As reported in the Daily Mail:
Chilcot: My Struggle With Sir Cover-Up and the Mandarins of Whitehall Over the Iraq Report
Whitehall mandarins launched an extraordinary 13-month effort to block the Iraq inquiry from publishing explosive memos between Tony Blair and George Bush, it emerged last night.
Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood’s attempts to keep the correspondence secret led to a major stand-off with Iraq inquiry chief Sir John Chilcot and pushed back the publication of his report by a year.
Astonishingly, Sir John admitted he still did not know when the inquiry – which has already cost £9million – would finally be published, five-and-a-half years after it was launched.
Critics, referring to the TV comedy series Yes Minister, attacked the Sir Humphrey Mafia’ for blocking the crucial evidence on how Britain entered the Iraq conflict in 2003.
MPs said that without the delays, the report would have been published by now and they criticised the unnecessary suffering’ caused to the relatives of the servicemen and women who died.
Sir John, giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, described how the lengthy negotiations with the civil service over his request to publish classified material – including 30 notes between Mr Blair and President Bush – was crucial’ in causing the delay. He revealed that Sir Jeremy’s predecessor, Gus O’Donnell, ruled that the memos were not disclosable’ as a group.
Negotiations with Sir Jeremy – nicknamed Sir Cover-Up’ by his critics – on what to release began in August 2013 and did not conclude until September last year. Sir John described the discussions as agonising’ and very long and difficult and challenging’ on both sides.
Critics have questioned whether Sir Jeremy was the right person to arbitrate on the documents as he was principal private secretary to Mr Blair in Downing Street from 1999 to 2003 – when the decisions to go to war were taken.
Sir John, himself a former civil servant, refused to criticise Sir Jeremy and denied his efforts amounted to obstruction’. But he said it took a considerable time’ before Sir Jeremy finally gave way and agreed to publish redacted versions.
The initial view taken by the previous Cabinet Secretary was that the notes – for example that Mr Blair had sent to President Bush – were not disclosable,’ said Sir John.
There was a strong convention that interchanges of that sort should not be disclosed in public.
As we went through, point by point, with the current Cabinet Secretary, it became increasingly clear that, on the balance of argument, he would agree that a certain passage or a certain point could be disclosed because of the essential nature of our inquiry, which related to the workings of central government. That came to a point where it was no longer possible to sustain a doctrine that these documents, as a category, could not be disclosed.’
Sir John said that members of his committee insisted on their publication after retiring politicians and statesmen’ referred to issues in them in their memoirs.
Continuing on the subject of inquiry delays, Sir John pointed to departments being slow in producing documents he requested – saying the government found it difficult to respond as quickly as we would have liked’.
His revelations angered MPs demanding the report be made public as soon as possible.
Former Tory shadow home secretary David Davis said: ‘We at last know that the Sir Humphrey Mafia tried every trick in the book to block the publication of the single most important piece of evidence, the correspondence between Blair and Bush, which will throw most light on the reasons we went into this disastrous war.’
The Iraqi-born Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi said: ‘I’m convinced that if it hadn’t taken 13 months for these documents to be declassified we would have the report by now.’
He told the committee the failure to publish the report had created uncertainty’ that was clearly painful for the families’.
However, the revelation that Sir John dug in his heels during his standoff with Whitehall is likely to raise hopes his inquiry will be full and comprehensive when it reports. He said he had a duty to deliver the truth’ to the families of those who died and revealed the inquiry had examined some 150,000 documents. The more we read the more lines of inquiry arose,’ he added.
It was really not possible to say’ when the report would be published, as letters to those criticised in it, informing them of its conclusions and giving them the chance to respond, are still being sent out.
As reported in The Independent:
Chilcot rejects MPs’ calls to set deadline for Iraq report; Inquiry chairman says ‘timing’ matters less than being ‘thorough and impartial’
Sir John Chilcot has rejected mounting pressure from MPs to set a date for the end of his marathon six-year inquiry into the 2003 Iraq war.
The former senior civil servant admitted the families of the 179 British servicemen killed in Iraq wanted to know the truth as soon as possible. But he said: “The risk of either arousing false hopes or false expectations either way outweighs for me the powerful appetite, for all sorts of often good reasons, to know when the report is likely to become available.”
He said his inquiry had a “conscious duty” to get “access to the truth”, and moving at a quicker pace could have undermined the “depth” of its final report.
Sir John was questioned for 70 minutes by the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee about his committee’s failure to produce its report before the general election in May. He insisted: “I don’t believe the timing in relation to a political event, even one as important as a general election, determines the issue. What I am determined to do is to get the report to the Prime Minister and out as soon as we can.”
The inquiry, which Sir John had expected to last two years, has already cost more than £9m. Nadhim Zahawi, a Tory member of the committee, told him: “The uncertainty is clearly painful for the families.”
Defending the delay, Sir John said: “We have to maintain the principles by which we have operated throughout: fairness, thoroughness and impartiality. It is our duty to deliver a report which gives the Government, Parliament, the public, and particularly all those who have been deeply affected by events in Iraq, the answers they deserve.”
In his first appearance before MPs since his investigation began in 2009, Sir John admitted he had underestimated the time it would take to analyse the 150,000 government documents that had been submitted, covering a nine-year period. “Constructing a reliable account is a massive task,” he said.
He said one of the main reasons for the delay was a 13-month period in which the inquiry secured the release of documents detailing conversations between Tony Blair and George Bush in the build-up to the US-led invasion. Sir John described “quite difficult exchanges” and a “very challenging process” in talks with Lord (Gus) O’Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary and his successor, Sir Jeremy Heywood. But he did not point a finger of blame at the two Whitehall mandarins.
Sir John was not prepared to forecast a date for delivering his report until the completion of the “Maxwellisation” process, under which witnesses are sent draft sections criticising them to give them a final right of reply. This is the primary cause for the latest delay. Those who may be criticised include Mr Blair; Jack Straw, the former Foreign Secretary; and Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6.
He would not confirm how many such letters had been sent out but did not dispute a suggestion that some of the draft criticisms run to hundreds of pages. He said: “As of today I have no reason to think that anyone in the Maxwellisation process is seeking to spin out the time for any reason.”
But he warned: “We are not going to give people an infinite amount of time – only the amount of time we think is reasonable for them on a case-by-case basis.”
The inquiry chairman added: “What I can’t say, until the Maxwellisation process is complete, is that I will be able to say anything useful to the Prime Minister or to the families. Once that is complete it is a different matter.”
David Davis, the Tory MP, suggested that the civil service was partly to blame for the delay. “The Sir Humphrey Mafia are being difficult. They have an interest in keeping secrets,” he said.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesman, said it was “appalling” that the families of those killed in Iraq had had to wait so long to find out why Britain had gone to war.
“This country deserves answers. The people who lost loved ones in Iraq deserve answers,” he said.
Yesterday’s hearing began on a sombre note when Sir John announced that one of his inquiry team, the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, died on Tuesday night after a long illness.
Sir John said the committee had benefited from Sir Martin’s “wisdom and insights” and rejected suggestions that his illness had delayed the inquiry’s progress.
The historian was best known for his biography of Sir Winston Churchill, the 50th anniversary of whose death was marked last week.