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Iraq: Hard truths about truth-telling

It is twenty years since I resigned from the Foreign Office over the Iraq War. I remember well the day I wrote to the Foreign Secretary, attaching my secret evidence to the Butler Inquiry as the reason. The Foreign Secretary didn’t reply, though the Foreign Office did offer me psychological counselling.

I was the First Secretary in the UK Mission to the UN in New York responsible for the topic of Iraq at the UN Security Council from 1997-2002 (i.e. until shortly before the 2003 invasion). I negotiated several resolutions on Iraq, sanctions and weapons inspections. I was deeply steeped in the complexities of the issue, including the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction (what little there was) and was part of all US/UK policy discussions. I was part of the small group of UK officials responsible for Iraq policy in the government for 4 1/2 years. I was part of the process of creating the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ of grossly exaggerated evidence of Iraq’s stocks of weapons (and raised questions about it at the time).

The Butler Inquiry was the first official inquiry into the Iraq War, although it was narrowly focused on the use of intelligence by the government before the war. The government had lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (which I had worked on for many years), ignored alternatives to war (which I had advised upon) and had broken the UN resolutions that I had helped negotiate. The Chilcot Inquiry was a much broader and public inquiry into the war conducted some years after the event. The publication of my evidence to Butler triggered calls, including from former PM John Major, for a full public inquiry. I also testified to Chilcot. You can see my evidence in the National Archives here.

I told the truth, the government lied.

I have been reflecting on this experience. My two main conclusions are harsh.

Firstly, the liars and criminals get away with it. Witness the rehabilitation of Blair and Campbell, those directly responsible. Alistair Campbell, Blair’s chief of communications who was central to the creation of the government’s claim that Iraq’s WMD posed a threat to the UK, is now slated to present Channel Four’s general election coverage. Advisers from the Blair Institute work with governments (some not so nice) around the world, and in Keir Starmer’s team.

Secondly, the ones who tell the truth pay the price. I lost my career, pay and index-linked pension. When my evidence became public in 2006, I was personally attacked in national media, including by the Foreign Secretary. I was threatened with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Former colleagues, some friends, repudiated me. Meanwhile the officials who went along with the lies and kept their mouths shut kept their jobs and prospered. My boss, for instance, knew everything I did but did nothing. Others now have knighthoods and are running ministries, or are senior ambassadors.

I am of course bitter about this, but I have worked hard not to let that bitterness guide my life and have used my anger to fuel new ventures. Others, above all the Iraqi people, have suffered far worse. My colleague, the weapons expert David Kelly, died because of the lies.

My greater concern is that the disincentives to blow the whistle on government dishonesty remain immense. The threat of prosecution continues under the draconian Official Secrets Act. Losing your income and profession is a big deal. In this way, government bullies and controls those who might reveal its lies. I am thinking today, for instance, of the Foreign Office legal advice on arms sales to Israel, which the government has refused to reveal. Transparency and thus accountability are the victims.

All these years later, I remain glad that I did what I did, difficult though it has sometimes been. I’m not seeking praise (or criticism), just pointing out some hard truths about truth-telling. One thing that can be done is to make it easier to blow the whistle and not force those who do so to pay such a heavy price. I am thinking about this, including the possibility of suing the government, now that my evidence has been vindicated by the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry report, though it is probably too late. If you have any thoughts, please share via my new substack page.

~ Carne Ross

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