02 June 2014

The response to last week’s agreement between the Chilcot inquiry and the Cabinet Office over the disclosure of material on the Iraq war has been one-sided and ill-informed.

Stitch-up, cover-up and whitewash have been widely used. Such doubts are perhaps understandable in view of past failures by inquiries from Hillsborough onwards. It is hard for the public and the media, to take official assurances on trust and for the inquiry to demonstrate its independence ahead of its report. But, in this case, the critics are wrong both in principle and in practice.

Of course, Tony Blair and others should be held to account for their decisions and errors in the most controversial, and bloody, military action for decades, a more damaging failure for many than even the Suez conflict of 1956. The Chilcot inquiry has taken far, far too long, partly because its remit has been too wide and partly because of inherent problems of disclosure when much of the material relates to relations between governments.

Yet none of this material has been hidden from the inquiry. Sir John and his team have apparently seen everything. The question is how much they can disclose to back up their conclusions. And here the issues of principle are much trickier than the ‘disclose everything’ advocates acknowledge. This is not about domestic advice and discussions, much of which is already public.

There is never a clear dividing line between the past and the present. Governments cannot ignore current relationships with other countries. If the transcripts of the Blair/Bush conversations were published in full, would President Obama, or another foreign leader, any longer be candid or open in their talks with David Cameron? There are risks which no government can responsibly ignore. A similar point applies to the disclosure of detailed intelligence material, a problem faced by the abortive Detainee inquiry (on which I served).

It was therefore correct to seek a compromise, even though it has taken a very long time. The agreement, brokered by the much vilified Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, is, in reality, not an exercise in secrecy, but a big step towards disclosure – despite the strong doubts of lawyers, diplomats and the Americans.

Whatever conclusions the Chilcot inquiry reaches, readers will find out what the views of Mr Blair were, what he said and did. Agreement has been reached on the publication of a number of full extracts of minutes of the most critical ministerial meetings, and of some international communications. On the most contentious issue of the Blair/Bush exchanges, there will be gists and quotes sufficient for the inquiry to explain its conclusions, only excluding President Bush’s views. This goes much further than many in Whitehall would have liked.

Of course, the Iraq war was exceptional, but the level of disclosure will be exceptional. So instead of damning an establishment cover-up, the critics should think about the wider consequences of what they are seeking. Sir Jeremy is, like other Cabinet Secretaries, unable to defend himself now from over-the-top personal attacks, but his critics may turn out to be surprised by the robustness and comprehensiveness of the final report.

The dilemma was well summed-up in the chairman’s foreword to the ‘Review of the 30 Year Rule’ in January 2009 which recommended a 15 year delay before official records are released. ‘There are many good reasons why state records need to be kept confidential for a specific period of time and there is a very necessary tension between the understandable need for governments to work in some privacy and the equally understandable wish of the people to know what is being done in their names’. The chairman was Paul Dacre, then and now the editor of the Daily Mail, which has described the Chilcot/Heywood agreement as ‘a shabby whitewash’.