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Chilcot condemns Blair’s behaviour, but declines to accuse him of lying

Tony Blair and his then-foreign minister, Jack Straw, in 2003. EPA/Louisa Gouliamaki

Seven years after it was commissioned and 13 years after the Iraq War began, the Iraq Inquiry’s report on Britain’s part in the invasion has been published – and the fallout has begun.

The headlines are already an excoriating verdict on Tony Blair’s actions before, during, and after the invasion: Crushing Verdict on Blair and the Iraq War, Iraq Invasion “Not Last Resort”. And yet, in a most British way, an upper limit has still been imposed on the criticism, first and foremost by Sir John Chilcot and his committee.

Faced with the politics as well as the evidence – dare anyone put Blair in a position to face war crimes charges, or even dare to accuse him of abusing his power? – Chilcot steered clear of the L-word.

In fact, the word “lie” does not appear once in the Executive Summary. The only time that “lying” is used refers not to Blair, but to Saddam Hussein: “When Iraq denied that it had retained any WMD capabilities, the UK Government accused it of lying.” Nowhere does the report invoke a more colourful, if politer, formulation of the conclusion: that the intelligence for the invasion was “sexed up” on the orders of the prime minister’s office.

As David Cameron said of the report after its release: “Deliberate deceit? I can’t find a reference to it.”

So how does Chilcot manage to pull off this balancing act, going just far enough in the criticism to chide Blair while not opening up the full extent of the former prime minister’s actions?

The “lessons” of the report’s Executive Summary are a demonstration of the inquiry’s agility and care. Here’s the opener:

The decision to join the US‑led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the product of a particular set of circumstances which are unlikely to be repeated. Unlike other instances in which military force has been used, the invasion was not prompted by the aggression of another country or an unfolding humanitarian disaster. The lessons drawn by the Inquiry on the pre‑conflict element of this Report are therefore largely context‑specific and embedded in its conclusions. Lessons on collective Ministerial decision‑making, where the principles identified are enduring ones, are an exception.

“Unlikely to be repeated”. Given that assurance, we do not need to draw out the specific consideration of the extent of the Blair Government’s manipulations – apparently because we will not face another situation in which a prime minister might dare to go so far.

Which, of course, pushes aside the essential point. The point of Blair’s accountability is that his conduct, which arguably could be held responsible for the deaths of 179 British personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, was exceptional.

Don’t lie

Releasing itself from the unwelcome burden of judgement, the report is free to set out a series of general recommendations, all of which implicitly say “don’t lie” without actually using those words.

A balancing act underway. EPA/Jeff J. Mitchell

Here is the report’s cautious framing of the September 2002 order from Blair and his advisor Alastair Campbell:

It was a mistake not to see the risk of combining in the September dossier the JIC’s [Joint Intelligence Committee’s] assessment of intelligence and other evidence with the interpretation and presentation of the evidence in order to make the case for policy action.

As can be seen from the JIC Assessments quoted in, and published with, this report, they contain careful language intended to ensure that no more weight is put on the evidence than it can bear …

Organising the evidence in order to present an argument in the language of Ministerial statements produces a quite different type of document.

To be fair to Chilcot, the Lessons cite “a damaging legacy, including undermining trust and confidence in Government statements” from the episode. But the report’s Executive Summary declines to address the question of whether Blair is culpable, much less of what crime. It merely says that, because of the manipulation of the intelligence, “it may be more difficult [in the future] to secure support for the Government’s position and agreement to action”.

Holding back

And so it goes throughout the lessons, with damning phrases appropriately reined in:

Constant use of the term “weapons of mass destruction” without further clarification obscured the differences between the potential impact of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the ability to deliver them effectively …

There may be evidence which is “authoritative” or which puts an issue “beyond doubt”; but there are unlikely to be many circumstances when those descriptions could properly be applied to inferential judgements relying on intelligence …

The need to be scrupulous in discriminating between facts and knowledge on the one hand and opinion, judgement or belief on the other …

The need for vigilance to avoid unwittingly crossing the line from supposition to certainty, including by constant repetition of received wisdom.

And so Tony Blair, free from a full reckoning for his words and actions, can posture, as he did within an hour of the report’s release, that there was “no falsification or improper use of intelligence”, “no deception of Cabinet”, and “no secret commitment to war”.

Let the Stop the War movement’s protesters wave their “Bliar” signs all they want; they have yet to be officially vindicated. A few minutes after his predecessor’s response to the report, David Cameron told parliament that “at no stage does [Chilcot] explicitly say that there was a deliberate attempt to mislead people”.

And that, after 13 years, is that.

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