One giant unmarked grave of unknown size

by Chris Ames

Iraq Body Count has published a press release pointing out that it is six years since it wrote to the Inquiry about its failure to engage in any detail over the number of Iraqi casualties of the invasion and five years since it publicised that letter.

With the current debate focusing very much on the much smaller number of UK service people killed in Iraq, it’s a timely reminder, although it’s invidious to put them in opposition. As Iraq Body Count pointed out “there is only a single death toll of the war in Iraq: the complete one that includes all nationalities and all demographics.” I’m publishing the press release here in full:

For Chilcot and the Iraq War Inquiry, Iraq remains one giant unmarked grave of unknown size

When will the UK take a real interest in Iraqi casualties?

Exactly six years ago Iraq Body Count (IBC) wrote to Sir John Chilcot expressing alarm at how his Iraq War Inquiry showed no sign of pursuing any detailed investigation of the war’s principal casualties. If lessons were to be learned from an inquiry into the UK’s close involvement in the war, then its casualties (Iraqi civilian and combatant, British, coalition and all others) would need to be taken unflinchingly into account. Acknowledging his “entirely appropriate” concern to hear from and respect the wishes of bereaved British families, we argued that this thoughtful logic applied with even more force to Iraq, where the war’s impact was far more pervasive and, for many, “as close as their doorstep” (as it still is in 2015). Notwithstanding any such contrasts, we added that:

“Even with the undeniable disparity between the deadly imprint of the war on this country and on Iraq, there is a broader view in which its death toll is simply one that has been exacted on humanity. From that perspective, there is only a single death toll of the war in Iraq: the complete one that includes all nationalities and all demographics. Only by carefully attending to this larger death toll will we understand the war’s full consequences, and place ourselves in a position where the broadest and deepest lessons can be learned.”

Sir John responded to our letter by emphasising that his Inquiry’s terms of reference were broad and acknowledging IBC’s “useful” contribution to the store of knowledge on which the Inquiry could draw. But it appears that the latter was merely another way of stating that his Inquiry would itself do no new work on the question of Iraqi casualties.

Five years ago, and exactly a year after first writing Sir John, we made our letter public, adding the comments we republish below. All our criticisms of the Inquiry’s narrow focus still stand. We were, of course, mistaken to describe it as nearing completion. The delay to the Inquiry’s publication has become something of a national scandal, rightly so. But what remains unexamined is that despite the freedom that should have been afforded it by a broad remit, Chilcot’s Inquiry cleaves to the tradition of “a history of kings and queens,” taking scant interest in the ordinary people the war affected the most. Is such narrow focus really necessary in the 21st century?

Its inordinate delay might have been understandable had the Inquiry indeed resolved to take pains to understand the war’s full human consequences, including the suffering of the Iraqi people. This certainly would have required formidable effort, even if it did not attempt (as IBC now is in its Iraq Digital Memorial initiative) to pursue this goal at the appropriate level of individual lives lost. But there is nothing to indicate that the Inquiry has made an attempt of any kind in this direction, whether with regard to the killed or injured. So despite the name, the Iraq War Inquiry is unlikely to reveal anything new about casualties suffered by the country in which it took – is taking – place, no matter when its report is finally published.

We may still hope that the UK and others will learn lessons – real lessons, such as can be acted upon – from Chilcot’s Inquiry. But based on the vanishingly small attention the Inquiry afforded them, we should not expect Iraqi deaths to figure significantly in its findings, nor the views of Iraqi families, nor their needs, nor how their suffering may be alleviated.

I’m a Maxwellee and I don’t agree – Short

by Chris Ames

Clearly incensed by the Guardian story, evidently based on a briefing by Inquiry sources, that named her as a Maxwellee, former International Development Secretary Clare Short confirmed in an interview on the BBC’s The World at One that she and her former department (DfID) are on the wrong end of criticism from the government.

Short said that she was going on the record in response to “New Labour type spin out of the [Inquiry] Secretariat” and made clear that she did not agree with the proposed criticism of DfID over the poor rate of reconstruction of the country. She said that the suggestion the Maxwellisation was the cause of the delay was wrong and that the true reason was poor drafting and ill-informed criticism. Maxwellees had, she suggested, been given clear deadlines to respond, which expired “a good time ago”.

Short’s comments seem at odds with Sir John Chilcot’s comments in his statement today, not in that she contradicts him but rather in that she seems not to realise that he is saying something similar. Chilcot said that Maxwellees had not been given “an open-ended timescale”. He also said that the Inquiry expects to receive the last Maxwellistion responses “shortly”, while Short admitted that she could not say with any certainty that everyone had been given the same deadlines.

Short’s comments are reported in the Mail Online, which also reports that:

Meanwhile, Sir Stanley Burton, Lord Justice of Appeal between 2008 and 2012, said the risk of a judicial challenge was ”exaggerated”, as there was no appeal process by which the courts could rule on specific findings.

What is otherwise a good piece is let down by the Mail’s claim to have published Chilcot’s statement “in full” when clearly it hasn’t.

Statement from Sir John

by Chris Ames

The Inquiry has published a statement by Sir John Chilcot “in the light of recent comments.”

The statement details the principles of openness and fairness that guide the Inquiry as it works to produce its report on the UK’s involvement in Iraq between 2001 and 2009.

Sir John reiterates the Inquiry’s determination to ensure that its final report is rigorous, accurate, and firmly based on the evidence.  He also sets out the importance of the Maxwellisation process and that he expects to receive the last responses to Maxwellisation letters shortly.  Sir John said: “That will allow us to complete our consideration of the responses, to decide what further work will be needed, and to provide the Prime Minister and thus Parliament and the public with a timetable for the publication of our work.”


Straw joins Blair in the firing line – Guardian

by Chris Ames

The Guardian reports that:

Sir John Chilcot is to apportion blame for Britain’s role in the Iraq war much more widely than had been expected, going well beyond Tony Blair and his inner team, according to sources involved with his six-year inquiry.

While Blair will bear the brunt of the report’s criticism, one source said it would suit the former prime minister to see a wide range of targets blamed when it is published.

It has been assumed that Chilcot would concentrate on Blair and his closest advisers in Downing Street. However, the Guardian understands the inquiry intends to criticise a much bigger circle of ministers and officials, including Jack Straw, foreign secretary at the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003.

Others in focus are Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, Sir John Scarlett, chairman of the joint intelligence committee, Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, Clare Short, the international development secretary, and senior officials in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office. The inquiry took evidence from about 150 people.

The sources also say that:

Chilcot wants to ensure that those criticised are given every opportunity to rebut the criticism. He does not want to give them an excuse to take legal action or attack the inquiry after the final report.

The final report will not include the number of people who have been sent drafts containing criticism. The public may not know to what extent Chilcot has toned down his criticism in response to objections.

Indeed we may not, which is my main worry.

Ditch Maxwellisation – Saville

by Chris Ames

The Telegraph reports that:

The Chilcot inquiry is at risk of becoming a “never ending” because those facing censure are being given too much time to respond, the retired judge who oversaw Britain’s longest-running inquiry has suggested.

Lord Saville, who was chairman of inquiry into Bloody Sunday which lasted for 12 years, told The Telegraph that allowing those criticised see sections of the report before it is published is a “very bad idea”.

He said that the process, known as “maxwellisation”, is not a legal requirement and that those facing criticism should have been dealt with while the inquiry was sitting.

Saville’s inquiry didn’t just take longer, it cost a lot more. But he joins a lengthening list of apparently knowledgable people who think Chilcot is making a meal of Maxwellisation. Many people also think that the panel failed to ask sufficiently challenging questions of witnesses. I agree with this, although I have also argued that if witnesses chose to play games with the Inquiry, Chilcot is entitled to conclude that they had their chance.

The Telegraph and others also report the views of some politicians that a decision on extending air strikes against IS into Syria should be delayed until the Inquiry has reported. David Cameron does not agree.

The problem is that the Inquiry was set up as a “lessons learned” inquiry but appears unable to set out these lessons because the separate task of criticising individuals is getting in the way.


There will be no timetable

by Chris Ames

Unnoticed in the ongoing stories about various people putting pressure on the Inquiry to publish its report – or at least a timetable for doing so – is the admission that there will be no timetable. When the report is ready, we will be told that it is ready.

For example, in the Telegraph’s story about Digest contributor Hans Blix saying that the report should be published “sooner rather than later” is a recurring comment from the Inquiry:

“Sir John and his colleagues have worked, and will continue to work, throughout the summer, supported by the Inquiry Secretariat. A timetable for completion of the report will be provided once the Maxwellisation process is complete.”

As I have pointed out before, given that Maxwellisation is the final part of the process and could still go on for months, to promise a timetable only when it is finished gets us nowhere. Chilcot is effectively saying that he will not provide a timetable.

Inquiry under fire – and fights back

by Chris Ames

The Daily Mail continues its campaign against Sir John Chilcot “on behalf of the families” of servicemen killed in the war with a rather shabby story about how its journalists followed him from his home to the Inquiry office, a fifteen minute walk in which Chilcot repeatedly asked the Mail to put its questions to the Inquiry’s press officer. Chilcot said, with some justification: “This is harassment.

Last week, we learnt that Chilcot took a holiday. The Mail also revealed that some of the 29 families were threatening court to force Chilcot to name a date for publication.

But, evidently fed up with being on the wrong end of a pasting from press and politicians alike, the Inquiry, or members of it, have hit back. The Independent leads with a piece, based heavily on briefing by Inquiry sources, arguing that:

Leading figures in the British political Establishment are behind a plot to discredit the Chilcot inquiry by portraying the panel members as “bumbling incompetents” who cannot deliver their report on time[…]

“These are absurd, nasty hatchet jobs on John [Chilcot], most of them nonsense,” one inquiry source said.

“This is an independent inquiry and if forced to publish, only an incomplete report will be delivered.” The source accused Downing Street of unfairly seeking to depict Sir John’s team as “uncaring and lackadaisical idiots”.

And he accused the broader political Establishment of “throwing dirt” at the panel to tar them as a “load of bumbling incompetents and amateurs whose eventual judgements cannot be trusted”.

While the continued delay in publishing the report is indeed frustrating, of more concern is what effect it will have on the impact of the report when it finally appears. Obviously there is the concern that the Maxwellisation process, which entirely lacks transparency, will see the report watered down under threat from people who face criticism. But the other worry is that a political establishment that might not like what the Inquiry has to say will use the delay to discredit its conclusions. It is worth remembering that Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood is at the heart of the establishment and was in the thick of things in the run up to the war.

Perhaps the Daily Mail is on the wrong side of the argument here.

Also, while a number of commentators, such as Lord Lester, have suggested that Chilcot is overdoing it on Maxwellisation, the Indy’s Donald Macintyre argues that he doesn’t have much choice, while pointing out the irony that the initial High Court decision that Robert Maxwell was unfairly treated was overturned.

What both Lester and Macintyre have in common is suggesting that the way that Gordon Brown set up the Inquiry is partly responsible for delays. Lester argues in a letter to the Times that:

One reason for the inordinate delay in Chilcot’s case may be a lack of legal expertise about how to avoid being trapped by legalism and ensure that justice is not done to death.

This returns us to the Government cover-up whereby the Cabinet Office is refusing to release advice given to Brown which, the Information Commissioner points out, may explain why the Inquiry was set up without a lawyer.







Skeletons in McDonald’s closet?

by Chris Ames

Last week I wrote about the appointment of Sir Simon McDonald as the most senior civil servant in the Foreign Office. McDonald was Jack Straw’s principal private secretary in the run up to the invasion of Iraq and from 2007 to 2010 was chief foreign policy adviser to prime minister Gordon Brown and head of foreign and defence policy in the Cabinet Office. Both stints may provide a hostage to fortune.

I also described previously on the Digest how the government is blocking disclosure of secret advice given to Gordon Brown about the Inquiry, which it says “would risk undermining the Inquiry before it publishes its report”. According to the Information Commissioner’s decision notice:

The Cabinet Office explained that the information in scope of the request comprised advice provided by officials in No 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office about the formulation of policy towards establishing the Iraq Inquiry.

It is almost certain that McDonald contributed to this advice. The advice may explain why the Inquiry has taken so long and why it was set up as a tame “lessons learned” Inquiry that will, for example, avoid making an assessment of the legality of the war. When I asked the Cabinet Office about this, a spokesman did not deny it but gave me the following non-answer:

The then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced our intention to initiate an inquiry into Iraq and our involvement, setting out our reasons for doing so on 15 June 2009 to the House of Commons.  Letters from the then Prime Minister and Sir John Chilcot can be found on the Inquiry website.

I also asked the Foreign Office if it knew whether McDonald is a Maxwellee, that is someone the Inquiry has notified of intended criticism, and got the following in response:

Maxwellisation is a confidential process and a matter for the Iraq Inquiry. We do not comment on any aspect of that process.

In fact, the Inquiry expects Maxwellees not to tell people other than those advising on their responses that they are Maxwellees so it shouldn’t be party to any confidential information about it. McDonald could not, in theory, tell the Foreign Office that he is a Maxwellee, although he could presumably tell them that he is not.

Cameron to demand that Chilcot names a publication date

by Chris Ames

The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour reports that:

An impatient David Cameron will demand Sir John Chilcot names the date by which his report into the British invasion of Iraq will be ready for publication.

The prime minister is expected to tell Chilcot he wants to see the report as soon as possible. “Right now I want a timetable,” he told journalists.

Exasperated by the repeated delays into the publication of the report, Cameron fears it may not be published until as late as summer next year. The aim is to get a publication timetable from Chilcot but it is unlikely one will be given before MPs return from their summer break in September

“I cannot make it go faster because it’s a public inquiry and it’s independent,” Cameron will tell Chilcot, “but I do want a timetable and I think we deserve one pretty soon.”

Cameron’s officials said he will demand Chilcot puts a clear timetable on his desk, including the date by which the report will be published.

It’s not entirely clear how this will help. Chilcot has said that he can’t produce a timetable because he doesn’t know how long the Maxwellisation process will take. He can’t even say when he will produce a timetable.

But if producing a timetable means setting a limit to the amount of time that Maxwellees and their lawyers are allowed to drag the process out, that will effectively mean making it go faster, which Cameron says he can’t do.