Chilcot: Five Things to Know About the Iraq Inquiry Report

Tony Blair
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London, March 13, 2015. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Announced in 2009, former civil servant John Chilcot’s inquiry into Britain’s decision-making and involvement in the Iraq war between 2001 and 2009 has been a long time coming, and the anticipation for its final report has built to colossal levels.

As expected, Chilcot has found much to criticize, particularly in the conduct of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who more than anyone else has seen his reputation tied to the war and its aftermath.

“The evidence is there for all to see. It is an account of an intervention which went badly wrong, with consequences to this day,” Chilcot said in a statement accompanying the report.

The report numbers more than two million words, and the advance copy seen by Newsweek and other media outlets on Wednesday stretches to 12 vast blue volumes and an executive summary. As journalists and experts pore over it, new details are likely to emerge for days to come.

Here are five key things to know from our first reading of the report, and Chilcot’s accompanying statement.

“Military action…was not a last resort,” Chilcot said in his statement. Peaceful incentives for disarmament had not been exhausted by the time of the invasion, he concluded, and “There was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein.” For some time prior to the invasion, the U.K. had been pursuing a “containment” strategy against Iraq, including sanctions. Chilcot has concluded that this “could have been adapted and continued for some time.” He conceded in his statement that “Military action in Iraq might have been necessary at some point.” But by acting without majority support for the invasion in the U.N. Security Council, “the U.K. was, in fact, undermining the security council’s authority,” Chilcot said.

As expected, the report does not draw express conclusions on the legality of the decision to go to war. But, Chilcot said, “The circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for U.K. military action were far from satisfactory.” Attorney General Peter Goldsmith, then the U.K. government’s top legal advisor, first advised that there was a secure legal basis for military action on March 13, 2003. But his office told Blair that, in order for this to hold, Blair himself had to be satisfied that Iraq was in breach of U.N. Security Council resolution 1441, which offered the country a “final opportunity to comply” with international demands on disarmament.

Blair responded that he was, but his decision was set out in a letter from his office in terms described by the report as “perfunctory” and his precise grounds “remain unclear.” Chilcot also said that the cabinet was not given sufficient opportunity to assess the legal advice. Goldsmith, Chilcot said, should have been asked to “provide written evidence explaining how, in the absence of a majority in the security council, Mr Blair could take that decision.” “This is one of a number of occasions,” he said, “When policy should have been considered by a Cabinet Committee and then discussed by Cabinet itself.”

Claims in the so-called “September dossier” on Iraq’s military capabilities, which Blair presented to parliament on September 24 2002, were “presented with a certainty that was not justified,” Chilcot said. The report says that intelligence “had not established beyond doubt either that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued.” Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee “should have made that clear” to Blair, who said at the time that the dossier showed Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme was "active, detailed and growing." The report says there is “no evidence” that Blair’s office improperly influenced the text of the dossier, but adds that the “widespread perception” that it overstated the strength of the evidence has produced a “damaging legacy,” making it harder to secure support for government policies based on intelligence of this kind.

“I will be with you, whatever,” Blair told U.S. President George Bush in a note on July 28 2002 summarized in the report. In the note, Blair sought to persuade Bush to use the U.N. to build a coalition for action against Iraq. But, the report concludes, the note “Set the U.K. on a path leading to diplomatic activity in the U.N. and the possibility of participation in military action in a way that would make it very difficult for the U.K. subsequently to withdraw its support for the U.S.” The report emphasizes that the note “had not been discussed or agreed with [Blair’s] colleagues.”

The report spells out a damning assessment of the quality of the U.K.’s planning for the occupation and post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq. Chilcot said in his statement that, while Blair had argued that the difficulties encountered by British forces in Iraq could not have been known in advance, “We do not agree that hindsight is required.” “The scale of the U.K. effort in post-conflict Iraq never matched the scale of the challenge,’ Chilcot said, and aspects of the British intervention singled out for criticism in the report include the process of removing allies of Hussein from public life after the war, the strengthening of the Iraqi army and security services before British withdrawal, and the lack of a “hard-headed” assessment of risks in advance.