by Chris Ames
I have posted a piece for Comment is Free this afternoon. Here is the original version:
The end to the seemingly interminable Iraq Inquiry is in sight, for sure. A couple more months perhaps and with scope for another dose of farce and some more censorship. To use a cliché that predates even the inquiry, the glass is half full. Or is it still half empty?
On the positive side, we are on track for publication of the inquiry report (in parliament and simultaneously on the Inquiry’s website) in June or July, as per the timetable set out by Sir John Chilcot in October. But why it will take quite so long is inexplicable.
Sometime this week, and possibly as you are reading this, a near-final version of the report will be winging its way from the ”independent” inquiry to the government, which will then complete a process of national security checking within two weeks.
Reassuringly, Cabinet Office minister John Penrose told MPs on Thursday that the process “cannot be used to redact or censor material that … might prove embarrassing to Ministers or officials”.
But this is only reassuring until you remember that Gordon Brown told MPs when he launched the inquiry that “the final report will be able to disclose all but the most sensitive information—that is, all information except that which is essential to our national security”. Officials then drew up a list as long as your arm of reasons why information might need to be withheld. “National security” covers a multitude of sins.
Penrose also said that Chilcot would give a firmer timetable for publication after this, but has suggested that this will still see publication in June or even July. He said the delay will not be because of the EU referendum, but because the report’s size means “it will take a number of weeks to prepare it for publication”. Has William Caxton been engaged to do the work, or should we be suspicious of some shabby fix?
Penrose gave MPs an assurance that the government will publish the report “as soon as it is delivered to us in its final form by the inquiry team, whenever that may be.” This is good news, as ministers had previously said that the report could only be published if MPs were available to debate it. Even if Chilcot fails to provide the report before the summer recess on 21 July ministers will (probably) not hold onto it.
What will the report say? If Sir John has forgotten the question, the Iraq Inquiry Digest has a list. I think it can safely be assumed that the Iraq misadventure will not be rewritten as a roaring success. There has been plenty of speculation about who will be criticised most, and for what. Military and establishment figures will be “singled out” for criticism, or the blame will be apportioned “widely”. Again, it depends which way you look at it.
My own area of interest has always been how we got into the debacle, not the debacle itself. We can still only speculate about what Chilcot will say about the legality of the war, or whether he will say Tony Blair lied about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or lied when he told MPs that it had not been possible to get “a” second UN resolution because Jacques Chirac said France would veto any resolution “whatever the circumstances”.
We should remember both that there is a traditional squeamishness within the establishment about accusations of lying and that the inquiry has no particular protection against a defamation action if it accuses someone of bad faith. It has probably already been threatened by the lawyers of “Maxwellees”, who have been given advance sight of criticism.
What I do know is that the inquiry will publish documents that set out clearly how Blair promised US President George W Bush a year before the invasion that he would back regime change to overthrow Saddam Hussein but proposed setting a trap for the Iraqi dictator based on his alleged WMD, on which intelligence was ‘poor’. But even here we are back to that half-empty glass.
The documents in question are often referred to as the Downing Street documents, because they include a revealing record of a meeting at No. 10 in July 2002. They were leaked many years ago to journalist Michael Smith and have been available online, almost in their entirety, ever since.
The good news is that the inquiry cannot publish these documents and produce a narrative that ignores what they show. For example, a Cabinet Office paper from March 2002 set out two options: one was to try to use the UN and a threat of force to try to disarm Iraq of WMD; the other was to use WMD as a pretext for regime change. At the time, Blair told his cabinet and the rest of us that his policy was the former. In 2011, he explained to the Inquiry why this wouldn’t have worked and why he chose the latter.
The bad news is that both the inquiry and the Information Commissioner have told me that these documents will be partially censored at the government’s request.
It is well established that there has been a lot of argument between Chilcot and the government about what the inquiry can publish, particularly regarding Blair’s intercourse with Bush. If you are an optimist you will trust Sir John when he says he can publish enough evidence to stand up the story he wants to tell. If you are a pessimist you will be very worried when Sir John says he will publish only the evidence that stands up the story he wants to tell.