Secrets foil attempt to lay Iraq war to rest
An inquiry wants letters between Blair and Bush about Iraq to be published. But does honesty always make better policy?
‘Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.’
This amazingly frank quote is taken from the memoirs of Tony Blair, the former Labour Prime Minister, who decided to take Britain into a controversial war in Iraq in 2003, fighting alongside the United States to overthrow the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
He also introduced Freedom of Information laws, allowing ordinary citizens to request publication of a range of government documents. This move he came to strongly regret.
Over time, Mr Blair decided it was impossible to make good decisions if no one could speak or write privately about their honest opinions for fear of having them made public.
Today Mr Blair faces his second grilling by a public inquiry into the Iraq War. The man in charge, Sir John Chilcot, is already angry. He has been blocked from publishing letters and conversations that could show exactly when Mr Blair committed the UK to military action.
The exchanges between the former premier and George W Bush, who was US President at the time, have been discussed in Mr Blair’s book, and in memoirs and diaries written by his close advisors.
So Chilcot said this week he was ‘disappointed’ - political code for furious – to hear that the head of the civil service was refusing to allow publication of the original documents.
The secrecy is presented as a matter of principle. The civil service says some relationships – for example that between the UK and the US, our closest ally – must have ‘privileged channels of communication.’ It will be difficult, however, for the inquiry to satisfy the public that it has laid the Iraq controversy to rest if the government machine, holds onto secrets.
Open and shut case?
In political cultures which have had a Freedom of Information law for a long time – the US, for example – critics agree with Mr Blair that it has been ‘utterly undermining of sensible government.’ Decisions get taken without proper discussion because politicians and officials are scared of voicing their opinions.
But transparency campaigners say the politicians work for us, so none of their conversations about government business can fairly be described as private. Do existing rules, which allow civil servants to block disclosure, just protect powerful individuals from being held accountable?
- Imagine your life if everything you said was made public. Would you be able to cope with your decisions and dilemmas?
- Should governments have ‘privileged channels of communication’?
- Write a script for a radio interview between a journalist calling for publication of the Blair-Bush letter, and a civil servant defending secrecy. Act it out with a partner.
- Research the long shared history of Britain and Iraq, dating from when the British Empire created the country in the 1920s. Write about whether the UK still has a responsibility towards nations it has invaded or ruled.
Some People Say...
“Every secret should be forced into the open.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What is happening today?
- Sir John Chilcot, who runs the Iraq inquiry, wants to put pressure on Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, about how and when he agreed to be part of the 2003 invasion - even if he can’t show the rest of us the crucial letters to President Bush. So the hearing is likely to offer moments of drama.
- Isn’t the Iraq war over?
- Our troops pulled out only in 2007 and the US in 2010, because a successful military invasion was followed by terrible violence and instability. The country’s fledgling democracy is still struggling.
- Why do we need a UK inquiry?
- The Chilcot inquiry was set up to answer questions about why and how the government made its decision to invade Iraq, which divided opinion here and around the world. After Saddam was toppled, none of the weapons our spies said he was hoarding could be found, leading to doubts about whether war was necessary. Mr Blair says it was the right thing to do to remove a violent tyrant who threatened the stability of the Middle East.