Who wants to see the Iraq inquiry report published sometime soon? And who does not? Last week, the Independent reported that the fraught process of getting the government to declassify documents that will support the report’s findings is still “stalled”.
That may see the report come out very close to next year’s general election, which could harm Labour and suit the Tories. But Nick Clegg clearly is not happy and says things should be accelerated. His comments have been read as blaming Tony Blair for the hold-up, but Blair says he wants the report out there.
If you are confused, you are entitled to be. The inquiry and the Cabinet Office cannot even agree on how close they are to an agreement. As the Independent’s Nigel Morris wrote: “Sources close to Sir John and his four colleagues say they now regard the Cabinet Office’s attitude towards their requests as ‘ridiculous and intransigent’”. But the Cabinet Office is saying it “has been in a constructive dialogue with the inquiry team over recent months, with a clear view to meeting their declassification requests. That process should be concluded shortly.”
Even if that “should” and “shortly” mean anything, there is a long way to go. The lengthy “Maxwellisation” process, by which people such as Blair are told of potential criticisms and given the chance to have them watered down, has still not begun.
I absolutely agree with inquiry chairman, Sir John Chilcot, that he cannot criticise people without being able to show the public exactly what they did and said at the time, particularly given how combative and evasive people such as Blair can be.
Chilcot is focusing on the assurances that Blair is said to have given George W. Bush in 2002, a year before the invasion. In January 2011 (yes, three years ago) Chilcot put it to Blair, based on claims by Andrew Rawnsley, that Blair had said to Bush: “You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I am with you.”
Blair expressly denied saying this, but Chilcot subsequently referred to “the sort of language that Rawnsley cites or that we have seen in the note you sent to President Bush”, as if they amount to the same thing. Chilcot clearly believes Blair made an unequivocal promise to support a Bush administration whose stated intention was to achieve regime change in Baghdad and, if he can stand up the quote, who could argue with that?
So it is clear that the inquiry wants to get the truth out there and that the establishment and/or Blair are preventing the disclosure of the documents that would let us decide for ourselves. Or is it?
In fact, the government has declassified huge numbers of documents, but the inquiry has declined to publish them until it can put its own interpretation on them. That much is entirely clear if you read Chilcot’s letters to Cameron or the FAQ section on the inquiry website.
So perhaps we should ask whether the Iraq inquiry is not so much the means by which we will find out what really happened, but an endless obstacle to transparency. The British government uses it as a reason not to talk about the Iraq war and blocks freedom of information requests on the grounds that the inquiry will meet the public interest that would otherwise require disclosure. Neither the inquiry nor the Cabinet Office will tell the people of Britain which declassified documents they are not allowed to see.
Besides, Blair’s spokesman said last week that Blair wanted to see the report published: “Not least because it gives him a chance to defend himself against Nick Clegg’s assertion that removing Saddam Husssain from power was ‘the most catastrophic decision since Suez’, whilst daily the consequences of inaction over Syria become ever more apparent.”
I think Blair has a point, albeit that he has got it the wrong way round. The longer we wait for the Iraq inquiry report, the less people care, the less relevant are the “lessons learned” and the more Blair can argue that not getting involved in someone else’s civil war is as bad as triggering one by invading a country on a cooked-up pretext.
So maybe it is only Clegg who is in a hurry to see the Chilcot inquiry published, which is why no one should hold their breath.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Chris Ames is a freelance writer and investigative journalist. He has written extensively for the New Statesman and elsewhere about spin doctor involvement in the September 2002 dossier “Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”. He is the editor of the Iraq Inquiry Digest website and created and maintains iraqdossier.com