Condi set sights on Iraq as 9/11 unfolded: UK diplomat

By Daniel Tencer
Thursday, November 26th, 2009 -- 6:38 pm

Not sure if Bush-Blair deal to invade Iraq was 'signed in blood,' former UK ambassador says; Iraq war inquiry could be a cover-up, critics claim

A former British ambassador to the United States says then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice talked to him about Iraq and Saddam Hussein hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

Sir Christopher Meyer, who served as Britain's top diplomat in Washington from 1997 to 2003, also told an inquiry into the Iraq war that the timeline the US and Britain set to invade Iraq made it impossible for the UN to determine if Saddam Hussein had active weapons of mass destruction programs.

He also criticized former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, saying that a "stronger prime minister" like Margaret Thatcher would have been able to exert more influence on Washington and allow more time for diplomacy, while insisting on a plan for what would happen after the invasion.

On September 11, 2001, Rice reportedly told Meyer that "there's no doubt this was an Al-Qaeda operation [but] we are just looking to see if there could possibly be any connection with Saddam Hussein."

Rice's comments at the time are "important because they suggest that the United States quickly tied the attacks with Saddam's regime," writes David Stringer at the Associated Press. "Years later, President George W. Bush's administration was forced to acknowledge that they could find no connection between Saddam and the attacks."

Meyer, the former ambassador, also told the inquiry that the "unforgiving nature" of the Bush administration's plans for an Iraq invasion effectively made it impossible for chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix to determine if Saddam had an operational weapons of mass destruction program. The Guardian reports:
Sir Christopher Meyer said the "unforgiving nature" of the build-up after American forces had been told to prepare for war meant that "we found ourselves scrabbling for the smoking gun".

He added: "It 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 he's guilty.' And we – the Americans, the British – have never really recovered from that because of course there was no smoking gun."

The US had first prepared for invasion in January but the date was later moved to March. "All that said, when you looked at the timetable for the inspections, it was impossible to see how [Hans] Blix [chief weapons inspector] could bring the process to a conclusion, for better or for worse, by March."
Meyer also suggested that an April, 2002 meeting between Blair and President George W. Bush at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, may have marked the turning point when the UK decided to follow the US unquestioningly into a war in Iraq, and it may have been the moment when Tony Blair realized that weapons of mass destruction were little more than a pretext for the actual purpose of the war -- regime change in Iraq. The Daily Telegraph reports that Meyer said:
“The two men were alone in the ranch so I’m not entirely clear to this day what degree of convergence (on Iraq policy) was signed in blood, if you like, at the Crawford ranch.

“But there are clues in the speech Tony Blair gave the next day, which was the first time he had said in public ‘regime change’. He was trying to draw the lessons of 9/11 and apply them to the situation in Iraq which led - I think not inadvertently but deliberately - to a conflation of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

“When I read that I thought ‘this represents a tightening of the UK/US alliance and a degree of convergence on the danger Saddam Hussein presented’.”

Meyer also criticized Tony Blair for not insisting more strongly that the US put more effort into a diplomatic resolution to the Iraq conflict, comparing the Labour Party prime minister unfavorably to Britain's Conservative prime minister in the 1980s, Baroness Margaret Thatcher. The Independent reports:
Insisting he was not making a “party political point”, Sir Christopher said he had asked himself “what would Margaret Thatcher have done” in handling Britain’s relationship with the US. “I think she would have insisted on a clear, coherent diplomatic strategy and I think she would have demanded the greatest clarity about what the heck will happen if and when we remove Saddam Hussein,” he said.
The British government's inquiry into the Iraq invasion, led by Sir John Chilcot, is being described in the British media as the largest, most expansive investigation yet into the Iraq war and its causes. But some critics say that an arrangement between the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Chilcot inquiry to keep certain documents secret could result in a cover-up.

"A previously undisclosed agreement between Sir John Chilcot's inquiry and the government gives Whitehall [the British government] the final say on what information the investigation can release into the public domain," reports Andrew Grice, political editor of the Independent.
A protocol agreed by the inquiry and the government includes nine wide-ranging reasons under which Whitehall departments can refuse to publish documents disclosed to the investigation. Crucially, disputes between Sir John and the government over disclosures would be resolved by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell [the highest-ranking bureaucrat in the British government].

The agreement allows the Government to stop publication of material which would "cause harm or damage to the public interest" such as national security, international relations or economic interests; breach the disclosure rules of the security services; endanger life or risk serious harm to an individual; breach legal professional privilege; prejudice legal proceedings or a statutory or criminal inquiry; breach the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act or Data Protection Act; or be commercially sensitive.
Observers have already noticed the arrangement between the inquiry and the British government at work, and have suggested that information is already being concealed from the public.

"The limitations of the Chilcot inquiry are obvious," writes Diane Abbott at the Guardian. "It is a group of establishment trusties, evidence will not be on oath and the government is doing its best to keep key documents from the inquiry. Even yesterday, in the very first week of the inquiry, former British ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, mentioned four key documents that he knew existed but the Chilcot inquiry had not seen."

But Abbott noted that important information about the run-up to the Iraq war is making it through to the public, despite the government's efforts to restrict it. "Despite everything, the truth is coming to light," Abbott writes.