YP Cameron must end farce over Iraq war inquiry

Published in the Yorkshire Post 23 June 2014

As the third Iraq war rages, the British people have been denied the right to read the report of the Chilcot inquiry on the second, eleven years ago.

The delay has been caused by Whitehall manoeuvring and government hypocrisy. It is time for Parliament to bring the report to light.

Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry team reached their conclusions long ago, perhaps as far back as 2010. The delay is all about Whitehall resistance to publication of key passages in their reasoning, especially their wish to cite Cabinet proceedings and worse still, 25 Notes from Tony Blair to George Bush and records of over 130 conversations between them.

Sir John entered painstaking negotiations about this material over many months. Meanwhile, the government pretended that it was powerless to intervene and David Cameron even had the nerve to suggest that he was frustrated by the delay.

Sir John and his team should never have negotiated with Whitehall, because they were never responsible for publishing their report. Their task was simply to deliver it to the Prime Minister of the day. If anyone had to worry about the subsequent publication of sensitive material it was David Cameron.

Some weeks ago Sir John finally reached a deal with Whitehall over the Bush-Blair Notes and exchanges. Unfortunately, it offers huge scope for further delay or even total impasse.

Sir John agreed that the inquiry will consider “gists and quotes” of these exchanges, and decide whether each one is sufficient to explain their conclusions.

These “gists and quotes” have been prepared by Whitehall officials with fundamentally different priorities. The inquiry wants the fullest possible citations, to achieve clarity. Whitehall wants citations compressed to achieve the maximum possible obscurity, particularly over anything said or done by President Bush.

As a professional “gister” for over 40 years, I would balk at the task  of summarizing an exchange between A and B which suppressed B’s contribution. This task would become impossible if A’s contributions consisted primarily of “Yes… Definitely… With you all the way,” as I strongly suspect happened in most of the Blair-Bush conversations.

If the Chilcot inquiry reject any particular “gist or quote” they have to throw it back to the anonymous officials for “re-gisting” until they are satisfied.

But then all of those “gists and quotes” will have to be submitted to Tony Blair, and possibly other people, as part of the so-called Maxwellization process, after the old rogue, to establish a right of rebuttal for anyone facing criticism in a public inquiry. Blair and other “Maxwellees” will have the right to challenge any “gist” as an inadequate account of the full material in question, just as they would as defendants in a court of law. Moreover, they might call in aid other sensitive material, which the “gisters” would have to summarize and present to the Chilcot inquiry.

This procedural ping-pong is nonsensical and an insult to all the victims of Iraq. Cameron should take responsibility for ending it.

He should demand from the Chilcot inquiry their unexpurgated report, with their full conclusions and all the supporting evidence they wished to quote. This version, not a “gisted” one, should then be used for Maxwellization. Blair and any others should be given a short time for their responses. Cameron should then present these to the inquiry and invite them to correct any issue of fact which had emerged. They should address their conclusions only if they had been affected by such a correction.

Cameron should then do his duty of presenting the report to Parliament in a publishable form.

This should allow the British people to see all of the inquiry’s conclusions, all the rebuttals, and all the sources concerned. Cameron – as head of government – would decide whether any particular source could be quoted as the inquiry (or any rebutter) intended. If he ruled against that, in the wider national interest, the report could cite any agreed “gist.” If no such gist existed, the report should make a bare reference, for example “the telephone conversation at 2000 GMT on 31 June 2002 between the Prime Minister and the President.”

Some readers might be frustrated to be denied quotations from key evidence. But the vast majority would gain the satisfaction of reading the inquiry’s conclusions – at last – and knowing what evidence they had studied. A report in this form would actually carry more conviction than one in which the crucial evidence had been deliberately Bowdlerized.

Parliament should set a timetable for publication of the Chilcot report. The rest of this year seems quite long enough. If Cameron fails to meet this, Parliament should use its powers to subpoena the unexpurgated report and all the rebuttals – and take charge of publication itself.

This would be a worthwhile task for a fag-end Parliament. It might help to convince voters that their Parliament is worth voting for.

26. June 2014 by rkh
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