Tony Blair's letter to George Bush that is “critical” to the Iraq Inquiry has gone missing from official White House records.
The publication of secret correspondence between the UK and US administrations in the build-up to the Iraq War has become a major stumbling block for Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the 2003 invasion.
While the Cabinet Office has said privately that it wants to release as many of the Blair-Bush communications as possible, there is one letter which lawyers at the White House say they have “not been able to locate”.
The letter, which was quoted from directly in Andrew Rawnsley’s book The End of the Party following interviews with David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy advisor, and Sir Christopher Meyer, then Britain’s ambassador to the US, predates the March 2003 Commons vote on whether Britain was to go to war.
In its opening sentence, Mr Blair is said to have told the US President: “You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I'm with you.” The letter was reportedly hand-delivered by Manning to Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Yet according to reports in the Mail on Sunday, a British source involved in the ongoing efforts to get the Bush-Blair records released said: “The lawyers are taking months to evaluate the letters and decide whether to release them.
“However, they claim not to have been able to locate the ‘with you whatever’ letter.”
Though Mr Blair said after 9/11 that Britain stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the US, and in 2011 he told Chilcot that he had been quite open about his support for Bush in dealing with Saddam Hussein, he denied the “with you whatever” wording.
And more than three years after the inquiry completed its public hearings, the letter has been described as “absolutely critical” among all the correspondence in determining whether or not Mr Blair gave Mr Bush a “blank cheque” on Britain’s cooperation.
Meanwhile, David Cameron said it was “frustrating” that the publication of the inquiry has been so delayed, and said that the public “want to see the answers of the inquiry”.
The House of Commons Public Administration Committee described the delay as “very serious” and its chairman, Bernard Jenkin, has written to the Cabinet Office demanding an explanation for the hold-up. The report could prove difficult for Labour in the build-up to the 2015 general election.
The inquiry has previously said that it submitted 10 requests to the US to publish material, including 200 cabinet-level discussions, 25 notes from Mr Blair to Mr Bush and more than 130 records of conversations between either Mr Blair or Gordon Brown and Mr Bush.
There are reportedly several thousands of documents involved, and lawyers must determine not only whether details could harm national security and foreign policy objectives, but also whether publishing secret letters between a UK prime minister and US president could have an impact on the “special relationship” in future.
Following the completion of his inquiry, Sir John also began a process known as “Maxwellisation”, under which individuals facing criticism may respond before publication, and which may also be leading to delays.
Radio 4’s Today programme reported that the Cabinet Office said the process would be concluded “as quickly as possible”.