David Davis comments on the delay of the UK’s involvement in the abuse of terror suspects after 9/11


As published in The Guardian:
‘Guilt complex’ holds up Iraq and rendition reports: Blair accused of affronting democratic accountability Officials refuse to explain delay in Gibson report

Reports from official inquiries into the UK’s decision to join the invasion of Iraq and into the UK’s involvement in the abuse of terror suspects after 9/11 have now been delayed for a combined total of more than three and a half years.

This week, publication of the Gibson inquiry report on Britain’s involvement in extraordinary rendition and the mistreatment of terrorism suspects was postponed at the 11th hour.

The Chilcot inquiry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq has been locked in dispute with top Whitehall officials over their refusal to release crucial records of conversations between Tony Blair and George W Bush.

Government officials are refusing to explain the reason for the delay in publishing the Gibson report, which was delivered to David Cameron 17 months ago. They deny there is any dispute with its author, Sir Peter Gibson, a retired appeal court judge, over passages that are to be redacted before publication.

Instead, the delay is thought to be the result of concerns about a public statement that will accompany the report when it is published. A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The government will publish Sir Peter Gibson’s open report in the very near future.”

It remains unclear why it has sat on the prime minister’s desk for so long. David Davis, the former Tory shadow home secretary, said: “You have to ask, after 17 months, what have they been doing, unless it is just their fear of the public knowing the truth. The whole culture of cover-up which hangs over the delayed publication of these related reports indicates a guilt complex in Whitehall over the genesis of the war in Iraq and the conduct of the war on terror.”

More substantial setbacks have hit the report of the Chilcot inquiry, which wants to release 25 notes from Blair to Bush, more than 130 records of conversations between either Blair or Gordon Brown and Bush, as well as information relating to 200 cabinet discussions.

Sir John Chilcot and his panel have seen the documents but have been told they cannot disclose them. He has told Cameron that without a decision on what he has described as documents central to the inquiry, he cannot go ahead with the so-called “Maxwellisation” process. This is the procedure whereby individuals whom an inquiry panel intends to criticise are given a chance to respond to drafts of the report before it is published.

Blair is one of those most likely to be criticised for his handling of the crisis that led to the Iraq invasion. The inquiry has also made clear it was puzzled by evidence from Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, who was twice summoned back to give evidence.

The inquiry heard that Straw offered Blair a way out of military action at a meeting at Downing Street a week before the invasion. However, the inquiry was told there was no official record of the meeting. Straw said he fully endorsed the decision to invade Iraq, although he had earlier advised Blair that war to topple Saddam Hussein would be “palpably illegal”.

In a sharp exchange of correspondence with Gus (now Lord) O’Connell, then cabinet secretary, Chilcot said the release of the official papers would serve to “illuminate Mr Blair’s position at critical points” before the war.

Chilcot said: “The question when and how the prime minister made commitments to the US about the UK’s involvement in military action in Iraq, and subsequent decisions on the UK’s continuing involvement, is central to its considerations.”

Referring to passages in memoirs including Blair’s autobiography, A Journey, and disclosures by Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, and Alastair Campbell, his head of communications, Chilcot said the refusal to disclose the documents “leads to the position that individuals may disclose privileged information (without sanction) whilst a committee of privy counsellors established by a former prime minister to review the issues cannot”.

O’Donnell told Chilcot that releasing Blair’s notes would damage Britain’s relations with the US and would not be in the public interest. “We have attached particular importance to protecting the privacy of the channel between the prime minister and president,” he said.

O’Donnell consulted Blair before blocking the release of the documents. Officials make clear that O’Donnell’s successor, Sir Jeremy Heywood, who is now embroiled in the dispute, shares O’Donnell’s view.

The former Labour foreign secretary Lord (David) Owen told the Guardian that Blair’s position was an “intolerable affront to democratic accountability”. Owen noted that Heywood was Blair’s principal private secretary in 10 Downing Street from 1999-2003, “the very time when the decisions to go to war were being taken”.

The second report was written after Gibson spent a year examining secret government documents in preparation for an inquiry that Cameron ordered shortly after entering Downing Street. The inquiry was suspended almost two years ago, before hearing evidence from any witnesses, after police announced they were embarking on a criminal investigation into two rendition operations in which two Libyan dissidents and their families were abducted and flown to Tripoli.

The police investigation was opened following the discovery of a cache of secret intelligence documents in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, following the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Some of the documents came from MI6 and exposed the agency’s role in the two renditions.

However, David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has said that the police investigation was only one reason for the decision to shelve the inquiry. “Part of it was a dispute over the question over who should have the word on disclosure,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme.

“Should that be the security services or should that be the chair of the inquiry? And it was partly that the police decided that it wanted to investigate.”

Sir John Chilcot