Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Brian Jones - crucial questions


Chilcot must pin down the crucial questions early

Brian Jones

As the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war stutters into existence, it already looks as confused and uncertain as everything that has gone before in relation to the war.

Yesterday's announcement by its chairman hardly clarifies the degree of openness we can expect.

The truth about the decision to go to war is certainly something we must tackle — yet little has been said about the failure of four previous inquiries to resolve the issue.

I gave evidence in open court to the inquiry by Lord Hutton into the sad death of my colleague, Dr David Kelly. It was a testing experience.

The Hutton process allowed unprecedented public disclosure about the inner workings of Whitehall which surely set a standard of openness that Chilcot cannot ignore.

We should not be discouraged by the disappointing final report, because Hutton was constrained by tight terms of reference. The new inquiry, without such constraints, has the potential to draw more precise conclusions on the broader issues.

In this regard it could do no better than to co-opt Hutton's excellent counsel, James Dingemans, who recognised in his closing remarks that there was much more to be made of the evidence taken.

Mr Brown's fears about the cost and complication of legal representation might be overcome if Parliament could find a way to invest the privilege it bestows on select committee witnesses to the Chilcot inquiry.

Then the Butler Review, of which Sir John Chilcot was a member, took place in camera and produced a report that was good in parts. I gave evidence to it in much less terrifying circumstances.

However, it was also a less satisfactory experience because I do not know what else it heard and saw, and consequently whether I could have contributed more. Also, I did not know until long after it reported in July 2004 that the review was determined to do what it could to preserve public confidence in British intelligence, which hardly seems appropriate to its task.

Although Chilcot's broad terms of reference are welcome, because it has the power to probe where it wishes, this brings a danger that it could fail to find a focus.

To counter this, and to bring public opinion with it, Chilcot would do well to establish, clearly and openly, a number of critical questions.

It needs, for instance, to establish what was the “clever plan” to wrong-foot Saddam Hussein, as mentioned in papers sent from Washington to Downing Street in March 2002, that was needed to convince people there was a legal basis for toppling him.

It must ask why Tony Blair's statements on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in 2002 and 2003 did not reflect the uncertainties we now know were in the assessments by the Joint Intelligence Committee, and in briefings by Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6.

It must establish how Sir John Scarlett and Sir Richard knew that the weapons referred to in the “45 minute” intelligence were battlefield weapons rather than missiles. The intelligence I saw did not say this.

If they knew it, why did they not insist that information was clearly stated in the relevant JIC assessments and the September dossier for which they were responsible?

And we need to know why Parliament was not informed that certain critical intelligence had already been withdrawn when it became the subject of comment by Tony Blair in the House.

That we do not yet know the answers to these and many other significant questions is a consequence of a decision to cover up the full truth.

Who made that decision and whether it concealed incompetence or deliberate deception is something that Chilcot must answer.

Then it will be up to parliament to do the right thing.

Brian Jones is former branch head of the Defence Intelligence Staff


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