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Revealed: Chilcot inquiry was set up ‘to avoid blame’

Sunday, November 20, 2016 2:43
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Secret cabinet documents show Iraq hearings were set up to stop individuals being held accountable

3188Gus O’Donnell, left, talks to Gordon Brown during a cabinet meeting on 9 June, 2009. Photograph: Johnny Green/AFP

The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war was designed to “avoid blame” and reduce the risk that individuals and the government could face legal proceedings, newly released documents reveal.

The papers show the thinking and advice at “the highest level of government” prior to Gordon Brown’s announcement of an inquiry. They were disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, after the Cabinet Office lost a two-year battle during which it stated that disclosure threatened to “undermine the inquiry”. They confirm that many officials who took part in the events that the inquiry investigated, including former spy chief Sir John Scarlett, were involved in setting it up.

And they reveal that Sir (now Lord) Gus O’Donnell, cabinet secretary under Brown, went against Whitehall protocol when he appointed a civil servant with significant involvement in Iraq policy during the period covered by the inquiry to the key role of inquiry secretary.

The documents, a series of memos by Whitehall officials, cover a four-week period in May and June 2009. They show the officials favoured from the outset a secret inquiry to be conducted by privy counsellors, based on the Franks inquiry into the Falklands war. In a memo to O’Donnell, Cabinet Office official Ben Lyon advised that the format, scope and membership of the inquiry could be designed to “focus on lessons and avoid blame”. He noted that politicians and campaigners, including Plaid Cymru and the SNP, were seeking other types of inquiry with some advocating “a full public inquiry that would place blame on individuals”.

Chris Lamb, a freedom of information campaigner from Bristol who won an information tribunal ruling in May requiring the Cabinet Office to disclose the papers, told the Observer: “Avoiding blame is civil service code for not holding people accountable.” Despite the inquiry being designed to “avoid blame”, the then foreign secretary, David Miliband, subsequently claimed it could blame “whoever it likes”.

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