Friday, 4 September 2015

On and on the Chilcot inquiry goes

The Daily Star
Friday, September 4 2015
By Michael Glackin

It’s hard to imagine that the long-running government inquiry into why the United Kingdom went to war in Iraq in 2003 could descend into greater absurdity. But, gentle reader, it has.

The Chilcot inquiry, led by career civil servant Sir John Chilcot, was charged with finding out what went wrong with the prewar intelligence analysis and post-invasion planning in Iraq, and identify “what lessons could be learned.” The inquiry, which began its deliberations in 2009 and finished taking evidence in February 2011, is now in its sixth year, and there appears to be no prospect of it ever being completed.

Last week the government was forced to deny it was launching an inquiry into why the inquiry was taking so long. That followed the revelation that a number of those criticized in Chilcot’s draft report are trying to get the criticism expunged on the basis that their “human rights” will be violated by the inquiry’s findings.

This sordid move, by those whose actions led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents and resulted in the real violation of the human rights of many more, stems from a fear that Chilcot’s final report could leave them vulnerable to prosecution under the Human Rights Act or some other international legal proceedings.

The shameful maneuver reminded me of the words of the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift, the author “Gulliver’s Travels,” who said: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”

It is understood that two of the most senior military and intelligence figures facing criticism in the report are Gen. Sir Nick Houghton, the current chief of the defense staff, who was a senior officer in Baghdad, and Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, who was largely responsible for the now infamous “dodgy dossier” on Iraq’s military capability.

Politicians expecting criticism include former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, both in power at the time of the invasion. Inquiry sources have indicated that the conduct of former Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon and former International Development Secretary Clare Short will also be mentioned.

Prime Minister David Cameron called on Chilcot to set a timetable for publication of report. Cameron is keen to get the report published partly because it will criticize a Labour government, but also because senior colleagues have warned him he cannot contemplate a parliamentary vote to expand Britain’s bombing raids against ISIS targets in Syria unless the lessons of Iraq have been fully aired and the public sees they will be learned.

But Chilcot continues to insist his report, which is thought to run to more than 1 million words, is still “not ready.” The glacial pace of Chilcot’s inquiry has been brought to a complete stop by the so-called “Maxwellization” process – a convention by which witnesses to an inquiry are informed of criticism in advance and given the chance to respond.

This dubious process has been going on for at least a year and there is still no end in sight. It is stating the obvious to say that Maxwellization defeats the purpose of any inquiry, which must surely be about finding out what happened without fear or favor. The continuing delays caused by granting key figures a right of reply means the Chilcot inquiry has now become tainted by the same suspicion of cover-up as the war itself.

The U.K.’s former top prosecution lawyer, Lord Macdonald, succinctly summed up the problem recently when he said that the decision to offer a right of reply was “gifting the prize of control over the inquiry’s timetable to its subjects.”

Effectively what has happened is that the people who are most responsible for the debacle in Iraq have been allowed to hijack the inquiry and abuse a dubious convention to amend its findings and protect their reputations. Ironically, the process of Maxwellization takes its name from the newspaper owner and one-time Labour parliamentarian Robert Maxwell, who in 1971 was criticized in a government report as unfit to exercise “proper stewardship” of a public quoted company. Maxwell went to court insisting he had not been allowed to respond to the criticism before the report was published. The judge said the government had “virtually committed the business murder” of Maxwell, and from then on inquiries began to give prior notice of critical findings in advance.

But more importantly, the British Court of Appeal in 1974 overruled Maxwell’s initial court victory and stated it was not necessary for those conducting inquiries “to put their tentative conclusions to the witnesses in order to give them an opportunity to refute them.” So why on Earth has this sordid process been used so extensively in Chilcot’s inquiry?

Small wonder families of British soldiers killed in Iraq are threatening to take legal action against Chilcot if he fails to publish his findings by the end of this year. Chilcot is due to contact the families of dead soldiers, and is expected to tell them he will not be able to publish his report until next year at the earliest. Even then his final report will not reveal the names of those who have used Maxwellization, nor will we know to what extent Chilcot has diluted his findings in response to their objections. Think about that.

It means we will have spent over six years and $16 million on an inquiry that is patently incapable of revealing the entire truth behind what is considered to be the most colossal British foreign policy blunder in modern history. Not even the playwright Samuel Becket could have imagined a more absurd scenario.

Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.

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