4 Feb 2015

Whitehall took 13 months over Bush/Blair letters

If Sir Jeremy Heywood had taken one month to decide that the Bush/Blair exchanges could be published  by the Chilcot team we would have the Iraq report by now. As it is, Sir John Chilcot revealed to the foreign affairs select committee that it took 13 months to reach agreement on that. That’s nearly 400 days; close to 280 working days.


Sir John refused all invitations to condemn the time taken by the cabinet secretary – the nearest he got was saying: “They (the Cabinet Office) have felt it difficult to respond as quickly as we would’ve liked” to big declassifications. He acknowledged the serious issues and longstanding conventions that Sir Jeremy (and Lord O’Donnell before him) were having to deal with. But revealing how long it took to allow publication of the Blair/Bush exchanges was, for this very under-stated and meticulous mandarin, quite a jab.

The “Maxwellisation” process sees letters going out to witnesses allowing them to comment on and potentially win a rewrite of a draft criticism. Sir John revealed he nearly pressed the button for that process in 2013 but held back because the declassification of the Bush/Blair exchanges was unresolved, giving another clue as to how much earlier the report might’ve been with us if the cabinet secretary had rolled over earlier on the Bush/Blair documents.

At one point Sir Menzies Campbell asked and got Sir John Chilcot’s assurance that the delay had nothing to do with witnesses dragging their feet over the Maxwellisation process. “As matters stand today, no,” was the answer. So no foot-dragging so far. You couldn’t help thinking Ming Campbell had the Lib Dems’ recently appointed foreign affairs spokesman Tim Farron in his sights with that one. When Sir John announced his report wouldn’t be coming out until after the election, the Lib Dems were fast to condemn ex-Labour figures for stalling the process with legal challenges to draft criticism.

Sir John Chilcot made it clear he doesn’t want to be messed around with unnecessary delay but he hasn’t encountered it yet. I’ve heard of one key witness getting an initial letter asking for a response in four weeks. The witness pointed out through their lawyer that there was huge supporting material to go through and more time would be needed. The inquiry conceded the point, particularly as so much of the supporting evidence was new to the eyes of the witness. I get the impression the period granted for response has been extended in quite a few cases.

That’s one of the main points you take away from this session. The inquiry team read what they could before they questioned witnesses. But they saw masses more material after the public evidence sessions ended and have based some of their criticisms on that. A better, earlier sense of the data haul might’ve saved time. A bigger team from the start might have speeded things up.

Sir John said it was too late to reconfigure things beneficially now and some Whitehall sources have speculated that he the inquiry team may have missed the moment to expand early. Sir John said new documents were still coming in to the inquiry, though he insisted it was very much the tail end stuff.

As he arrived at the Commons select committee room, Sir John Chilcot looked frail and slightly shakier than he appeared back at the original public sessions in 2010-11, but that may well have been the news he’d just heard. He told MPs that his fellow inquiry panel member, Sir Martin Gilbert, who’d had to stand down some time ago through ill health, had died overnight. Asked at the end of the questioning if he wanted to say any more, Sir John said he was “troubled” at the news and would rather end the session there.

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