Politics & Society

Chilcot secretary appointment raises serious transparency questions

New concerns have arisen about the openness of the Iraq inquiry after it emerged that its top official played a key role in co-ordinating the government’s Iraq policy during the period covered by the inquiry.

The secretary to the inquiry, Margaret Aldred, is on secondment from her role as deputy head of the Cabinet Office Foreign and Defence Policy Secretariat, formerly Defence and Overseas Secretariat (DOS), where she has worked since 2004.

When the inquiry announced Aldred’s appointment in July 2009, it made no mention of her role in Iraq policy during the previous four and a half years. But parliamentary questions, freedom of information (FOI) disclosures and my investigations show that it was a significant one — and the main reason for her appointment.

The inquiry has stated that it has been given papers from the section where Aldred worked but has declined to state whether it has documents relating directly to her. It has not published any Cabinet Office documents from this period.

Last week, Tom McKane, one of Aldred’s predecessors at DOS was a witness at the inquiry. It appears that Aldred would herself have been called as a witness if she were not the inquiry’s secretary.

Elfyn Llwyd MP, parliamentary leader of Plaid Cymru, has secured a parliamentary debate on Tuesday (25 January) to discuss Aldred’s apparent conflict of interest. He has described her position as “untenable”.
Llwyd will also raise concerns over the Cabinet Office’s failure to disclose the process by which Aldred was appointed. The issue threatens further embarrassment — or worse — for Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, who blocked inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot’s request to publish records of what Tony Blair promised George Bush in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.

Although the inquiry previously stated that Sir John Chilcot had complete freedom to choose the secretary, the Cabinet Office has admitted in response to an FOI request to that O’Donnell personally nominated Aldred.
The Cabinet Office has stated that it has no written records of this process because discussions “were conducted orally rather than in writing.”

In a written parliamentary answer, Cabinet Office minister Nick Hurd has declined to state whether other candidates were considered for the role but cited Aldred’s “previous involvement in Iraq issues” as the main reason for her selection.

The apparent lack of a formal process is a possible breach of the civil service code. The information commissioner recently criticised the Cabinet Office for its handling of the FOI request and raised the possibility that disclosable information may have been deleted.

Chilcot has said that he was aware of Aldred’s previous involvement on Iraq at the time of her appointment but did not see any potential conflict of interest that would affect the inquiry’s independence. But the Cabinet Office has acknowledged that it did see a potential conflict of interest.

It has also emerged that the inquiry secretariat, of which Aldred is head, negotiated the controversial protocol on sharing sensitive information with the Cabinet Office, before it was put before the inquiry committee. Aldred herself signed the protocol, which prevented the inquiry publishing the Blair/Bush exchanges.

Last January Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, now deputy prime minister, said the protocol was “being used to gag the inquiry.” The inquiry has suggested that it was the basis for assurances given to the US that measures had been put in place to protect its interests during the inquiry’s hearings. The assurances emerged from a US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks.

The protocol has prevented the inquiry from publishing documents from before Aldred’s time at DOS, including leaked papers showing that in 2002 it drew up plans for “regime change “in Iraq.

Although the inquiry has not disclosed the details of Aldred’s own involvement in Iraq policy, it is clear that it was extensive.

Two witnesses have told the inquiry that Aldred usually chaired the Iraq Senior Officials Group, a committee of officials tasked with co-ordinating Iraq policy, although only one mentioned her by name.

The Cabinet Office’s annual report for 2004/5 — the year that Aldred took up her post — states that “Over the past year, DOS has coordinated policy development on Iraq.”

Another US embassy cable published by Wikileaks records that in October 2008 Aldred and her manager Simon McDonald met US officials and discussed the British government’s attempts to obtain a status of forces agreement (SOFA) before the expiry of a UN mandate authorizing the presence of British troops in Iraq. McDonald and other officials have been questioned about this issue at the inquiry. Another previously leaked document shows that Aldred was also involved in the issue of rendition and torture in connection with Iraq.

Llwyd said: “I cannot believe that it was in any way appropriate for a person who was involved in Iraq policy to be appointed as gatekeeper to this inquiry. This calls into question the independence of the inquiry and ultimately the credibility of its findings.”

He added: “Some commentators have said that the Chilcot inquiry have been utterly ineffectual in pursuing witnesses to obtain the truth. Given the major involvement of the inquiry secretary in formulation of UK policy towards Iraq since 2004, I conclude that the inquiry is flawed and that the position of the inquiry secretary is untenable.”

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