LONDON—Tens of thousands of secret documents form the core of the ongoing inquiry into the Iraq war, its chairman revealed on Monday – far more than previously thought.
The inquiry also hinted that such documents showed British officials knew George Bush intended to invade Iraq even if it complied with the UN weapons inspections.
In a statement marking the end of a month of public testimonies by senior decision makers broadcast live on the web, inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcott said that secret documents allowed the panel to see what really went on.
“They allow us to shine a bright light into seldom-seen corners of the Government machine, revealing what really went on behind the scenes, before, during and after the Iraq conflict,” said Sir John.
The inquiry team would examine the documents over the next few months said Sir John, allowing the panel “to see where the evidence joins together and where there are gaps”.
After the examination of the documents, more of which he emphasised were still being received every week, the inquiry team would be in a position to decide who else to interview.
“We have no reason to believe that any material is being deliberately withheld,” said Sir John, emphasising that access to documents is unrestricted.
The statement by Sir John followed the second quizzing of the foreign secretary at the time of the Iraq invasion, Jack Straw.
I think you are trying to tell me something
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs from 2001 to 2006
One exchange hinted that the panel had access to secret documents revealing that George Bush planned to attack Iraq even if Iraq complied with inspectors and was in compliance with the crucial UN resolution 1441.
Sir Lawrence Freedman had asked Mr Straw: “Was there any point where Powell said to you that, even if Iraq complied, President Bush had already made a decision that he intended to go to war?”
When Mr Straw said this was not the case, “to the best of my recollection”, and talked more broadly around the question, Sir Lawrence pressed him a few times on the issue.
Sir Lawrence Freedman said: "I was going to suggest you might want to look through your conversations and check."
“I will go through the records, because I think you are trying to tell me something,” said Mr Straw.
Mr Straw also said he had no recollection of Claire Short’s accusation that she had been “jeered at” by members of the Cabinet when she challenged the legality of the invasion. “This was a very serious Cabinet meeting. People weren't, as I recall, anyway, going off with that kind of behaviour. We all understood the gravity of the decision.”
Mr Straw had denied that Cabinet discussion on the attorney general's advice on the legality of the invasion had been blocked, and said that there was no way the members of Cabinet could be unaware of the finely balanced nature of the legal argument, given its wide attention in the media.
He said that Cabinet comprised strong-minded people.
"None of them were wilting violets; their judgment was that it was not necessary to go into the process by which Peter Goldsmith came to his view. I don't recall Cabinet as a whole receiving legal advice on the matter," said Mr Straw. "All [the Cabinet] wanted to know was: is it lawful or is it not lawful?" What was required in the end was "essentially a yes or no decision" from the attorney general, he added.
Mr Straw stoutly defended his decision not to act on the advice of the Foreign Office legal advisor, Sir Michael Wood. “The legal advice he offered, frankly, was contradictory and I think I was entitled to raise that,” he said.
Jack Straw had been recalled to give a second testimony to answer questions raised by the testimony of the Foreign Office lawyers and of the attorney general.
Sir John said that the inquiry hoped to meet with veterans from the Iraq war later this year, as well as with officials from the Bush administration.
The inquiry is due to hear evidence from Gordon Brown; David Milliband, the current Foreign Secretary; and Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, in a few weeks' time.
Tony Blair told Fox news on Monday that the succession of probes into the invasion reflected our human inability to agree to disagree.
"There's always got to be a scandal as to why you hold your view. There's got to be some conspiracy behind it, some great deceit that's gone on, and people just find it hard to understand that it's possible for people to have different points of view and hold them … for genuine reasons. There's a continual desire to sort of uncover some great conspiracy, when actually there's a decision at the heart of it."