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The Iraq Inquiry and the silent civil servant

United Kingdom

Anti-war protest, 1 December, 2008, Hyde Park, London, England. Gwydion M. Williams under a Creative Commons Licence

John Chilcot has held back the release of his findings for nearly 5 years. Bereaved families have had enough, writes Felicity Arbuthnot.

Bereaved British families who lost sons and daughters in the illegal invasion of Iraq have threatened legal action against Sir John Chilcot, who headed the Iraq Inquiry, if a release date for the Inquiry’s findings is not announced within 2 weeks. Suspicions over the reason for the approaching 5 years’ near-silence from Sir John, and his seemingly close relationship with former Prime Minister Tony Blair are also being raised through a detailed investigation by journalist Andrew Pierce.

Pierce refers to Blair’s first appearance before the Inquiry 5 years ago when ‘the Chairman, Sir John Chilcot, treated him with almost painful deference.’ What few realized was that Sir John, a former career civil servant ‘could, in fact, have greeted Blair as an old friend’.

They first met in 1997 when Blair was still Leader of the Opposition, at the discreet Travellers’ Club in Central London. ‘John Chilcot, at the time, was the most senior civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office,’ writes Pierce. ‘Civil servants often meet Opposition politicians for briefings [prior to] elections but they are usually held in Whitehall departments where [official] minutes are taken.’ A meeting at the ultra-discreet Club ensured ‘it was not made public’.

On becoming Prime Minister in May 1997, Blair ‘worked closely with Chilcot on the Northern Ireland peace process.’ When Chilcot retired, Blair gave him a knighthood.

However, points out Andrew Pierce, Sir John never really left Whitehall, undertaking a number of roles on public committees, ‘often at the behest of the Blair administration.’

In 2004 Lord Butler was charged with convening an inquiry ‘into the role of the [British] intelligence services in the Iraq war. Blair chose the members of the Inquiry’s 5-strong committee…. Chilcot was one of the first asked to serve on it.’

Foxes guarding hen houses cannot fail to come to mind.

Unexpectedly however, the Butler Review, as it was named, ‘provided devastating evidence that Downing Street, with collusion of intelligence chiefs, ‘sexed up’ the threat’ from Saddam Hussein. And yet the Report concluded that no-one should be held responsible. ‘In short,’ says Pierce, ‘it let Blair off the hook.’


When Blair’s successor as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, established the Chilcot Inquiry in 2009, it was originally to be held ‘behind closed doors’. Uproar from opposition MPs, senior military figures and the general public forced it in to the open.

Philippe Sands, QC, questioned the suitability of Sir John to lead the new inquiry.

He cited a first-hand observer who had described Chilcot’s ‘obvious deference to governmental authority’, a view he had ‘heard repeated several times. More troubling is evidence I have seen for myself.’

He was also dismissive of Chilcot’s questioning of Lord Goldsmith, the former Attorney General, who had ruled that the Iraq invasion would be illegal, only to change his mind when Blair wrote on the top left-hand side of the page: ‘I really do not understand this.’

Professor Sands – author of Lawless World, in which he accuses former US President George W Bush and Tony Blair of conspiring to invade Iraq in violation of international law – also cited ‘Sir John’s spoon-fed questions’ to the former Attorney General, ‘designed to elicit a response demonstrating ‘the reasonableness of his actions and those of the government’.

In spite of the millions of erased and ruined lives, it seems likely Chilcot’s Inquiry, if it eventually appears, will prove another dead end.

As Sir Christopher Meyer, former UK Ambassador to Washington, pointed out: ‘When Downing Street set up the Inquiry into phone hacking, it was a Judicial Inquiry, led by a Judge [with] powers to compel witnesses to answer all questions put to them. Chilcot does not have that power. A Judge should be running this Inquiry, not a retired civil servant.’

Prime Minister David Cameron has paid lip service to exasperation, but regards Blair as a ‘mentor’ and in Opposition aspired to be ‘heir to Blair’. He has also refused Chilcot access to correspondence between Bush and Blair (held in government archives) which Sir John has been reported as regarding as essential to his findings.


Current speculations are that the world will see nothing until late 2016, unless the families of the bereaved win out.

Another reason for the inordinate delay is the decision of the Inquiry to write to every witness criticized in order to allow them to respond. How very cosy. Imagine that in a Court of Law.

However, there is worse to come.

According to a recent report, although ‘as many as 150 Ministers, civil servants and senior military figures have been sent details of criticism, including draft pages of the Report, due to the structure of the Inquiry, ‘Ministers and officials accused of wrongdoing will never be named.’

Indeed, ‘one former Labour Minister is now said to be going through hundreds of pages of the report “with a fine toothcomb”. The ex-Minister has also been offered free legal advice from the government.’

A £10-million stitch-up?

Reg Keys, speaking for one of the bereaved families threatening action against Sir John Chilcot’s team, has had enough. Tony Blair ‘should be dragged in shackles to a War Crimes Court,’ he says.

In a memorable speech on election night in 2005, when Keys stood as an independent in Tony Blair’s Durham constituency, Keys vowed: ‘I’ll hold Blair to account.’ Unlike Blair, Reg Keys speaks the truth.

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