Chilcot - reasonable unreasonableness and delays that aren't delays

Blog by Milan Rai

I just read the transcript of the evidence given by John Chilcot, head of the Iraq Inquiry, to parliament's foreign affairs committee on 4 February. I was staggered to read in a footnote that they are going to publish 1,500 British government documents alongside the Chilcot Report itself (which will be hundreds of pages long).

The report refers to 7,000 government documents. They looked at 150,000 documents. These are big numbers.

The MPs on the foreign affairs committee tried to get Chilcot to say that his former colleagues in the civil service had delayed the publication of the report by dragging their feet over the declassification of relevant secret documents. Chilcot (who was permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office for most of the 1990s) avoided saying anything critical of the government, the civil service or the decision makers from 2003 who are going to be criticised in the report.

Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi, a British Iraqi Kurd born in the Baghdad, found out how long it took Chilcot to persuade the current cabinet secretary to agree to publish 29 of the 30 notes that Tony Blair sent to George W Bush. They started arguing in August 2013 and finally agreed in September 2014. That's 13 months.

Chilcot said this was not unreasonable. And not a delay.

Sir John Chilcot: At the risk of repetition, we were forced to start from the position that the notes that Mr Blair sent to President Bush were not disclosable as a class. As time went on and we argued—and, dare I say, nibbled away at the edges of that doctrine—it became apparent that it could not be sustained any longer. So much material from within those notes was already agreed as disclosable that it simply made no sense to withhold permission to publish.

There were a lot of questions on declassification from Conservative MP John Baron (who resigned from the Tory front bench in order be able to vote against the Iraq war in 2003).

Chilcot said that it was 'not necessarily delay' when 'people take time or insist on entering into a long and difficult debate' about declassification. I thought the dictionary definition of delay was 'taking time': to 'be late or slow; loiter', as the Oxford online dictionary puts it.

Baron finally got Chilcot to indicate that the amount of time taken to declassify documents had not necessarily been 'welcome'.

Here are the relevant Baron-Chilcot exchanges. I've left in the question numbers to show how Baron kept coming back to this after he or other MPs had asked about other matters to do with the inquiry:

Q32 Mr Baron: But you would accept, would you not, Sir John, that there have been some delays in getting documents declassified? In other words, is it reasonable to make the point that the delay in this inquiry is not entirely the inquiry’s fault?

Sir John Chilcot: Yes—I am tempted to lapse into mandarin language, but I will try not to. It is not necessarily delay when people take time or insist on entering into a long and difficult debate between one party and the other about whether some particular point or, indeed, some particular category of material can or cannot be declassified. [emphasis added] I could—although not today, if you will agree, Chairman—give specific examples of whole categories where we have been successful in overturning long-standing conventions against any kind of publication. That is not something that happens overnight; it has to be argued through and decisions have to be taken about it at a very high level.

Q60 Mr Baron: Sir John, can I briefly return us to the issue of declassification? Can you just confirm that any Government delay, when it comes to declassifying documents, has, in your opinion, not been unreasonable?

Sir John Chilcot: Applying the test of reasonableness, I think it was done in good faith. Time was taken before very difficult decisions on unprecedented categories for disclosure were reached. I don’t think I could accuse Government Departments of unreasonableness, but substantial amounts of time were taken up at critical points, as I have already given in evidence to the Committee this morning.

Q61 Mr Baron: And that is still ongoing? You are still waiting for documents to be declassified?

Sir John Chilcot: There is a tail of declassification, but it is not now a factor that affects the progress of the report to completion.

Q76 Mr Baron: Finally, Sir John, we have talked about you not believing that any delay when it comes to declassification has been unreasonable. You do not think it has been unreasonable. Can I ask you this: in your requests for any evidence that you have wanted from Government, are you or will you be satisfied that you got what you needed to come to a proper and authoritative report, particularly given that many bereaved families will be following your inquiry and looking in on this session? Will you be satisfied about the availability of that evidence, once it is eventually made available to you?

Sir John Chilcot: Yes, I think I can say that I am. By describing the responses we have had on this set of issues as reasonable, that is not to say that the time taken is always welcome. That is a different matter. I do not believe that there is an unreasonable refusal to authorise disclosure at this point. [emphasis added]

I can't believe this inquiry has taken six years and cost £9m. On the other hand, the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday took 12 years and cost either £200m or £400m.

Topics: Iraq