IRAQ – SIR JOHN CHILCOT QUESTIONED BY THE LIAISON COMMITTEE [EXTRACTS] – 2 November 2016
Q20 Bernard Jenkin: Which do you think was more at the forefront of the Prime Minister’s mind: was it to evaluate the evidence that was put in front of him or was it to make the case for a decision that, in his mind, he had already made?
Sir John Chilcot: I find that a very helpful question, because I think my response to it is a clear and unqualified one. It was the second and not the first. There was no attempt to challenge or seek re-evaluation of the intelligence advice.
Q21 Julian Lewis: You have made it clear that you think he [Tony Blair] exaggerated the certainty of his knowledge. If he had just said to the House, “We don’t know for certain, but there is a strong risk that he has these weapons,” and if he had then gone on to say what I remember him saying to the House, namely, that the nightmare scenario was that Saddam, for his own reasons, might make such weapons available to a terrorist group with whom he shared a common enemy, would that have been the act of a reasonable man or an unreasonable man?
Sir John Chilcot: It certainly could have been sustained as the act of a reasonable man, and defended as such, at the time.
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Q114 Dr Lewis: It has been a long session and I will have to truncate what I was going to ask you. I declare an interest at the outset as someone who was an MP in 2003, who spoke and voted in favour of removing Saddam Hussein, but who now believes that that was entirely the wrong decision. For what primarily do you blame Tony Blair about the way in which he took the country to war, and from what do you absolve him?
Sir John Chilcot: I absolve him from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive Parliament or the public – to state falsehoods, knowing them to be false. That I think he should be absolved from. However, he also exercised his very considerable powers of advocacy and persuasion, rather than laying the real issues, and the information to back the analysis of them, fairly and squarely in front of Parliament or the public. It was an exercise in advocacy, not an exercise in sharing a crucial judgment – as has been said already this afternoon, one of the most important, if not the most important, since 1945.
Q115 Dr Lewis: Who do you think should have stood up to him, in respect of those aspects for which you find him blameworthy?
Sir John Chilcot: Blameless or blameworthy?
Dr Lewis: Blameworthy. Who should have stood up to him, so that he did not do what he did that you now believe was wrong?
Sir John Chilcot: I suppose my short answer is that Cabinet Ministers – I am not naming individual ones – were given promises by him in Cabinet that they would have the opportunity to consider and reflect, and therefore to decide on, a number of big decisions in the course of the Iraq case. He didn’t give them that opportunity, and they did not insist on it being given to them. That, I think, is a failing.
Q116 Dr Lewis: Thank you. Who else out of this big cast of characters do you particularly single out for blame besides Tony Blair?
Sir John Chilcot: I think it is inescapable that the key Ministers along with the Prime Minister who were involved throughout were the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary and, to a lesser and different extent, the International Development Secretary. I think the crucial triangle was clearly Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs and Defence. Of those, the Prime Minister and Mr Straw had a great deal more seniority, experience and influence than did the Defence Secretary of the day.
Q117 Dr Lewis: We are making very good progress. I believe you stated that you found no evidence of a secret commitment to war, but how can Mr Blair’s “I will be with you, whatever” message to President Bush be interpreted in any other way?
Sir John Chilcot: He himself, in evidence, interpreted it in the sense of creating a sense in Mr Bush’s mind that he could trust the British for their support. Not necessarily in a military adventure, Mr Blair would say, but generally. In other words, it was an exercise in persuasion and relationship management.
Q118 Dr Lewis: But do you accept that explanation by Mr Blair?
Sir John Chilcot: I think, respectfully, “How did Mr Bush take it?” is the hard question. He would have taken it, I think, as an unconditional commitment.
Q119 Dr Lewis: Going back to the Chairman’s initial approach to these matters, would you not say that any reasonable recipient of such a message would have taken it as an unconditional commitment, and that therefore it was really a secret commitment to war?
Sir John Chilcot: I can accept the first part without quibbling. I think a third part, which hasn’t been put, is what the effect on American policy and decisions would have been if there had been either a doubt or, indeed, a refusal on the part of the British to support an invasion. Would it have delayed them? Would it have actually discouraged them completely? Or would it have had no effect at all?
Q120 Dr Lewis: That was going to be my next but one question, so what is your answer to it?
Sir John Chilcot: It depends on when conditions had been tabled by the British side to the American President. If it had happened early enough in the course of 2002, it might well have had the effect of delaying the date of the invasion until perhaps the autumn of 2003, which, if it was going to happen at all, would have been a much better time for all sorts of reasons – climate and all the rest of it; preparation and so on. I also think it would have changed – this is pure speculation – the internal dynamics within the President’s National Security Council. Colin Powell might well have, as it were, found himself back in a state of ascendency.
Q121 Dr Lewis: Was Mr Blair’s decision based more on solidarity than on strategy?
Sir John Chilcot: I think, if I may say so, that is an admirably concise statement, with which I agree.
Q122 Dr Lewis: Thank you. Is it true to say that Saddam Hussein behaved as though he still had chemical and biological weapons? If chemical and biological weapons had been found in any significant quantities, would we be judging Mr Blair very differently now?
Sir John Chilcot: I find that one very difficult to answer, partly because it is hypothetical, of course, but also because it was pretty clear from the intelligence assessments that the suspicion, which turned out to be pretty unfounded, was that he did have chemical and biological weapons, but that they were for battlefield use. They were not strategic weapons, and that changes the whole nature of the analysis as to whether or not an invasion should take place. As to Saddam, he was playing all three ends against the middle all of the time, for obvious reasons that we all know. Part of his plan was deception, and part of it was to parade to his Iranian enemy and to the Gulf states that he did possibly have something or other, and that they had better be careful.
Q123 Chair [Andrew Tyrie]: Because he wanted to defend himself?
Sir John Chilcot: Yes, and also to sustain the balance of power in the region.
Q124 Dr Lewis: Thank you. Looking at some of the original documentation reproduced and disclosed by your inquiry, we know from documents from the Joint Intelligence Committee in January 2003, one entitled “Iraq:The Emerging View from Baghdad” and another drawn up after a discussion on 19 March 2003 by the assessment staff, entitled “Saddam:The Beginning of the End”, that the intelligence services judged that Iraq had a useable CBW strategy. I think it is probably true to say that this clearly shows that the intelligence services believed, and Mr Blair had reason to believe, that such a capability existed. Is there any possibility that the Joint Intelligence Committee’s assessments were right and that, as is still alleged from time to time, his chemical and biological arsenal was moved to somewhere such as Syria? If that is not believed to be the case, when and how do you believe that Saddam destroyed his stocks?
Sir John Chilcot: On the Butler Committee, we discussed quite long and quite hard whether we could say firmly that no weapons of mass destruction, whether tactical or strategic, would be found. We were not able to do it in 2004. I think now, with the passage of time and events in the region, it would be quite extraordinary – following on, as we do, from the Iraq Survey Group report and work – if something was discovered on any scale at all. The odd hollowed-out shell that once held some mustard is one thing, but a systematic set of deployable battlefield weapons is another.
Q125 Dr Lewis: So do you think he destroyed them, or do you think that he gave them to somebody else?
Sir John Chilcot: No. I don’t believe for a moment that they were passed on to anyone else.
Dr Lewis: You don’t.
Sir John Chilcot: It would be against his own interest, and it would be hard to find someone to whom he would want pass them.
Q126 Dr Lewis: Syria?
Sir John Chilcot: No, the Assad regime in Syria was at total ideological odds with Saddam’s form of Ba’athism. I don’t think that there was that kind of relationship. But what happened to them is a fair question, and I think the answer for a long time has been quite easy to get to, and I think the Iraq Survey Group does get to it: undocumented dispatch and destruction of materials took place on a considerable scale after the first Gulf war, and before the inspectors got back in. If I may add an important corollary to that, it is important to understand – I think some people were misled in the 2000 to 2003 period – that there was an idea that the so-called material balance between what he was known to have had and what was discovered or documented as having been destroyed somehow represented a hidden arsenal. It was nothing of the sort; quite simply, it was an accounting problem.
Q127 Dr Lewis: Thank you very much. I have just three more points. The first is as discussed when I intervened near the beginning of this session; we seem to be willing to acquit Mr Blair of lying about his belief in WMD, or at least chemical and biological weapons, but to convict him of exaggerating the certainty of the basis for that belief. I just want to check that it is correct to say that that is your conclusion, and that, as I asked you earlier on, if he had actually been more open and disclosed to Parliament the uncertainty of the basis of his belief, but argued that we could not take the risk that Saddam might still have this arsenal and might for reasons of his own make them available to a terrorist, which is what I remember hearing him describe to us as his nightmare scenario, we would not be judging him so harshly if he had not exaggerated this certainty.
Sir John Chilcot: Exaggeration – placing more weight on the intelligence than it could possible bear – is a conclusion that we reached on the Butler Committee and reached again with even more evidence in the Iraq inquiry. On the other hand, I do not know that, in putting forward the fusion argument, Mr Blair related it very directly and specifically to Saddam passing weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. The intelligence analysis said that if the regime collapsed in ruins, there might be a risk of spillage, if you like, of any remaining weapons. That was a different thing. But the fusion case, as made by Mr Blair, was made at large and not about Iraq.
Q128 Dr Lewis: I do remember him saying that if, by some means, these weapons were to be passed to terrorist groups, that would be his nightmare scenario. But then the regime was hardly likely to collapse if we did not overthrow him. So it seemed to be that he was using this as an argument that Saddam might pass these weapons to such a group, and that was certainly a very telling argument that was made on the Floor of the House of Commons.
Sir John Chilcot: Yes.
Q129 Dr Lewis: Okay. Was the procurement of protective equipment for the troops in particular against IEDs – improvised explosive devices – delayed as a result of the Prime Minister wishing to keep private his early decision to go to war?
Sir John Chilcot: I do not believe the two things can be put together. I think there is a criticism to be made of holding up some of the preparations, particularly with the industry, for equipment in the latter part of 2002, in order to preserve the diplomatic strand, and not giving the global community the sense that military action was inevitable. I think there was a delay there. That did not go directly to the IED and protective patrol vehicle questions. Those I think arise later.
Q130 Dr Lewis: Finally – but this is a big one, in my opinion anyway – the issue for which many of us, including me, were culpable at that time for voting as we did was a naive belief that if the dictatorship were removed, some form of democracy might emerge in Iraq. That above all, in the light of what happened, is the reason that I and I am sure many others changed their minds in relation to subsequent conflicts. I would like you to tell us to what extent Mr Blair was warned of the danger that, far from democracy emerging, Sunni-Shi’a religious strife would follow the removal of the secular dictator, who gave these warnings, and how and why they were ignored. In particular, I would just quote back to you a briefing note from your report which Mr Blair himself sent in January 2003 to President Bush. The then Prime Minister wrote:
“The biggest risk we face is internecine fighting between all the rival groups, religions, tribes, etc. in Iraq when the military strike destabilises the regime. They are perfectly capable, on previous form, of killing each other in large numbers.”
Mr Blair knew that and he said it to President Bush, so why did he ignore that terrible possibility that he himself apparently recognised?
Sir John Chilcot: I cannot give you the answer as to why. You would have to ask him. But what is clear from all the evidence we have collected is that this risk and other associated risks of instability and collapse were clearly identified and available to Ministers and to Mr Blair before the invasion. I can cite all sorts of points, but you will not want me to go into that detail now. It is in the report. There were other signals, too, from other quarters. Our ambassador in Cairo, for example, was able to report that the Egyptian President had said that Iraq was at risk – it was populated by people who were extremely fond of killing each other, and destabilisation would bring that about. Mr Blair said, and has said on other occasions, that it would have taken hindsight to understand that set of risks. We concluded that it would not take hindsight, because the pre-invasion evidence is very clear that this advice was available to him.
Q131 Dr Lewis: And that he got the advice and that he even passed that advice to President Bush himself.
Sir John Chilcot: Well, indeed.
Q132 Dr Lewis: So isn’t this in a way far worse than the exaggeration of the certainty about the chemical and biological weapons? In the full knowledge of the likelihood that, if you removed the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, you would have the thousand-year-old Shi’a-Sunni hatreds re-emerging and mass killings by these communities of each other, Mr Blair nevertheless went ahead.
Sir John Chilcot: The appalling and tragic contemporary history suggests that what was foreseeable and advised did indeed happen and arguably could and should have been avoided. If I am allowed briefly, Chairman, it enables me to make a more general point. We, the United Kingdom, had in our intelligence, diplomatic and other communities a great deal of deep knowledge about Iraq, its population, its strains and stresses, as well as its history. Was that expertise brought to bear on the decision-making process? The answer is clearly not, but it should have been. It was available. I think that is a tragedy.
Q133 Dr Lewis: Surely it was brought to bear but it was ignored.
Sir John Chilcot: If you like. It was not brought to bear in an effective sense.
Q134 Chair [Andrew Tyrie]: Who is responsible for that?
Sir John Chilcot: I don’t think you can pin that on a single person or a bit of structure. If you consider, for example, a phrase that I do not use with anything other than great respect, the Camel Corps in the Diplomatic Service – those with great experience in the Arab-speaking world – there were and are many of them with a lot of expertise. One of them, Sir John Sawers, then in Cairo, sent a minute round to fellow ambassadors, as well as to Government in Whitehall, expressing some of these judgments and was told to shut up and keep quiet by No. 10.