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.

Lessons learned: invade Iraq and prosper

by Chris Ames

The FT reports that Sir Simon McDonald, who was chief foreign policy adviser to prime minister Gordon Brown and head of foreign and defence policy in the Cabinet Office from 2007 to 2010, will become the top civil servant at the Foreign Office. McDonald was also principal private secretary to foreign secretary Jack Straw between 2001 and 2003 but was only asked to give evidence to the Inquiry about his later role. McDonald is one of many civil servants involved in the decision to achieve regime change in Iraq whose careers have serenely sailed on while we wait for the Inquiry to report.

The FT notes that:

Sir Simon told Britain’s Iraq war inquiry that the UK’s reputation in the Middle East had been enhanced by the conflict.

He said: “It is a part of the world that knows about military might, a part of the world that respects a country that is willing to put its forces where its mouth is.

Sir Simon also said the Iraqi government had looked favourably on Britain for key commercial decisions, citing an auction of oil rights where British companies “did pretty well”.

Here is the relevant passage from the transcript on the first quote:

SIR RODERIC LYNE:You have been one of the very few senior foreign policy officials dealing with the Middle East throughout the period of this Inquiry’s remit and I would like you to sort of look very widely and give us your assessment of the overall effect of our involvement in Iraq on the achievement of British foreign policy and security policy objectives.
Has it helped or hindered us in combating terrorism? Has it contributed to peace and stability in the Middle Eastern region generally or the opposite? Has it helped us or hindered us to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions? These are all very high priority items. What has it done overall for the United Kingdom’s standing in the Middle East and more widely in the world?
MR SIMON MCDONALD: I think most of the problems you describe exist separate from what we did in Iraq, that if we had or had not done something in Iraq, we would still have a problem with Iran, we would still have a problem with Israel or the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, we would still have issues of terrorism around the Middle East.
I think the fact that the British stood up, the British fought, the British were alongside the  Americans, the British followed through, wins a certain respect from significant parts of the Middle East, not everybody, but it is a part of the world that knows about military might, a part of the world that respects a country that is willing to put its forces where its mouth is, and I think that’s part of what we did in Iraq.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that McDonald ducked most of Lyne’s questions about the net effect of invading Iraq. This is one of the problems with a “lessons learned” inquiry that questions serving officials. They will spin and obfuscate if the honest answer potentially reflects badly on the government. Sharp-eyed readers will also note that Sir Simon was only “Mr Simon McDonald” at the time.

Although the invasion of Iraq was in no way motivated by oil interests, McDonald did indeed tell the Inquiry that it helped the UK’s oil interests: Readmore..

Robert Maxwell: his part in the Iraq Inquiry

by Richard Heller

A quarter of a century after his death, the bulky shadow of Robert Maxwell is now stopping the British people seeing the truth about the Iraq war. The old rogue achieved a curious immortality by giving his name to Maxwellization, the procedure by which any public inquiry is obliged to give individuals some kind of advance notice of intended criticisms, and an opportunity to respond to them, before they are published. (Rather delightfully, Tony Blair has become a “Maxwellee” for the Iraq inquiry, along with an unknown number of other people).

The Inquiry has entered this stage, but none of us know what it entails and its likely timeframe. Chairman Sir John Chilcot has published two recent letters on its progress, one to the Prime Minister and one to Crispin Blunt MP, the energetic new chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.

However, these leave open some crucial issues about the Inquiry’s approach to Maxwellization and what steps are now required to complete it.

The current issue of Private Eye (number 1397) has an excellent analysis of Maxwellization in an article “Reports lost at sea”. Although mainly devoted to the delayed report into the collapse of the HBOS bank, it also deals with the Inquiry. It goes back to the original proceedings involving Maxwell, which arose from a Board of Trade inquiry in the late 1960s on his fitness to be a company director, and draws comparisons with the Maxwellization procedures used recently in the recent Leveson inquiry into the media and the Francis inquiry into the NHS in Mid-Staffordshire.

Private Eye suggests plainly that Chilcot has been too generous in his treatment of Maxwellees.

One does not have to accept that suggestion to be afraid that Maxwellization could allow Tony Blair and others too much scope to delay the Iraq inquiry by demanding that it look at new evidence and by invoking the right to see successive drafts and redrafts of intended criticisms and respond to them.

For that reason I believe it is imperative for Chilcot and Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to give public answers to the following ten questions. Readmore..

Information Commissioner backs Chilcot’s monopoly

by Chris Ames

As I have described previously on the Digest, I have tried to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain release of the huge pile of documents that have been declassified for publication by the Inquiry but which John Chilcot is refusing to publish because, however long he is taking to publish his report, we cannot be trusted to interpret the evidence without it. As he told the Foreign Affairs Committee in February:

To publish a reliable account in full and in immense detail but to draw no conclusions, to offer  no analysis leaves individuals and the whole story open to every kind of out of context misunderstanding. It’s very important to add the analysis, both at strategic level and at the level of individuals on top of that account so that the whole thing can be seen in the round at the same time.

Unsurprisingly, the Cabinet Office has blocked my requests, citing section 22 of FOIA, where information is exempt from publication if “the information is held by the public authority with a view to its publication, by the authority or any other person, at some future date (whether determined or not)”. The Cabinet Office claims that this describes the information in question. Now, in a decision notice (pdf), the Information Commissioner has backed the Cabinet Office and backed Chilcot’s monopoly ownership of the evidence. I have appealed to the “Information Tribunal”.

The decision is outrageous for a number of reasons and it is clear that the Commissioner has bent over backwards to please the Cabinet Office, which now has responsibility for FOI and is carrying out a review that threatens to curtail our right to know. Readmore..

Chilcot writes to the Foreign Affairs Committee

by Chris Ames

The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has published this letter from Sir John Chilcot to its chairman, Crispin Blunt. Perhaps the most significant part is:

Those engaged in the Maxwellisation process have engaged fully, and I continue to judge that no-one has taken an unreasonable time to respond given the range and complexity of the issues under consideration.

It is implicit in the letter that some responses have yet to be received. Chilcot says that once all responses have been received, “evaluated carefully and the process concluded” a timetable for publication can be drawn up. This is a bit garbled as it implies that the process must be “concluded” before a timetable for publication can be drawn up.

Chilcot also suggests that during his recent meeting with the Cabinet Secretary he was open to offers of assistance, both in terms of “steps that can be taken now” and “the additional assistance the Inquiry will wish to call upon in its closing stages.”