Ducking the issue…

I cannot pass up the opportunity to comment on what has to be one of the more glorious examples of errant casuistry I’ve seen from a blogger in a very long time.

Commenting on last week’s attempt by Plaid Cymru (and the SNP) to push for a parliamentary inquiry into the Iraq War, Abitrary Constant proffers the following arguments against the institution of such an inquiry under the terms specified in Plaid’s motion to the House.

There are two problems associated with parliamentary inquiries relevant to this circumstance. The first is the terms of reference. The motion put forward recently was for an inquiry that considered:

“the way in which the responsibilities of government were discharged in relation to Iraq.”The important words there are “relation to”. An inquiry into the “way in which the responsibilities of government in Iraq” is a very different thing to what Plaid Cymru et al were asking for.

And indeed there is a great difference between an inquiry into the manner in which the government discharged its responsibilities in relation to Iraq and one which considered only its responsibilities in Iraq – the latter, which the blogger in question woold support, would preclude all consideration of the government’s conduct prior to the 2003 invasion, under which it would appear that they would like to draw a line.

And their argument for precluding such matters from consideration?

The second problem with a parliamentary inquiry into an issue as divisive as Iraq has been is related to the first: an inquiry itself can be sabotaged, not by those carrying out the inquiry, who will have very specific terms of reference within which they hold their inquiry, but by those who would like the findings of the inquiry to justify their initial position on the war. An inquiry on the post-war occupation would rightly point at several failings of the occupying forces, to which there would be many who use this as proof that the British should never have been there in the first place. This would result in inaccurate claims of a “whitewash”.

So their argument against such an is, in fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The logic here is little short of breath-taking…

Government: You can’t have the inquiry you want.

Public: Why?

Government: Because it won’t answer your questions and you’ll only end up calling it a white-wash?

Public: But why will that happen?

Government: Because we’ve got no intention of calling an inquiry that would answer your questions?

Public: But that would make any inquiry you did call a total white-wash?

Covernment: See. What did we tell you…

The blogger in question concludes his article with the following statement…

To summise: an inquiry, at the right time, into the discharging of government duties in Iraq is welcome. The inevitable and inaccurate claim that this inquiry is a “whitewash”, because the inquiry will and can never say whether Britain should have been in Iraq in the first place, is not.

The matter of whether we should have gone to war in Iraq is, I would agree, moot. We joined the invasion alongside the US, and in the absence of a time machine, and therefore any prospect of altering the past, should is not a matter worth dwelling on.

The matter of precisely how and why we came to commit British forces to the invasion of Iraq on the basis of an entirely false prospectus for war is, however, a rather different matter and one that can and should, quite legitimately and with good reason, be made subject of an inquiry.
Lest we forget, the case that the government put forward in support of joining the invasion of Iraq (and the legality of the invasion in international law) was predicated on the presumption that Iraq posed a legitimate threat to international peace and security by virtue of its posession of weapons of mass destruction and long range missiles, as was made clear by Tony Blair on 18 March 2003 in opening the parliamentary debate that obtained parliamentary support for the war.

I beg to move,

That this House notes its decisions of 25th November 2002 and 26th February 2003 to endorse UN Security Council Resolution 1441; recognises that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and long range missiles, and its continuing non-compliance with Security Council Resolutions, pose a threat to international peace and security; notes that in the 130 days since Resolution 1441 was adopted Iraq has not co-operated actively, unconditionally and immediately with the weapons inspectors, and has rejected the final opportunity to comply and is in further material breach of its obligations under successive mandatory UN Security Council Resolutions; regrets that despite sustained diplomatic effort by Her Majesty’s Government it has not proved possible to secure a second Resolution in the UN because one Permanent Member of the Security Council made plain in public its intention to use its veto whatever the circumstances; notes the opinion of the Attorney General that, Iraq having failed to comply and Iraq being at the time of Resolution 1441 and continuing to be in material breach, the authority to use force under Resolution 678 has revived and so continues today; believes that the United Kingdom must uphold the authority of the United Nations as set out in Resolution 1441 and many Resolutions preceding it, and therefore supports the decision of Her Majesty’s Government that the United Kingdom should use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; offers wholehearted support to the men and women of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces now on duty in the Middle East; in the event of military operations requires that, on an urgent basis, the United Kingdom should seek a new Security Council Resolution that would affirm Iraq’s territorial integrity, ensure rapid delivery of humanitarian relief, allow for the earliest possible lifting of UN sanctions, an international reconstruction programme, and the use of all oil revenues for the benefit of the Iraqi people and endorse an appropriate post-conflict administration for Iraq, leading to a representative government which upholds human rights and the rule of law for all Iraqis; and also welcomes the imminent publication of the Quartet’s roadmap as a significant step to bringing a just and lasting peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians and for the wider Middle East region, and endorses the role of Her Majesty’s Government in actively working for peace between Israel and Palestine.

The motion put to parliament cited two specific UN Security Council resolutions; 678, which was issued on 29 November 1990 and which provided the authority for the use of force to expel the occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and 1441, which instructed Iraq to comply in full with the conditions of resolution 687 (which made the destruction of its WMD and long range missile capabilities a condition of ceasefire in 1991) and to unconditionally co-operate with revived UNMOVIC weapons inspections under warning of ‘serious consequences’ should it fail to comply. Crucially, 1441, bases its assertion that Iraq continued to pose a threat to international peace and security due to its contined possession of a WMD capability…

“Recognizing the threat Iraq’s non-compliance with Council resolutions and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles poses to international peace and security,”

and did not expressly authorise the use of force as a sanction for non-complience, the relevant sections of the resolution being…

[The UN Security Council…]

12. Decides to convene immediately upon receipt of a report in accordance with paragraphs 4 or 11 above, in order to consider the situation and the need for full compliance with all of the relevant Council resolutions in order to secure international peace and security;

13. Recalls, in that context, that the Council has repeatedly warned Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations;

To put this in its proper context, on needs to refer also to the reports supplied by Hans Blix on the work of UNMOVIC (the UN weapons inspectorate) in the period immediately prior to the war, a transcript of the last for which can be read here.

What one sees in this report is that UNMOVIC were making significant progress with their task, that the Iraqi’s were cooperating, albeit a little grudingly at times, and that by far the most significant problem facing the inspectors was an absence of concrete evidence for the decommissioning of certain wepaons systems in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, which despite Blix’s reference to the administrative capabilities of the Iraqi regime, is no particular surprise given the generally chaotic conditions on can expect following a war. Moreover, and this is something that Blix neglects to mention, the weapons systems about which most concern is expressed as to the lack of evidence to support claims of their destruction, specifically those based on liquid anthrax and VX nerve gas, are subject to a defined ‘shelf life’ in the absence of specialist storage facilities, of which Iraq had none. For example, anthrax in its liquid form has, even if stored correctly in a specialist facility, has a shelf-life of only three years before it turns into inert, harmless, ‘goo’, a fact well known to both the UN weapons inspectors and to the US and UK administrations – a five minute call to Porton Down would have settled that matter outright as far as the UK government goes.

Equally revealing is this passage from Blair’s speech to the House of Commons, which describes the circumstances of the failed attempt to secure a second UN resolution, following on from 1441.

We therefore approached a second resolution in this way. As I said, we could have asked for the second resolution then and there, because it was justified. Instead, we laid down an ultimatum calling upon Saddam to come into line with resolution 1441, or be in material breach. That is not an unreasonable proposition, given the history, but still countries hesitated. They asked, “How do we judge what is full co-operation?”

So we then worked on a further compromise. We consulted the inspectors and drew up five tests, based on the document that they published on 7 March. Those tests included allowing interviews with 30 scientists to be held outside Iraq, and releasing details of the production of the anthrax, or at least of the documentation showing what had happened to it. The inspectors added another test: that Saddam should publicly call on Iraqis to co-operate with them.

So we constructed this framework: that Saddam should be given a specified time to fulfil all six tests to show full co-operation; and that, if he did so, the inspectors could then set out a forward work programme that would extend over a period of time to make sure that disarmament happened. However, if Saddam failed to meet those tests to judge compliance, action would follow.

So there were clear benchmarks, plus a clear ultimatum. Again, I defy anyone to describe that as an unreasonable proposition.

Last Monday, we were getting very close with it. We very nearly had the majority agreement. If I might, I should particularly like to thank the President of Chile for the constructive way in which he approached this issue.

Yes, there were debates about the length of the ultimatum, but the basic construct was gathering support. Then, on Monday night, France said that it would veto a second resolution, whatever the circumstances. Then France denounced the six tests. Later that day, Iraq rejected them. Still, we continued to negotiate, even at that point.

Last Friday, France said that it could not accept any resolution with an ultimatum in it. On Monday, we made final efforts to secure agreement. However, the fact is that France remains utterly opposed to anything that lays down an ultimatum authorising action in the event of non-compliance by Saddam.

Overall, two things emerge from Blair’s speech.

First, and by way of a complete inversion of the fundmental principles of justice, on the matter of complience with resolution 687 on disarmament, Iraq was held to be guilty until it could prove itself innocent. Parliament was asked to support a war not because there was evidence of Iraq’s WMD capabilities but because of an absence of evidence to show that certain weapons had been decommissioned, weapons whose original existence had, in many cases, never been verified.

Second, in his reference to France’s implacable opposition to a second UN resolution, Blair is effectively announcing to the Commons that the reason we are going to war at precisely that moment in time is because the French would not allow us to rattle our sabres in the direction of Iraq in the precise manner we wished.
The six ‘tests’ upon which the US and UK wished to base their ultimatum to Iraq were as follows:

a statement by Saddam Hussein admitting that he has concealed weapons of mass destruction, but will no longer produce or retain weapons of mass destruction;

Okay, this one’s do-able if a bit unnecessary and quite obviously designed to visit a public humilation on Saddam.

deliver at least 30 scientists for interview outside Iraq, with their families;

Again, this is deliverable.

surrender all anthrax, or credible evidence of destruction;

Now things start to get a bit tricky, given that its not at all clear that Iraq’s documentation on either its production or destruction of chemical and biological weapons stocks is anything like as adequately maintained as the UN supposed at the time.

complete the destruction of all Al Samoud missiles;

According to the UN inspectors, this was already underway from 1 March 2003 and timetabled to be completed by the end of the month.

account for all unmanned aerial vehicles, including details of any testing of spraying devices for chemical and biological weapons;

Iraq’s main programme for developing UAVs – which involved attempts to retrofit outdated aircraft (a MIG-21 and Czech-built L-29 jet trainer) for remote control – was discontinued in 2001 having resulted in failure. Iraq certainly did and attempt to develop an effective UAV programme, but there is little or no evidence to suggest that its successful.

surrender all mobile chemical and biological production facilities.

…which the US assumed existed, only to be proved wrong after the invasion – so here we are demanding that Iraq surrenders something that did not exist at the time.
And question that remains unanswered to this day is that of why, exactly, the French were opposed to an ultimatum based on these tests – or more specifically, what if anything, did their intelligence services know that might account for that opposition. In short, did the French oppose a second UN resolution precisely because their own intelligence assessments (which would have been shared with the US and UK) indicated that on at least two of the tests, there was no possibility of Iraqi complience for the reasons that they did not have the means to comply; i.e. any anthrax stocks/ or credible evidence of their destruction and certainly no mobile chemical/biological weapons facilities.
While speaking to the House, Blair makes use of several quotations from UNMOVIC’s report of 6 March 2003 on ‘Unresolved Disarmament Issues’, each of which is worth looking at in terms of the manner in which the information of presented to the House by Blair, out of context, as opposed to the context in which it appears in the report.
In regards to Iraq’s capabilities vis-a-vis VX nerve gas, Blair quotes the following statement from the report:

“Documentation available to UNMOVIC suggests that Iraq at least had had far reaching plans to weaponise VX”.

This, the report does indeed state. However it also goes on to state that:

The information available to UNMOVIC at present suggests that Iraq did not carry out industrial-scale production of VX in the latter half of 1988 or in 1989. At that time there did not appear to be any military requirement for it. Research on VX did however continue, with one of its objectives being to improve its stability.

During times of war, or imminent war, it would make sense for Iraq to produce VX through route B, which involves only about half as many process steps as route D. VX produced through route B must be used relatively quickly after production (about 1 to 8 weeks), which would probably be satisfactory for wartime requirements.

However, if no war were imminent or underway, it would make more sense for Iraq to produce VX that can be stabilised and stored for long periods of time until needed. Of the routes that Iraq is known to have studied at the R&D level, and obtained a fair degree of success, route D would seem to be the route of choice to produce high purity VX.

Iraq had produced high purity VX using route D in laboratory/pilot-scale equipment. Based upon the documents provided by Iraq, it is doubtful that any significant quantities of VX were produced using this route before the Gulf war. In the case of VX produced through route D, if Iraq’s quality control and process technology has been improved, then Iraq may be able to stabilise the product (Iraq informed UNSCOM that it had not attempted to stabilise VX produced through route D). VX thus stabilised, may be weaponised and stored, or stored as bulk agent. VX produced through route D, and stabilized, could still be viable today.

The more observant among you will notice that this whole section amounts to little more than speculation – in fact as the report also notes, the sole evidence for the existance of any VX nerve gas in Iraq amounts to a few fragments of missile warheads, which had been destroyed unilaterally by the Iraqis, that had been tested by UNSCOM in 1998 and which exhibited trace amounts of VX degradation agents… or perhaps not as these finding were disputed by both by the Iraqis and by two independent laboratories that tested the same materials who found no trace of the chemicals that UNSCOM claim to have found.

Blair goes on to quote part of the report’s ‘findings’ on the production of Mustard Gas by the Iraqis.

On mustard gas, it says:

“Mustard constituted an important part . . . of Iraq’s CW arsenal . . . 550 mustard filled shells and up to 450 mustard filled aerial bombs unaccounted for . . . additional uncertainty”

On mustard gas, it says:

“Mustard constituted an important part . . . of Iraq’s CW arsenal . . . 550 mustard filled shells and up to 450 mustard filled aerial bombs unaccounted for . . . additional uncertainty”

with respect to over 6,500 aerial bombs,

“corresponding to approximately 1,000 tonnes of agent, predominantly mustard.”

Errr… constituted? Past tense? And there’s those nice little dots to show that parts of the full text have been omitted.

Filling in the blanks left by Blair, we find that the report actually states:

Production of high quality Mustard was achieved through the acquisition of high quality starting materials, use of high quality chemical process equipment and practical experience gained by Iraqi personnel over several years of continuous Mustard production. Judging by the quantities produced, weaponized and used, Mustard constituted an important part (about 70%) of Iraq’s CW arsenal.

Strange that Blair chooses to specifically omit that 70% figure from his speech. As regards the second part of Blair’s citation, the report actually states…

There is much evidence, including documents provided by Iraq and information collected by UNSCOM, to suggest that most quantities of Mustard remaining in 1991, as declared by Iraq, were destroyed under UNSCOM supervision. The remaining gaps are related to the accounting for Mustard filled aerial bombs and artillery projectiles. There are 550 Mustard filled shells and up to 450 mustard filled aerial bombs unaccounted for since 1998. The mustard filled shells account for a couple of tonnes of agent while the aerial bombs account for approximately 70 tonnes. According to an investigation made by the Iraqi “Depot Inspection Commission”, the results of which were reported to UNMOVIC in March 2003, the discrepancy in the accounting for the mustard filled shells could be explained by the fact that Iraq had based its accounting on approximations.

So, the unaccounted for Mustard Gas stocks could well be no more than an Iraqi clerical error?

The report goes on to note a further discrepancy in the accounting of Iraq’s chemical weapons stocks amounting to some 1000 tonnes of mostly Mustand Gas (but also Sarin nerve gas and another chemical agent called Tabun), as cited by Blair. What Blair fails to mention, however, is the explaination given by the Iraqis for this discrepancy – the missing chemicals were stored at Iraqi air force bases that were occupied by Coalition forces during the 1991 Gulf War, resulting in the destruction of the records of these stocks (and one would presume the stocks themselves), which were also at those bases.

The report then concludes that:

Iraq does not appear to have a dedicated facility capable of producing Mustard and its key precursors. Significant modifications would be required to convert existing chemical production facilities for this purpose. Iraq would have to utilize “corrosion resistant” equipment (for the processing of the chlorinating agent), which it possesses in limited quantities. However, Iraq had some items of dual-use equipment distributed all over the country at legitimate facilities that could be removed and assembled for the construction of a dedicated Mustard production plant.

So, to cap it all, the inspectors found that Iraq did not have the capability to produce Mustard Gas, before the 2003 invasion, another piece of information omitted from Blair’s speech to the House. This is extremely significant as of all the chemcial and biological weapons that Iraq was know to possess before the 1991 Gulf War, Mustard Gas is by far the easiest to produce (and store) requiring only what amounts to Victorian/Edwardian technology. If Iraq could not produce chemical weapons that, as nasty as they are, are based on century-old technology, then how realistic is the suggestion that it was producing much more modern chemical and/or biological weapons. This is akin to claiming that Iraq was mass producing AK-47s despite finding that it lacked the industrial capability to produce flintlock muskets.
Moving on to the assessment of Iraq’s biological weapons programmes, and specifically its stocks of anthrax, we find Blair stating:

On biological weapons, the inspectors’ report states:

“Based on unaccounted for growth media, Iraq’s potential production of anthrax could have been in the range of about 15,000 to 25,000 litres . . . Based on all the available evidence, the strong presumption is that about 10,000 litres of anthrax was not destroyed and may still exist.”

What the report actually states is…

UNSCOM assessed Iraq’s production capability on the basis of two potentially limiting factors: equipment and growth media. UNSCOM assessed that, based on its estimate of the available equipment to the BW programme at that time, and the known capacity of such equipment, Iraq’s potential production of anthrax could have been in the range of about 22,000 to 39,000 litres. UNSCOM also estimated that based on unaccounted for growth media, Iraq’s potential production of anthrax could have been in the range of about 15,000 to 25,000 litres.

Based on all the available evidence, the strong presumption is that about 10,000 litres of anthrax was not destroyed and may still exist.

The magic word here is ‘UNSCOM’ – the figures given by the inspectors in the report are taken from an UNSCOM assessment produced in 1991, following the first Gulf War, and are by this time some twelve years old. The report also goes on to state that:

As a liquid suspension, anthrax spores produced 15 years ago could still be viable today if properly stored. Iraq experimented with the drying of anthrax simulants and if anthrax had been dried, then it could be stored indefinitely.

Note that it states ‘if properly stored’ – no such storage capabilities have been found in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

The entire section on Iraq’s anthrax capabilities amounts to the inspectors disputing a claim by the Iraqis that anthrax production ceased in 1990 on the basis of evidence of production unearthed by UNSCOM, which showed that Iraq had contuned to produce anthrax in 1991 – for all of fifteen days from 1 January to the start of the Gulf War on 15 January.

After that point in time, all that inspectors could point to was that the scientists who had worked on the anthrax programme were still in Iraq, albeit having been dispersed to a variety of jobs in civilian production facilities.

Since the invasion, UNMOVIC have continued to work in Iraq and in their most recent quarterly report announced that they had finally found a stock of Iraqi chemical weapons (500 shells that contained degraded Mustard Gas or Sarin), however, as the report notes:

During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi regular military units in areas of operation received and used both conventional and chemical weapons. Because of the rapid relocation of many of those units after the war and the dozens of locations involved in the handling of the weapons, there is a possibility that chemical munitions had become inadvertently mixed with conventional weapons. Moreover, some chemical munitions filled with chemical warfare agents did not differ in their markings from standard conventional weapons, which made their identification as chemical munitions problematic, not only for United Nations inspectors and later personnel of the Iraq Survey Group, but also for Iraq.

Given that quantities of chemical weapons produced by Iraq prior to the 1991 Gulf war were dispersed to many locations throughout Iraq and the possibility that those unused during the war with the Islamic Republic of Iran were buried, lost or mixed with conventional munitions, it is not unexpected that the total accounting for these munitions remains uncertain and that some have been recently found in various locations. Moreover, it is possible that some additional chemical munitions may be found. Various data on past production, filling and storage of Iraqi chemical weapons suggest that any remaining mustard-filled artillery shells could still contain viable agent, as Iraq consistently produced mustard of high purity. It is less likely that any rocket warheads filled with nerve agents would still contain viable agent, as they are less robust than the artillery shells and their content was subject to degradation. However, because of the varying quality of the nerve agent produced, it is possible that, even degraded, it can still pose a health hazard associated with the toxic effects of chemical agents or their degradation products.

And so Iraq’s much vaunted WMD capabilities, over which a war was fought, are relegated to the status of a health and safety hazard and its inability to account in full for its pre-1991 stocks becomes of a matter of piss-poor labelling and troops forgetting exactly where they’d left the damn things.

I’ve gone to some length (above) to illustrate, if not clearly evidence, why there is a need for a full inquiry into the Iraq War, the scope of which should (and I would argue must) include not only the conduct of the government since the invasion but also its action in constructing and pitching to Parliament a case for war that was of doubtful legality and which, it has since transpired, was predicated on a false prospectus and an entirely false and unsustainable assessment of the ‘threat’ that the Iraqi regime posed towards both its regional neighbours and to the international community in general.

Central to such an inquiry, is the question of the precise basis upon which it is right for the government (and for Parliament) to commit British troops to a foreign war and the nature of the decision-making process that we, the electorate, expect our government to follow in contemplating the possibility that it mighgt be called upon to take such a decision.

The need for an inquiry in relation to the circumstances in which the government committed British troops tot he 2003 invasion is the need to answer a ‘chicken and egg’ question – which came first, the evidence to justify the invasion or Iraq or the decision to mount such an invasion?

The answer to that single question will have a marked impact on everything that follows, not least of which is how, exactly, the government proceeds in taking the decision to go to war – does it first collate and then weigh the evidence before taking a rational and dispassionate decision based on the facts before it, or does it take the decision and then set about constructing its case (and manipulating the evidence) to fit a decision it has already taken – and it follows the latter course then to what extent is it possible to rely on the case that the government eventually puts to parliament?

In essence, when the spectre of war appears on the horizon, do we expect our government to act in the manner of a judge or the manner of a prosecutor?

All the evidence to emerge since the 2003 invasion (and during the course of the Hutton Inquiry) has tended to show that the government acted as prosecutor in the matter of the invasion of Iraq; that it was set on a particular course of action (i.e. war) some considerable time before the invasion and that being so committed, by assurances of support given to the US, it then set about trying to construct a case for war that would permit it to follow through with that commitment, irrespective, in the circumstances, of whether that case was based on solid foundations and sound evidence.

If the Hutton Inquiry, itself, was widely considered to be a ‘white-wash’ it was simply because it failed to live up to the expectations of those who followed its progress or that it failed to vindicate their preconceived position on the Iraq War but because Hutton’s final report failed to reflect adequately on the weight of evidence that was unearthed during the course of the inquiry, and it did so precisely because the very limited and carefully delineated terms of reference handed to Hutton by the government specifically precluded such an outcome. The Hutton Inquiry was fixed from the outset and yet still succeeded in embarrassing the government because the process by which it arrived at its pre-determined conclusion still managed to expose far more information than the government would ever have wished to see brought out into the open, hence the government’s subsequent, and rapid, introduction of the Inquiries Act 2005, which puts any such future inquiries into a Ministerial-controlled framework designed specifically to ensure that that never happens again.

If we have learned anything from the Hutton Inquiry and from the wholesale collapse of the prospectus for war that was put to Parliament over the period from Sptember 2002 to March 2003 and upon which parliament voted to support to war, it is not only that it presented an entirely false and misleading picture of Iraq’s actual capabilities and the extent to which it legitmate posed a threat to international peace and security but that much, if not most, of the case presented both to the British people, and more importantly to Parliament, amounted to little more than propaganda of a kind that fits neatly into the classic euphemism of being ‘economical with the truth’.

In each of the examples given above, in which Tony Blair’s speech to Parliament on the day that it voted to support the war is contrasted with the actual contents of the UN report to which he makes reference in openiong the debate; one can see what was both the defining chracteristic of the government’s case for war and its approach to presenting that case. The government did not lie, outright, but it did carefully and systematically remove from its statements to the public and its arguments and ‘evidence’ to Parliament, any shred of equivocation and/or uncertainty, such that ‘evidence’ that amounted to no more than speculation and guesswork, was presented as being at least near certainty if not absolute and unshakable fact.

That it took this approach in its dealings with the media and with the British people in unacceptable. That is did so, also, in its dealings with Parliament is unforgivable – and if one truely believes that there is nothing to be learned from an inquiry into precisely how and why that came about then one has no real instinct for democracy nor for the concept that governments should be accountable to both Parliament and to the electorate.

There are numerous questions than need to be asked (and answered) about how and why Britain came to be committed to a war in Iraq on the back of a false prospectus for war and how the government conducted itself during the period in which it was actively engaged in constructed and promoting its case for war.

To give but one example of the kind of question that needs to be asked (and one suggested by late Robin Cook, no less), the now notorious claim that Iraq possessed WMDs that could be deployed with 45 minutes, which was the subject, of course, of part of the deliberations of the Hutton Inquiry, was made in a dossier issued to Parliament in September 2002 – to precise it was presented to Parliament, with a Commons Statement from Tony Blair, on 24 September 2002, almost six months before the Commons was asked to vote on substantive motion; in fact, what Blair actually said to the House was…

I am aware, of course, that people will have to take elements of this on the good faith of our intelligence services, but this is what they are telling me, the British Prime Minister, and my senior colleagues. The intelligence picture that they paint is one accumulated over the last four years. It is extensive, detailed and authoritative. It concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes, including against his own Shia population, and that he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability.

With the exception of the recently-discovered ‘stockpile’ of useless munitions left over from the Iraq-Iran War of the late 1980’s, not one single element of that last sentence has turned out to be true. Moreover the manner in which the ’45 minute claim’ was made in the dossier was, as was revealed during the Hutton Inquiry, entirely disingenuous in so far as what it actually referred to was short-range battlefield weapons (i.e. artilliary shells) which would not be considered by the defence community to fall within definition of WMDs, a fact that was known to the Ministry of Defence and to Defence Minister, Geoff Hoon, at the time. (Hoon was forced to admit to knowing of this distinction during the Hutton Inquiry).

This statement was inevitably (and by design?) misinterpreted, by the media, as a reference to strategic weapons – one newspaper (I forget exactly which) produced a multi-page spread (with maps) which claimed (falsely) that Iraq possess the capability to launch a direct attack on British forces based in Cyprus.

In respect of the ’45 minute claim’, misleading information was given to Parliament by the Prime Minister in September 2002, information that another Minister of the Crown knew to be misleading long before the Parliamentary debate and vote in support of military action in March 2003. In between the two debates, the 45 minute claim was quietly dropped by the government (and did not feature in the March debate) and yet at no time, despite it having clearly and obviously been misinterpreted, did any government minister address the House to offer up a correction despite the Ministerial Code stating quite clearly that:

It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister;

In his book, ‘The Point of Departure’, Cook makes it clear that despite the fact that the government had quietly ceased to make any references to the 45 minute claim after the release of the September dossier, it remained the clear understanding of Parliament (and MPs) that that claim stood, in their minds, as it has been issued to the House in the preceding September, even though Cook, himself, came to believe from his own conversations with Blair, that the government well understood that it had no solid basis in fact, but chose to let it ‘ride’ rather than issue the necessary (and under the Ministerial Code, required) correction/clarification, which would have undermined a key element its case for war.

At a time where the possibility of committing British forces to a war may need to be considered, where does the duty of the government lie?

What evidence, if any, should a government have to provide to the House in order that it might properly consider such a proposition and how should that evidence be presented.

What duty is there on government to provide the House with access to intelligence assessments which include all the doubts, uncertainties, equivocations and qualifications that are a standard element in such assessments?

Where, in all this, is the line to be drawn between a government presenting evidence to support the House in deliberations on such a difficult subject, and a government feeding the House propaganda and selling it a case for war?

These are all valid questions and, in the context of what we now know about the circumstances leading to the Iraq War, valid lines of inquiry from which lessons can certainly be learned, and on that basis alone, there is a case for a wide-ranging inquiry with a remit that takes in the conduct of the government prior to the invasion of the Iraq and the manner in which it constructed and ‘sold’ to Parliament what turned out to be an erroneous case for war, an inquiry into the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the Iraq War, not the ‘should’, about which people will draw their own conclusions.

The only problem with such an inquiry, and the real, if unstated, reason why the government has no desire to permit such an inquiry to take place, is that inevitably such an inquiry would not only identify where, and why mistakes were made by government in the preparation of the case for war that it put both to Parliament and to the British people, but it would, of necessity, uncover how and by whom those mistakes came to be made and provide, in turn, a platform from which it would be possible to to hold government and certain of its Ministers, both collectively and individually to account for their mistakes and errors of judgment – and it is that aspect of such an inquiry that the government is most keen to avoid…

…and equally the best of all reasons why we should have precisely such an inquiry.

One thought on “Ducking the issue…

  1. Thanks, Ministry, for your comments on my post. Do you have an email address I can use with which to continue the discussion with you? If so, please drop me a line. Cheers, Rich.

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