UK’s Iraq war probe designed to ‘avoid blame,’ Whitehall memos reveal – report

British soldiers from the 7th Armoured Brigade (Desert Rats) take part in a raid on a food storage depot on the edge of the Iraqi city of Basra April 1, 2003. © Mark Richards
The injury into UK’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq was designed by the government to avoid allocating blame to individuals and departments, memos obtained under the Freedom of Information Act have reportedly revealed.

The papers were made public thanks to Chris Lamb, an FOI campaigner from Bristol, who had won a two-year court battle for the right to access classified memos by government officials relating to the creation of the Chilcot Inquiry. The memos were penned in the four-week period in May and June 2009, the Observer reported.

The documents revealed that high-level politicians in Britain sought to ensure that the probe would not result in branches of the government or individuals being held legally liable for the Iraq war. Some officials opposed a public inquiry due to the amount of daily publicity, cost and, ironically, long time such a procedure would take.

The Chilcot Report, released in July, was the culmination of seven years of investigation, started by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, and chaired by Sir John Chilcot. Although the investigation had found that Saddam Hussein had not posed any credible threat to the West – nor were there any WMD in his possession – it stopped short of assigning any blame to Tony Blair, who was UK prime minister at the time of the invasion, or any officials in his government.

Now it has been reportedly revealed that officials at the highest levels were involved in driving the inquiry to that outcome.

“The inquiry was hobbled before it even started, with tight restrictions on what it could do that were not fully made public,” Lamb told the newspaper.

The Observer reports that according to the memos, former cabinet secretary under Brown, Sir (now Lord) Gus O’Donnell ignored Whitehall protocol when he made Margaret Aldred the secretary on the inquiry – one of the most senior roles with the investigation.

Aldred had chaired the Iraq senior officials group during the period Chilcot was investigating and her appointment ran against the advice by Cabinet Office official Ben Lyon, who said in one memo that the secretariat should not draw from civil servants, and specifically that they “should not have been involved in Iraq policy since 2002.”

Other people involved in the 2003 war helped set up the inquiry, including Sir Jeremy Heywood, who served as Blair’s parliamentary private secretary until 2003, and former spy chief Sir John Scarlett, who was the central figure in trumpeting up the so-called Iraq dossier on Saddam Hussein’s non-existant arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

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In another memo, O’Donnell advised to avoid a legal focus, and recommended that the investigation be structured so as to prevent “any conclusion on questions of law or fact, which create circumstances which expose organizations, departments and/or individuals to criminal or civil proceedings or judicial review.” Part of this approach was not to have any judges or lawyers among the inquiry appointees.

Another big point for the investigation was to keep it secret rather than public. Lyon warned that a public inquiry would “attract a daily running commentary,” like the 2003 Hutton inquiry into the death of Iraq weapons inspector David Kelly. O’Donnell used the same reasoning and warned that a public inquiry would “threaten legal liability for individuals” and “take a long time.”

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Brown initially wanted the injury to be carried by the Privy Council and announced this procedure in June 2009. But after a public outcry he agreed to make some of the hearing public.