Journalism

Stout Denial!

This forthcoming week we expect some more outright lying to go on in the Chilcot inquiry. This is because those appearing—-particularly former Defence Minister Geoff Hoon and former foreign secretary Jack Straw-—have an occasional habit of doing this. Both are expected to provide some interesting testimony, especially in light of testimony this past week from Alistair Campbell, and testimony in December from a number of senior military figures.

Before getting to what we might expect, let’s look at what we learned this past week. P.G. Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth, whose motto was “Stout Denial!” would have been proud of Alistair Campbell. Campbell, Tony Blair’s Communications guy, can lie with the best of them, and we presume he did. In fact, what was unsurprising about Campbell’s testimony was the extent to which he stuck to the script, while at the same time the extent to which he tried to blame everyone else. Campbell’s testimony and answers to questions even included a reference to Psalm 56 on his whiny blog, “All day long they twist my words”, which, as Hugh O’Shaughnessy pointed out, would be funny if it came from someone else. Campbell defended his involvement in the intelligence dossier Blair used (and misused, to put it bluntly) to justify the invasion, and said he still stood by every word. Jeez, what a plonk. But some useful information did emerge, as it occasionally does, and it was clear that Campbell was holding this in reserve to deflect attention and, of course, any blame. And this information was the fact that Blair apparently gave Bush a secret pledge to support whatever the US intended to do—and Blair provided this pledge at a meeting in Crawford Texas in November, 2002. This was, of course, at a time when other stout denials were being issued all over theplace that there was no plan to invade Iraq.

What followed was fairly amusing. The media actually did its job with this piece of news, and broadcast it everywhere. For example, the headline in The Times the following day was Tony Blair gave secret promise to George Bush over Iraq invasion. Campbell thereupon got on his blog and denounced the media for doing so (I’m not going to link to anything associated with Campbell, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, or go find it yourself). And while Campbell quibbled, it was nonetheless clear that this was indeed new-—no one before, including Campbell, had divulged that Blair had given a promise to support military action. This contradicts much of what is in the public record, of course, and certainly contradicts what Blair has said repeatedly. So we expect this point will become one on which Blair can expect questions when he appears (which will be 29 January, it was announced today).

Campbell’s testimony in general did not surprise—-he defended, and postured, and was his usual aggressive self. So he didn’t give much away aside from the above. But there was one other point, when he tried to basically lay any claim for damages on the “45 minute “ business off on John Scarlett, who headed up the intelligence services at the time. Scarlett’s testimony from December was unenlightening as well. Lots of posturing, little information. Which again should not come as a surprise.

This week’s testimony will likely be a mixed bag. On the stand right now, even as I write, is Jonathan Powell, formerly Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff. Powell, who kept a low profile during Blair’s tenure and continues to do so, will probably not shed much light on anything in particular. More interesting will be Geoff Hoon and Jack Straw. Hoon’s testimony will be particularly interesting in light of multiple complaints made by senior military officers in December that they were prevented from full preparation for military action because the government did not want anyone to realize that it was in fact preparing for war. Considering the number of fatalities that occurred because of lack of equipment, one might expect Hoon to get a good solid drillilng on this point—-althgough whether the members of the Chilcot commission can give anyone a good solid drilling is still open to question.

This complaint was made by members of the Foreign Office as well, but more against the US than against the Foreign ministry—-that the British government was not allowed to prepare for a military occupation, again because the Blair and Bush governments did not want anyone to know they were actually preparing for war. A number of foreign office and military leaders testified directly that thre was entirely too much reliance on the US government for leadership in this area—-we now know that the US government was being pretty delusional in 2002 and 2003. What came out of the testimony in December is that the Foreign Office and senior military knew that the US wasn’t prepared for an occupation, and told the government, but were ignored.

Jack Straw’s testimony was always going to be interesting, given his role as Foreign Minister at the time, but has become even more so since the leak this past weekend of the letter he sent Tony Blair on 25 March 2002. The full text of the letter can be found here, but it’s worth extracting a couple of highlights:

1. The rewards from your visit to Crawford will be few. The risks are high, both for you and for the government. I judge that there is at present no majority inside the PLP for any military action against Iraq, (alongside a greater readiness in the PLP to surface their concerns). Colleagues know that Saddam and the Iraqi regime are bad. Making that case is easy. But we have a long way to go to convince them as to:
(a) the scale of the threat from Iraq and why this has got worse recently;
(b) what distinguishes the Iraqi threat from that of eg Iran and North Korea so as to justify military action;
(c) the justification for any military action in terms of international law;
and
(d) whether the consequence of military action really would be a compliant, law-abiding replacement government.
….

4. If 11 September had not happened, it is doubtful that the US would now be considering military action against Iraq. In addition, there has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with UBL and al-Qaida. Objectively, the threat from Iraq has not worsened as a result of 11 September. What has however changed is the tolerance of the international community (especially that of the US), the world having witnessed on September 11 just what determined evil people can these days perpetuate.
….
6. That Iraq is in flagrant breach of international legal obligations imposed on it by the UNSC provides us with the core of a strategy, and one which is based on international law. Indeed, if the argument is to be won, the whole case against Iraq and in favour (if necessary) of military action, needs to be narrated with reference to the international rule of law.
7. We also have better to sequence the explanation of what we are doing and why. Specifically, we need to concentrate in the early stages on:
• making operational the sanctions regime foreshadowed by UNSCR 1382;
• demanding the readmission of weapons inspectors, but this time to operate in a free and unfettered way (a similar formula to that which Cheney used at your joint press conference, as I recall).
8. I know there are those who say that an attack on Iraq would be justified whether or not weapons inspectors were readmitted. But I believe that a demand for the unfettered readmission of weapons inspectors in essential, in terms of public explanation, and in terms of legal sanction for any subsequent military action.
9. Legally there are two potential elephant traps: (i) regime change per se is no justification for military action; it could form part of the method of any strategy, but not a goal. Of course, we may want credibly to assert that regime change is an essential part of the strategy by which we have to achieve our ends – that of the elimination of Iraq’s WMD capacity; but the latter has to be the goal; (ii) on whether any military action would require a fresh UNSC mandate (Desert Fox did not). The US are likely to oppose any idea of a fresh mandate. On the other side, the weight of legal advice here is that a fresh mandate may well be required. There is no doubt that a new UNSCR would transform the climate in the PLP. Whilst that (a new mandate) is very unlikely, given the US’s position, a draft resolution against military action with 13 in favour (or handsitting) and two vetoes against could play very badly here.
….

10. A legal justification is a necessary but far from sufficient pre-condition for military action. We have also to answer the big question – what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole in this than on anything. Most of the assessments from the US have assumed regime change as a means of eliminating Iraq’s WMD threat. But none has satisfactorily answered how that regime change is to be secured, and how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be better.

(Highlighting mine)

Now, one would think that the receipt of such a letter, days before a vote for military action, would at least give the government some pause. There were resignations in the British government over this issue. But, still, somehow, Tony trundled ahead. So it seems reasonable to consider that Straw was basically giving Blair a final option out, but that Blair was either too blind or too stupid to take it. I suppose we might wonder why Straw did not resign at that point, as Robin Cook had done, and as the dithering Claire Short also eventually did. In fact, Straw went on to vote to support the British invasion, and defended it subsequently. So whether this elevates or deflates your opinion of Jack Straw depends on whether or not you’re wondering why he didn’t resign. Good question. The other being, did Straw leak the letter himself?

So this should be a lively week. Looking forward, we now know that Blair will be there all day on the 29th (I’ve applied for a spectator ticket, which are being drawn by lottery, so I suspect that receiving one will be a random event). We also will hear from Lord Godlsmith a couple of days before that (also for a whole day), as to why he changed his view on the legality of the war so forcefully within a span of ten days before the Parliamentary vote on the invasion. We’ll hear from others as well. What the committee will do with any or all of this remains to be seen. It should be mentioned that several members of the commission in fact supported the invasion, that most are drawn from the ranks of the senior civil service, and that none of them has any legal background, and certainly no prosecutorial experience. One of them, in fact, Lawrence Freedman, wrote portions of Tony Blair’s famous 1999 speech which justified “liberal” military intervention in states like Bosnia.

This lack of a legal background is probably by design, but it also now puts the commission in something of a bind. That’s because the most interesting news on Iraq last week didn’t come out of the Chilcot inquiry at all, but rather, out of the Netherlands. The Dutch government, don’t forget, supported the war, and sent troops. Well, guess what?

In a damning series of findings on the decision of the Dutch government to support Tony Blair and George Bush in the strategy of regime change in Iraq, the inquiry found the action had “no basis in international law”.

The 551-page report, published today and chaired by former Dutch supreme court judge Willibrord Davids, said UN resolutions in the 1990s prior to the outbreak of war gave no authority to the invasion. “The Dutch government lent its political support to a war whose purpose was not consistent with Dutch government policy. The military action had no sound mandate in international law,” it said.

The report came as the Chilcot inquiry in the UK heard evidence from Tony Blair’s former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, about Britain’s decision to enter the war.

Comparisons between the Davids report, which looked at the decision-making process surrounding the Dutch decision to back the war, and Chilcot’s have led to criticism that the UK was not conducting a similar analysis of the legal implications in the run-up to the war.

The findings of the Davids report has serious implications for the UK, experts say, as it raises questions about the use of intelligence about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), an issue addressed by Campbell in his evidence before the Chilcot panel this morning.

“In its depiction of Iraq’s WMD programme, the [Dutch] government was to a considerable extent led by public and other information from the US and the UK,” the Davids report says.

It found that when the Dutch government decided in August 2002 to support the attack on Iraq it treated intelligence about WMD and the legality of an invasion as “subservient”. The Dutch cabinet’s policy was laid out in a 45-minute meeting, and came at a time when the newly elected prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, was preoccupied with domestic concerns, it said.

The Dutch intelligence agencies were “more reserved” in their assessments than the government when discussing the initiative in parliament, the report found.

And this is a bunch of lawyers and judges. Which, as I just noted, are notably absent from the current UK inquiry. Which may or may not tell us something. But it makes it awfully difficult for the Chilcot inquiry to operate as if the invasion had legal justification (especially when the UK is being fingered by the Dutch for helping to perpetuate misinformation on WMD).

This has, of course, created a bit of a scandal in The Netherlands, as The Times noted following the release of the report:

The Dutch Prime Minister insisted yesterday that he acted honourably in supporting the Iraq war despite the verdict of an independent inquiry that the invasion had no mandate under international law.

In a devastating rejection of the position of the Dutch Government, the inquiry, led by the former head of the Netherlands Supreme Court, decided that the UN resolutions did not provide a legal basis for the use of force.

Like the US and British governments, Jan Peter Balkenende relied on UN Resolution 1441 of November 2002 as the legal basis for supporting the Iraq war. This resolution threatened serious consequences if Saddam Hussein did not fully comply with his obligations to disarm.

However, the Davids commission in the Netherlands concluded in its 551-page report: “Despite the existence of certain ambiguities, the wording of Resolution 1441 cannot reasonably be interpreted as authorising individual member states to use military force to compel Iraq to comply with the Security Council’s resolutions without authorisation from the Security Council.”

Mr Balkenende rejected calls to resign last night and said that he disagreed with the commission. “The Cabinet’s view has always been that a new Security Council resolution [authorising the invasion] was desirable but not necessary,” he said.

Dutch ministers were further criticised by the commission, which sat for ten months, for using intelligence from Britain and the US that showed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, rather than the “more nuanced” assessment of its own secret services.

So, early days still, but there are several threads here that we’ll be watching over the next several weeks. For those interested in obsessing over this, here are links to the Iraq Inquiry, the Iraq inquiry blog, and the Guardian’s dedicated link to covering the inquiry. And here’s the Dutch report consclusions. There is exactly one story in The New York Times website on this report (did it even make the print editions?), and exactly one in The Washington Post—and it’s the same story, a Reuters dispatch. The same Reuters story shows up on the ABC News website, and the CBS News website has a much shorter AP story, which kind of distorts the story in good AP fashion. So neither The NY Times or the Post, or any other major US news organization, could be bothered writing up their own story on this. And of course Fox doesn’t carry the story at all. Who saw that coming?

There’s more to go here, obviously.

1 reply »

  1. Pingback: Chilcot redux

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