“We are all committed to ensuring that our proceedings are as open as possible because we recognise that is one of the ways in which the public can have confidence in the integrity and independence of the inquiry process.”
Statement by Sir John Chilcot at a news conference to launch the Inquiry
The two key issues affecting the willingness and ability of the Inquiry to inform the public about the issues it is investigating are the number of hearings it has held in public or in secret and its publication of documentary evidence. Prime minister Gordon Brown initially announced an inquiry that would sit entirely in secret but soon changed his mind after significant public and political opposition and the majority of hearings have been held in public. However the Inquiry has been criticised for agreeing to let the government determine which documents it is allowed to publish and this issue has by its own admission hampered its work, including restricting questioning during witness sessions.
The Inquiry will be judged not only on how much of what it learns it makes public but on how much it is prepared to reveal about its own workings and methods. On this point, it has often failed to live up to its promise of openness.
Publication of evidence
The Inquiry has been widely criticised for not publishing en masse the documents given to it by the government, as the Hutton Inquiry did, and for not quoting from those documents during its public sessions.
It has said from the outset that it intends to publish “the key evidence” with its report at the end of the process. It also says that “It is the Committee’s intention to publish all the relevant evidence except where national security considerations prevent that.” In addition, “It may also publish material on the website as the Inquiry progresses where this will help increase public understanding of its ongoing work.”
The protocol “agreed” with the government for the disclosure and possible publication of evidence has been widely criticised, including being raised in the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions. The protocol requires the Inquiry to seek permission not just to publish documents but to refer to them at any point in its proceedings.
In a statement on 17 December 2009, Sir John Chilcot defended the Inquiry’s approach. He said that the Committee had taken “a conscious decision” not to to publish “a mass of documentary material” but that it would “increasingly wish to draw on government records which are currently classified -in some cases highly classified -in its questioning. Where we do, we will seek the necessary declassification of records in advance of the relevant public hearings, with a view to making the written records publicly available.”
Since the second phase of the public hearings, the Inquiry published documents alongside witness sessions. It is also clear that the government is able to manipulate the process in that, for example, the Inquiry has published a diplomatic telegram containing the official line to take on the April 2002 Crawford meeting but not the full record of that meeting.
In a letter to David Cameron in July 2012, Sir John Chilcot stated that it would not “publish further information piecemeal and in advance of its report”.
Public hearings and secret sessions
The majority of hearings have taken place in public but there have been a number of secret evidence sessions, which the Inquiry describes as “private”. It has published redacted transcripts of those sessions here.
Chilcot also said that “if the Inquiry is to succeed in getting to the heart of what happened and what lessons need to be learned for the future, we recognise that some evidence sessions will need to be private. Sometimes that will be consistent with the need to protect national security, sometimes to ensure complete candour and openness from witnesses.”
The idea that secret sessions might be held to ensure complete candour raises the possibility that they will be used to meet the needs of witnesses to avoid embarrassment. On the other hand, it may be necessary to protect whistleblowers.