by portraying the panel members as “bumbling incompetents” who cannot deliver their report on time, it has been claimed.

The Independent has spoken to several inquiry sources furious at the increasing pressure being imposed by No 10 and Whitehall to speed up publication of their report into the Iraq war.

In recent weeks, the Conservative chair of the Defence Select Committee said that “anyone with a conscience” would have ensured that the report was published quickly, while the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon urged the inquiry’s chairman, Sir John Chilcot, to end the suffering of grieving families, saying his report had “been delayed long enough”.

Families of those killed in Iraq have threatened legal action unless the report is published imminently, and MPs are discussing a parliamentary motion to impose a deadline for publication.

“These are absurd, nasty hatchet jobs on John [Chilcot], most of them nonsense,” one inquiry source said.

“This is an independent inquiry and if forced to publish, only an incomplete report will be delivered.” The source accused Downing Street of unfairly seeking to depict Sir John’s team as “uncaring and lackadaisical idiots”.

And he accused the broader political Establishment of “throwing dirt” at the panel to tar them as a “load of bumbling incompetents and amateurs whose eventual judgements cannot be trusted”.

Much of the opprobrium heaped on the inquiry team came from a Whitehall “mandarinate” class seeking to discredit the Chilcot panel in advance for fear that its final report will be highly critical of their institutions, the inquiry source added.

The Independent can reveal that Sir John and his three surviving colleagues on the panel have become so disenchanted by their treatment that they at one stage briefly discussed a group resignation rather than compromise the integrity of their final report. But this idea was quickly dismissed and they remain committed to publication.

The inquiry source accused David Cameron of going out of his way to blame the inquiry for the delays to absolve himself of any criticism.

And the source flatly denied reports last month that the panel had rejected an offer of help in speeding up the publication of report from the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood – suggesting reports that the offer may have been leaked by No may have been leaked by No 10. Responding to claims that the panel is unnecessarily delaying publication by dragging out the “Maxwellisation” process under which people criticised by the report are given a chance to respond, he said: “Why the hell would people who have been charged with trying to make sense of what is considered to be the most controversial decision taken by a British PM lie about their own procedures?”

The panel is inclined simply to ignore any parliamentary motion ordering them to fast-track publication, The Independent understands.

This newspaper has talked in detail to those involved in the process which gives those criticised the opportunity to put their side of events.

One source said: “The inquiry is being attacked from three sides. The Prime Minister wants everyone to know he is not holding things up. Others are accusing the inquiry of being engaged in a dastardly plot to cover things up. These are clear threats, and the inquiry can’t do anything to challenge them.”

And a leading government solicitor told The Independent : “Downing Street is well aware of what’s happening inside Chilcot. The Prime Minister was correct when he said this was an independent exercise and he couldn’t do anything about the delay. But he nevertheless ensured the blame was pushed well away from him, and his ministers have kept up the smear attacks.”

The inquiry source accused the Prime Minister of going out of his way to blame the inquiry for the delays to absolve himself of any criticism (Getty)

Government lawyers have recently become increasingly aware of the scale of the damaging criticism likely to feature in the final report.

The source close to the inquiry said “Rather than being seen as the tools of the mandarinate, the problem is potentially the opposite. The material so far sent out to key individuals at the centre of the war decisions criticises the institutions of government in a way that Whitehall will not like.”

Many witnesses have been sent hundreds of pages that criticise their role in the Blair government’s decision to join the US-led conflict against Saddam Hussein.

The material has surprised those on the receiving end. “These are proud people with reputations at stake,” said a legal source. “They argue back. Yes, there is nit-picking, and the exchanges between lawyers have been complicated. But it’s their right.”

The aggressive reputational fightbacks are at the heart of the lengthy delay in publication. The inquiry source said: “The report will be very long, detailed and complex. The reality is that no one will have seen anything like it before. It will be a blockbuster.

“And it’s a long report for one reason – anything less, and the inquiry would be accused of covering up material, or missing out key events. And it is across nine years, 2001 to 2009, not just three months in 2003.”

Protesters, here outside Parliament in January this year, continue to call for the report’s publication (Getty)

Last month it was reported that Sir Jeremy had privately offered Sir John help to complete his report. The gesture was supposedly made during a private meeting, details of which were leaked to a newspaper.

A source close to the Maxwellisation process told The Independent: “No such offer was made. What was agreed and discussed was help related to the closing stages of the report. Yet a spun version of the meeting was leaked which was only semi-accurate, followed by Mr Cameron having a go at the inquiry during Prime Minister’s Questions.”

The inquiry opened in 2009 with public hearings featuring evidence from Tony Blair and other key figures, but most of the Chilcot report will be based on previously unseen, classified documents unearthed since then.

Protracted disputes with the United States over “ownership” of key exchanges between President Bush and Mr Blair have contributed to the delay. The Chilcot inquiry was ordered by Gordon Brown in 2009 with broad terms of reference that included analysing Mr Blair’s relationship with the US President, George W Bush, and the decision to send 45,000 British troops to join the US-led coalition against Saddam.

Tony Blair and George W. Bush at the former President's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 2002 (Getty)

Sir John, a career civil servant, and his panel – comprising the historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, the military historian, Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Roderic Lyne (the former UK ambassador in Moscow and to the United Nations in Geneva), and Baroness Prashar, a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights – were also tasked with looking at the aftermath of the Iraq war, and to identify lessons to ensure that a similar conflict did not produce the same results. Sir Martin Gilbert died in February.

The length of the report, estimated at over one million words so far, was described in The Independent in 2013 as set to “challenge the previously official version of events”.

No 10 did not respond to a request for comment.

Previous Iraq inquiries and what they found

An inquiry into the run-up to the war by the Commons Foreign Affairs committee saw the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly appear as a reluctant witness, to be asked whether he was the source of an allegation aired on BBC’s Today that a dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had been deliberately “sexed up”. He was found dead on 18 July 2003, days after his appearance.

A judicial inquiry headed by Lord Hutton investigated Dr Kelly’s death. It opened in August, and reported in January 2004. The report cleared the government of responsibility and criticised the BBC.

The Review of Intelligence of Weapons of Mass Destruction was set up in February and reported in July, 2004. Its narrow brief was to ask why the intelligence services wrongly deduced there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It criticised the intelligence services without addressing the question of whether Downing Street put pressure on the spies to produce the conclusion.

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