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Chris Ames

Chris Ames, a freelance writer and investigative journalist, is editor of iraqdossier.com
independent minds
independent minds

The Telegraph gets it - Rentoul doesn't

Posted by Chris Ames
  • Monday, 7 June 2010 at 09:34 am
The Telegraph's take on what Nick Clegg said yesterday about the Iraq inquiry identifies the key issue - that the inquiry has been hampered by restrictions imposed on it by  agreed with the previous government.

"Under protocols for releasing confidential information, Sir John and his inquiry team were allowed to see some classified papers but could not refer to them during evidence sessions.

"It meant that they were restricted in what they could ask key witnesses such as Lord Goldsmith, who was Attorney General at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003."

Clegg has not - according to what I have seen so far - promised to lift these restrictions. I shall try to clarify this.

Well done the Telegraph, but it's not rocket science. The reference to Goldsmith is a handy one for people who think that only conspiracy theorists do not want the Iraq inquiry to be hampered by these restrictions. According to a  Telegraph report in January:

"Sir John Chilcot, head of the probe, expressed his 'frustration' that he was unable to refer to key documents while questioning Lord Goldsmith, the former Attorney General, about why he gave the 'green light' for war.

"Lord Goldsmith also said that he was unhappy at being denied the opportunity to discuss documents including a letter from Jack Straw, then-former foreign secretary, about United Nations negotiations."

A week earlier, Straw had gone a bit coy when discussing the letters Tony Blair had sent George Bush in 2002, suggesting that he would prefer a private session. Inquiry member Sir Roderick Lyne said:


"It would be much easier if we had them in front of us, one way or the other."

I could go on and list all the times THE INQUIRY HAS COMPLAINED THAT  ITS QUESTIONING OF WITNESSES HAS BEEN HAMPERED BY RESTRICTIONS ON WHAT IT CAN DISCUSS PUBLICLY but it would be tedious - and John Rentoul still wouldn't get it. 

In fact, Rentoul has already said that he does not want actual evidence to get in the way of  a narrative concocted by Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell.  Last month he answered my question

Did Blair tell President Bush in writing during 2002 that he would support the President (without conditions) if he  took military action? 


No idea, but, again, the correspondence was in the context of all the discussion during 2002 in which the conditions for British support were made repeatedly clear.

You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to work out that a letter from Blair to Bush stating that he would unconditionally support an invasion of Iraq would undermine, possibly even contradict, the "context" that conditions for British support were made repeatedly clear. I think we are going to find a new word for someone at the other end of the spectrum to a conspiracy theorist, who similarly doesn't want to bothered by facts because they already know the "context" that the government gave them. How about a "Rentoul"?
independent minds

Clegg backtracks on the Iraq Inquiry

Posted by Chris Ames
  • Sunday, 6 June 2010 at 09:40 pm

The Press Association has more on what Nick Clegg said at the Hay Festival about the Iraq Inquiry:

Mr Clegg also told the audience there must be “a presumption of disclosure” with regards to the Chilcot Inquiry and its openness would be the key to determining its legitimacy.

He said: “The battle that needs to be fought is to make sure in the final Chilcot report the presumption is towards real, meaningful, thorough disclosure.

“The acid test for the Chilcot Inquiry for its legitimacy and cathartic value, for a country still trying to grapple to come to terms in the way that we did, is it needs to be fully open.

“I know for a fact they have sought to have access to far more documents that they thought and the challenge is to make sure there is real disclosure when they publish their findings.”

It seems that he doesn’t get it after all. The challenge is not just to make sure there is real disclosure when the Inquiry publishes its findings: it is also to make sure there is real disclosure now. An Inquiry that is constrained in what it can ask witnesses and what it can publish now is not fully open. It is very worrying that Clegg thinks this is openness.

Looking back at what Clegg actually said to Gordon Brown in November, he was – it has to be said – focussed on what would be published alongside the Inquiry’s report. In fact, he said this:


“Will the Prime Minister therefore confirm that when Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues come to publish their final report, they will able to publish all information available to them, with the sole exception of information essential to national security?”

What has happened to the demand that only “information essential to national security” will be withheld? A presumption of disclosure is meaningless. There is a presumption of disclosure in the Freedom of Information Act but that doesn’t stop the government using any number of reasons to block disclosure.

independent minds

Has Clegg sold out on the Iraq inquiry?

Posted by Chris Ames
  • Sunday, 6 June 2010 at 05:18 pm

I had high hopes that Nick Clegg might announce a significant change to the way the Inquiry operates in his conversation with Philippe Sands at the Hay Festival. I have not seen exactly what Clegg said but Sands’ account of it for the Guardian is a massive disappointment:

“On the Chilcot inquiry on the Iraq war, there was a major development: a clear commitment to make sure that the inquiry is able to publish a great number of documents: the current protocol on a presumption of confidentiality and secrecy will be changed to a presumption of publication, but most likely to coincide with the inquiry’s report, whenever that may be.”

Perhaps Clegg, who once accused Gordon Brown of “suffocating the Inquiry”, doesn’t get it after all. He is now saying that documents are most likely to be suppressed until the Inquiry reports, which means that the Inquiry will be constrained in what it can ask witnesses in public hearings and what it can tell the public about what it already knows. Members of the Inquiry have repeatedly complained about this during hearings and, if Sands’ account is correct, Clegg will have it continue.

As for a presumption of publication, here is what the Independent said back in November, when Clegg ambushed Brown on the issue:

“Sources close to the Chilcot inquiry denied that it had been muzzled and said it was happy with the agreement with the Government. They insisted that the presumption was that information would be put in the public domain and that the protocol was designed to underline that.”

So Clegg’s great leap forward is that a presumption that information will be put in the public domain has become a presumption of publication, except that any publication is likely to be later rather than sooner, once the Inquiry has interpreted the documents for us.

independent minds

Will Hague spill the beans on Tony Blair's dossier?

Posted by Chris Ames
  • Friday, 4 June 2010 at 11:59 am

I have had a response from the Foreign Office - now under William Hague - to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made three weeks ago about the September 2002 Iraq dossier. Firstly, well done to the FCO for giving a substantive response within the statutory timescale. And the response confirms that they have at least some of the material that I have asked for, although they are not prepared to release it just yet.

My request related to the involvement of FCO communications officials in the drafting of the dossier and specifically any unpublished information relating to the following:

1) The involvement of John Williams in drafting the dossier from 3 September to 24 September 2002, including any information relating to his attendance at meetings of the dossier drafting group on 10 and 17 September.

2) The involvement of James Paver in drafting the dossier from 3 September to 24 September 2002, including any information relating to his attendance at meetings of the dossier drafting group on 10 and 17 September.

3) The involvement of Paul Hamill in drafting the dossier from 3 September to 24 September 2002, including any information relating to his attendance at meetings of the dossier drafting group on 10 and 17 September.

4) The involvement of the CIC (Coalition Information Centre or otherwise) in drafting the dossier from February 2002 to 24 September 2002.

5) A copy of the FCO’s letter to the Information Commissioner dated 22 November 2005 and any other correspondence to the Commissioner setting out the circumstances in which Mr Williams’ draft dossier (published in February 2008) was produced.

The individuals concerned were all named in Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett’s letter to to Tony Blair of 4 June 2003 as having been “involved” in drafting the dossier, a letter that the Iraq inquiry has picked up on. CIC stood for different things at different times but it was a propaganda unit within the FCO that Alastair Campbell set up to promote British involvement in US-led wars. The FCO has previously confirmed that it has four documents showing the CIC’s involvement in the dossier but has refused to release them. The letter in question was described in the Information Tribunal decision that led to the release of the Williams draft dossier. It referred to the fact that Williams had been present at a meeting on 9 September 2002 “where he was a member of a group tasked with drafting a preliminary document described by that meeting as ‘a draft assessment’ to be used in the production of a draft Dossier”. According to the previous, discredited government’s version of events, Scarlett had by this time wrestled the drafting of the dossier away from Williams.

The FCO’s answer is a holding one, stating that they have identified an applicable exemption under the FOI Act and are to take extra time (to which they are entitled) to decided whether the balance of the public interest requires disclosure or concealment. The exemption cited is Section 35 (1)(a) of the Act, relating to the formulation or development of government policy. Well done to the FCO for stating this upfront, unlike the Cabinet Office, but it is unclear that it applies to what are essentially propaganda efforts, unless the policy that was being formulated or developed was one of deliberately putting false claims into the public domain.

Interestingly, unlike the government's old favourite Section 36 exemption (Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs), application of the Section 35 exemption does not require a ministerial sign-off. But ministers will now know what their officials are up to. Whether the information will be released or suppressed will be a huge test of the new government’s pledge to be more transparent.

independent minds

Cameron trashes the new politics

Posted by Chris Ames
  • Wednesday, 2 June 2010 at 04:56 pm
For a few minutes it looked as if Prime Minister's Questions was going to throw up a real debate. Then David Cameron concluded that scoring cheap party political points through Punch Judy politics was more important than any fancy ideas about a new politics.

Asked by Harriet Harman what tax breaks for married couples would do to cut the deficit, Cameron suggested that keeping families together would save public money in the long term. A plausible argument, except that Harman asked whether the £3 a week on offer would really make any difference. Cameron retorted that Labour had previously recognised marriage in the tax system through a change to inheritance tax which helped the better off.

So at his first PMQs Cameron said: "you might think my policy is rubbish but the last government did something worse".

Isn't this the kind of yah boo nonsense we should be getting away from?
independent minds

An honourable career being economical with the truth

Posted by Chris Ames
  • Wednesday, 2 June 2010 at 04:46 pm

At the Baha Mousa Inquiry former armed forces minister Adam Ingram has admitted misleading MPs, or “misinforming them”, as the Guardian puts it, about the hooding of detainees in Iraq.

According to the BBC:

Ex-Labour minister Adam Ingram has admitted misleading MPs over British troops’ hooding of Iraqi prisoners.

In a Parliamentary answer he denied UK forces used hooding as an interrogation technique despite having seen papers to the contrary, a public inquiry heard.

The inquiry is investigating claims UK soldiers beat to death Iraqi Baha Mousa, 26, in Basra in September 2003.

Mr Ingram was copied in on a memo that revealed Mr Mousa was hooded for nearly 24 of 36 hours in custody before dying.

But of course, no minister ever misleads MPs intentionally. According to the Guardian:

Questioned by Rabinder Singh QC, the inquiry counsel, about the accuracy of his answer, Ingram replied: “It would have been better if the department had reminded me of all the documentation.” He added that he was “wholly dependent on the best advice of his department”.

It was someone else’s fault. Speaking of being economical with the truth, the Guardian says:

Asked why he did not refer to the hooding of Mousa in answer to a question from Amnesty International, Ingram replied: “I don’t have an answer to that”.

Ingram repeatedly sidestepped questions about why he did not refer, in response to questions about interrogation techniques, to complaints made by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

So Ingram clearly thinks it’s ok to be evasive while claiming that his earlier misleading of MPs was merely unfortunate. He's made a very honourable career or being economical with the truth. Here’s what Ingram said on 29 May 2003, as the row broke over Andrew Gilligan’s report on the 45 minute claim etc:

“On the 7th March, Hans Blix on behalf of the inspectors, published a 173 page report which damned completely what Saddam Hussein’s regime was doing in respect of the procurement, the development and production of weapons of mass destruction. ”

As I have pointed out on a previous post the Blix report said nothing of the sort.

independent minds

Not very NICE

Posted by Chris Ames
  • Wednesday, 2 June 2010 at 08:21 am
On BBC TV's Breakfast this morning, the presenters insisted on referring to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence as the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, no doubt led astray by the nifty acronym NICE. The article was about excessive drinking and viewers may have been baffled to know why an organisation concerned only with clinical excellence was getting involved in public health issues.

Worse, the BBC insisted on referring to NICE as the health "watchdog". This is an organisation that says this about itself:

NICE is an independent organisation responsible for providing national guidance on promoting good health and preventing and treating ill health.

So a pro-active rather than a reactive role. In what sense is that a watchdog? And what then is the Care Quality Commission?

The Care Quality Commission is the independent regulator of health and social care in England.

We regulate care provided by the NHS, local authorities, private companies and voluntary organisations. We aim to make sure better care is provided for everyone - in hospitals, care homes and people's own homes. We also seek to protect the interests of people whose rights are restricted under the Mental Health Act.

Sounds like a watchdog to me.

The BBC might think it helpful to describe NICE with a word that people recognise but if it's the wrong word, it's simply misleading.

Here's the BBC online calling NICE a watchdog, as do the Times and the Daily Mail. The Guardian correctly refers to NICE as "government health advisers", while the FT refers to it as " the government's medicines advisory body".

The BBC manages to call NICE "the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence" in its online piece.


independent minds

Cynical and Obstructive - the Cabinet Office

Posted by Chris Ames
  • Friday, 28 May 2010 at 08:57 am

More evidence of how cynical and obstructive the Cabinet Office can be in suppressing any information about Iraq comes in a decision notice I received from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) this morning.

The decision relates to my attempt to use the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to get more information about the drafting of the Iraq dossier, the type of information that led to this, and this. The Cabinet Office blocked my request. My complaint to the ICO was about how long it took for the Cabinet Office to do so. As the decision notice notes:

“The Cabinet Office delayed providing a substantive response for nine months by extending the time needed to consider the public interest test a considerable number of times.”

In fact, delaying for nine months wasn’t the offence. The FOI Act gives public authorities a blank cheque to keep extending what should be a 20 day time limit if they are considering the balance of public interest. The Cabinet Office’s offence was not saying within the 20 days that they had the information, not stating early enough what exemption under the Act they were relying on and not giving an estimate for how long it all might take. These are all procedural points but they illustrate the type of games the Cabinet Office plays. Not confirming that you have the information requested is just obstructive.

But the killer paragraph in the decision is this one:

“The Commissioner would like to make the point that any notice issued under Section 17(2) should only be issued after the public authority has decided that one or more specific qualified exemption(s) is engaged. The notice should not be used, as the Cabinet Office appears to have done in this case, to allow the public authority to decide if any or which exemption applies.”

This translates as the Cabinet Office saying: “we’ve decided to block your request – we just haven’t thought of a good reason yet.”

Cynical and obstructive behaviour from the department that sits at the heart of government. What will the new Government do about it?

independent minds

Clegg on Chilcot - watch this space

Posted by Chris Ames
  • Thursday, 27 May 2010 at 09:00 pm

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is due to talk to Philippe Sands at an event at the Hay Festival on 6 June. On the BBC, festival director Peter Florence says that Clegg will be talking about the Iraq Inquiry, amongst other things. Sands, who raised the issue in the New Statesman last week, would be bound to raise it anyway.

Given that Clegg accused Gordon Brown of “suffocating the Inquiry” by imposing on it a protocol that restricts its ability to publish and quote from key documents – a protocol that has since been implemented as strictly as was ever feared – it is inconceivable that he will take the same approach as the previous government. So what he has to say could be very significant for the Inquiry.

independent minds

Feel sorry for me, says George

Posted by Chris Ames
  • Monday, 24 May 2010 at 01:37 pm
On page 1 of the Politicians' Book of Spin appears the advice that whenever you are doing something unpopular, you refer to it as "taking a difficult decision". You thus switch the emphasis away from the bad thing that you are doing and invite people to feel sorry for you and - if you are lucky - admire your strength of character. Invading Iraq was a difficult decision for Tony Blair and Jack Straw. During the election campaign, politicians on all sides preferred to talk about difficult decisions to talking about cuts.

Today chancellor George Osborne went a stage further in the blatant substitution of "difficult decisions" for "cuts", when he announced £6bn of cuts:

"This is the first time this government has announced cuts difficult decisions on spending,"
Politicians no longer just take difficult decisions, they announce them. The phrase has now become such a tired, cowardly cliche that politicians using it look more self-obsessed than anything.