David Blackburn

Smoking guns and missing memos

Smoking guns and missing memos
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Sir Christopher Meyer gave evidence to the Chilcot inquiry this morning. He spoke with characteristic flamboyance, awash with elegant witticisms and indiscretions calculated to amuse. Amid this tour de force, Meyer released one potential weapon of mass destruction. Hans Blix was given too little time to conduct a satisfactory inspection. Courtesy of Andrew Sparrow, here is the relevant transcript:

‘The real problem, which I did draw several times to the attention of London, was that the contingency military timetable had been decided before the UN inspectors went in under Hans Blix. So you found yourself in a situation in the autumn of 2002 where you could not synchronise the military timetable with the inspection timetable.

The American military had been given instructions to prepare for war. Initially it was "we want you ready by January". There was a lot of confusion inside the American military establishment about the size of the force, they wanted to bring an army down from Germany and pass it through Turkey. So January was never realistic and in the end it went back to March.

All that said, when you looked at the timetable for the inspections, it was impossible to see how Blix could bring the process to a conclusion, for better or for worse, by March.

So the result of that was to turn resolution 1441 on its head. Because 1441 had been a challenge to Saddam Hussein, agreed unanimously, to prove his innocence. But because you could not synchronise the programmes, somehow or other, programme, preparation of war, inspections, you had to short-circuit the inspection process by finding the notorious smoking gun. And suddenly, because of that, the unforgiving nature of the military timetable, we found ourselves scrabbling for the smoking gun, which was another way of saying "it's not that Saddam has to prove that he's innocent, we've now bloody well got to try and prove that he's guilty". And we - the Americans, the British - have never really recovered from that because of course there was no smoking gun.’

What a mess the US and UK made of justifying war, so incompetent that they managed to shift the burden of proof onto themselves. But Meyer’s words carry a deeper implication. Was the UN weapons inspection an American contrivance designed to fail? In other words, was it a sham placatory measure, subservient to inevitable military action? Meyer discussed this in a memo to Whitehall, but that memo has since disappeared – innocently mislaid no doubt on a commuter train. Missing memos have become the Chilcot inquiry’s dominant feature: this is the seventh I have noticed. They’re something of a smoking gun.