Iraq, Chilcot, and the problem of secrecy

Posted On: 
6th July 2016

Dr Owen D Thomas, a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter writes about lessons that can be learned from the Iraq Inquiry on the day the final report by Sir John Chilcot is published.

Sir John Chilcot, chairman of the Iraq inquiry

The lessons we learn from Chilcot will be determined by the public debate that follows the report. This debate must not fall victim to an easy chorus of ‘Blair Lied, Thousands Died’, and calls for impeachment. Laying blame in this way will hinder our understanding of how the country went to war. One essential part of the story is the problem of secrecy.

It is a forgotten truth that large swathes of the British public supported the decision to go to war. On the eve of war, around fifty percent of the public supported military action. How did this happen?

While most Western intelligence agencies suspected that Iraq possessed WMD, there was uncertainty about Iraq’s true capability. This uncertainty was coupled with an increasing awareness that Iraq was keeping secrets. Since the early 1990s, the United Nations and Western agencies became frustrated and suspicious as Iraq obstructed the inspections process. Weapons inspectors were refused access to so-called ‘sensitive’ or ‘presidential’ sites on the grounds of national sovereignty. Meanwhile the Iraqi authorities did destroy their remaining WMD stockpiles, but they did so in private and refused to retain any proof because it was too embarrassing.

By 2002, Blair and his advisers were concluding that war was only option that would ‘bring Iraq back into the international community’. Once this decision was made, Iraq’s secrecy was used to build a public case for war. There was a concerted effort to suggest that Iraqi secrecy could only be explained in terms of an attempt to hide WMD. The September Dossier described huge sites to which the inspectors were denied access, and ‘dual-use’ facilities that could be used either to produce plant fertilizer or chemical weapons.

This was deception as advocacy - taking the available evidence, removing the contradictions and caveats, and passing off as objective assessment what was in fact a particular and politically motivated interpretation of the facts.

But advocacy aside, Blair sincerely believed in the need for war (and still does). After 11th September 2001, Blair believed that Iraq could not be allowed to keep secrets from the world. If Iraq did produce WMD, these weapons could be acquired by terrorist organizations. By backing away from confrontation with Iraq, Blair argued, ‘future conflicts will be infinitely worse’. Jack Straw similarly argued that ‘if we send out the message to proliferators the world over that the defiance of the United Nations pays, then it will not be peace that we will have secured.’

Questions must be asked about our political institutions: why was the Government’s case not subjected to greater scrutiny? Should the government provide a more balanced interpretation of secret intelligence? But questions must also be asked of our political beliefs. Speaking in 2010, Blair argued that:

this isn’t about a lie or a conspiracy… it is a decision …given [Saddam’s] use of chemical weapons, given over 1 million people whose death he had caused, given ten years of breaking UN Resolutions, could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his weapons programmes, or is that a risk it would be irresponsible to take? … today, we are going to be faced with exactly the same types of decisions.

Today, as in 2003, we think that our future contains potentially terrible events. But we are uncertain about exactly what will happen, when and how. What kind of politics does this allow? Is it permissible to use force when we suspect something terrible might be hidden? Such a politics is dangerous. It allows fear, urgency and preemption to overpower democratic deliberation and human rights. But this is a question for us all, and it is here that Chilcot can help us learn the most important lesson.

Dr Owen D Thomas is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter.