How the Chilcot report could slap handcuffs on Tony Blair
The central charge Chilcot appears likely to make is that the decision on war with Iraq was made early, and secretly, with George W Bush - without evidential justification, proper procedures or legal advice.
TWIGGY Garcia was working in a restaurant in Shoreditch, east London, last week when he learnt that Tony Blair was in the building.
“My heart rate increased,” he said. “There was an eerie presence … I went over to him, put my hand on his shoulder, and said, 'Mr Blair, this is a citizen’s arrest for a crime against peace, namely your decision to launch an unprovoked war against Iraq.’”
Sadly, Mr Garcia couldn’t quite see it through. “One of [Mr Blair’s] sons went to get the plain-clothes security from downstairs,” he said. “I decided to get out of there sharpish. I’ve had a few run-ins with the police in the past and it never ends well.”
But as Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq inquiry shows signs of at last creaking to a close, could it be the former civil servant who finally slaps the metaphorical cuffs on Mr Blair? Ten years to the week after the first official Iraq investigation, by Lord Hutton, was published, it seems clear that this one will be more critical. Key figures in the debacle are showing distinct signs of nervousness.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the then MI6 chief who presided over the famous, sexed-up intelligence dossier, has written his own version of events and is threatening to publish it if he feels too strongly criticised by Chilcot.
Lord Mandelson recently described Chilcot as “what could be a very difficult minefield” for the Labour Party. Blair allies have been briefing friendly journalists that he is “deeply concerned” about the report, though this may be expectation management to make the actual criticism look better by comparison.
Nobody close to the inquiry will talk directly about its findings – which are, in any case, subject to change as part of the “Maxwellisation” process, where witnesses are privately sent previews of any criticisms made about them and invited to comment. But sources pointed towards certain passages of evidence, often under-reported at the time they were given, as carrying particular weight with at least some of the five-strong inquiry panel.
On January 13, 2010, the day after one star witness, Mr Blair’s spin man, Alastair Campbell, appeared before Chilcot, the inquiry heard from the Cabinet Secretary at the time of the invasion, Andrew Turnbull. Lord Turnbull gave evidence again, as did his predecessor, Lord Wilson, on January 25 2011, a few days after Mr Blair had made his second appearance.
Both times, the TV circus for Mr Campbell and Mr Blair had folded its tents and the ex-mandarins’ sessions were barely covered in the Press.
But they were devastating. Lord Turnbull said that he and the Cabinet had essentially been deceived, “brought into the story … a long way behind” what had already been agreed by what he described as Mr Blair’s “entourage”. The Cabinet never saw any papers at all, he said. Lord Wilson, who left six months before the war, testified that at his final meeting with the Prime Minister he had told Mr Blair that he had a worrying “gleam in his eye” over military action.
Lord Turnbull added that had Lord Wilson known the full picture – that a note had already been sent to President George W Bush promising, in his words, that “you can count on us whatever”, Lord Wilson “would not have described it [just] as a gleam”.
In his 2010 evidence, Lord Turnbull also spoke of how “a process of a kind of granny’s footsteps had taken place” over the famous Iraq intelligence dossier.
“At each stage,” he said, “you can see another little tweak of the dial.”
The central charge Chilcot appears likely to make is that the decision on war was the beginning, not the end, of the process; that an agreement on military action was made early, and secretly, with President Bush; and that it was done without evidential justification, proper procedures, legal advice or adequate military planning. All three of these were later twisted to fit, most disastrously in the case of the planning, which was kept secret for far too long, meaning that coalition forces were completely unprepared to occupy, secure and rebuild the country they had broken.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and several other witnesses, testified that “containment”, the pre-2002 policy of sanctions on Iraq, appeared to be working.
As Mr Straw put it: “Objectively, the threat had not increased.” Why, therefore, was a war needed? The mere fact of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) had been known, or assumed, for the previous 15 years. It had never been seen as a good enough reason to go to war before.
Mr Blair’s key “sexing-up” was not the statement that Saddam Hussein had WMD – but the claim that those weapons were becoming a “growing” threat, a threat so “current and serious” that urgent action, war, if necessary, had to be taken.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the MI6 chief, may be right to be concerned. In secret evidence sessions, whose transcripts were helpfully published only months later, at the height of the News International hacking scandal and, therefore, went almost unnoticed, his own subordinates criticised him for getting too close to Mr Blair. Sir Richard, in his evidence, angrily dismissed the suggestions as “complete rubbish … I wasn’t sipping chardonnay in the evenings with Tony Blair, or nipping off to have breakfast with him at Chequers … a lot of people were jealous of my position, and, therefore, I think, motivated to talk about it, including [Jack Straw]”.
One of Sir Richard’s MI6 subordinates said that “there were from the outset concerns” in the service about “the extent to which the intelligence could support some of the judgments that were being made”. Another described the famous claim that Iraq could use WMD within 45 minutes of an order being given as “based in part on wishful thinking” and not “fully validated”.
Mr Campbell was called an “unguided missile,” constantly seeking out fresh nuggets to hand out to favoured journalists.
Sir Richard, too, admitted that he had felt “extremely uncomfortable” about the way the 45-minute claim was seized on. “It’s just so awful that that happened,” he said, “because it did refer clearly to battlefield weapons”, weapons that were no threat outside an immediate combat zone.
Yet, the dossier may not figure quite as large in the inquiry’s findings as some expect. Some members, at least, appear to think that Mr Blair’s claim of a “growing” threat may have been at least partially explained, if not justified, by new (albeit later discredited) intelligence that arrived two weeks before the dossier was published, though too late to verify or include in the document itself.
The Chilcot panellists make much of avoiding “hindsight”, of judging people on the basis of what they knew and believed at the time.
Chris Ames, a writer who has followed Chilcot more closely than almost anyone else, says: “It is an establishment inquiry and I’ll believe it when I see it – but I think it could be a highly critical report. I think you’d have to be stupid to think they will not criticise Blair for taking an early decision to go to war. That’s where they’re going to hang their case.
“Chilcot is a mandarin himself – and if he can hang it on the evidence of other people in a similar but more senior position to himself [such as Lord Turnbull] he won’t be going out on a limb.”
Sir John Chilcot has little in common with the Afro-haired Twiggy Garcia. But when the young would-be citizen’s-arrester says that “we all know the humanitarian angle of the war was retrofitted after the decision to go to war”, they may not be too far apart in their views.