Department of Stateâ€™s objection to release of key evidence may prevent inquiryâ€™s conclusions from ever being published, except in heavily redacted form
By James Cusick
Washington is playing the lead role in delaying the publication of the long-awaited report into how Britain went to war with Iraq, The Independent has learnt.
Although the Cabinet Office has been under fire for stalling the progress of the four-year Iraq Inquiry by Sir John Chilcot, senior diplomatic sources in the US and Whitehall indicated that it is officials in the White House and the US Department of State who have refused to sanction any declassification of critical pre- and post-war communications between George W Bush and Tony Blair.
Without permission from the US government, David Cameron faces the politically embarrassing situation of having to block evidence, on Washingtonâ€™s orders, from being included in the report of an expensive and lengthy British inquiry.
Earlier this year, The Independent revealed that early drafts of the report challenged the official version of events leading up to the Iraq war, which saw Mr Blair send in 45,000 troops to overthrow Saddam Husseinâ€™s regime.
The protected documents relating to the Bush-Blair exchanges are said to provide crucial evidence for already-written passages that are highly critical of the covert way in which Mr Blair committed British troops to the US-led invasion.
One high-placed diplomatic source said: â€œThe US are highly possessive when documents relate to the presence of the President or anyone close to him. Tony Blair is involved in a dialogue in many of these documents, and naturally someone else is at the other end â€“ the President. Therefore this is not Tony Blairâ€™s or the UK Governmentâ€™s property to disclose.â€
The source was adamant that â€œChilcot, or anyone in London, does not decide what documents relating to a US President are publishedâ€.
Last week, Chilcot sent Downing Street an update on his inquiryâ€™s progress which explained his continuing inability to set a publication date. He described difficult discussions with the Government on the disclosure of material he wanted to include in his report, or publish alongside it.
He said that over the past six months, he had submitted requests that covered 200 cabinet-level discussions, a cache of notes from Mr Blair to Mr Bush, and more than 130 records of conversations between any two of Mr Blair, Gordon Brown and the White House. Mr Cameron was informed that the inquiry and the Cabinet Office had â€œnot yet reached a final positionâ€ on the documents.
Although the Prime Minister told Chilcot in a letter last week that some documents needed to be â€œhandled sensitivelyâ€, the Cabinet Office decoded the Prime Ministerâ€™s phrases yesterday, telling The Independent: â€œIt is in the publicâ€™s interests that exchanges between the UK Prime Minister and the US President are privileged. The whole premise about withholding them [from publication] is to ensure that we do not prejudice our relations with the United States.â€
The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, has been widely criticised as the senior civil servant responsible for blocking the delivery of material to the inquiry. Sir Menzies Campbell, who as the Liberal Democratsâ€™ foreign-affairs spokesman was a high-profile opponent of the war, has described the delays as â€œintolerableâ€, adding: â€œThe full story need[s] to be told.â€
The former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen has called for Sir Jeremy to be stripped of his role in deciding which documents are released to the inquiry. However, the Cabinet Office said yesterday that Sir Jeremy was merely upholding a previous decision taken by his predecessor, Lord Oâ€™Donnell, which emphasised the importance of privacy in communications between Downing Street and the White House.
Chilcot, a former diplomat who previously investigated intelligence on Iraqâ€™s supposed weapons of mass destruction as part of the Butler Review, heads an inquiry team that comprises Sir Roderic Lyne, the former UK ambassador to Russia; Sir Lawrence Freedman, the professor of war studies at Kingâ€™s College London; and Baroness Prashar, a former member of Parliamentâ€™s Joint Committee on Human Rights.
Another member of the inquiry team, the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, has been ill and has had limited input into its recent deliberations.
The authors are facing difficult choices forced on them by Washington and the Cabinet Officeâ€™s desire not to upset the so-called â€œspecial relationshipâ€ between Britain and the US. They may deliver a neutered report in spring next year which would effectively absolve Mr Blair of any serious policy failures â€“ because there would be no clear evidence contained in the report to back up such direct criticism. Another possibility is that the report will be so heavily redacted as to be rendered meaningless and hence a waste of almost Â£8m of British taxpayersâ€™ money.
Since the Iraq Inquiry was launched in 2009 by the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, covert back-channel communications between the Cabinet Office and its counterparts in Washington have focused on the diplomatic convention that the disclosure of â€œprivileged channels of communicationâ€ should remain at all times protected.
The final report is supposed to examine how the Blair government took decisions and what lessons can be learnt to â€œhelp ensure that if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respondâ€.
Dr James Strong, a foreign-policy analyst at the London School of Economics, said: â€œAll governments like to keep their secrets secret. The US is no exception. As its response to WikiLeaks suggested, the US defines a secret in terms of the type of document rather than the contents. So regardless of what these particular documents say, the US probably wouldnâ€™t want them published, because governments normally keep private exchanges between leaders private.â€
The US State Department declined to comment. Tonight, the Cabinet Office denied that the US had a veto on the issue, adding: â€œThese issues are being worked through in good faith and with a view to reaching a position as rapidly as possible.â€