Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Leading Articles

Leading article: This inquiry into the invasion of Iraq needs to be open

There is no case for the investigation being held behind closed doors

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Yesterday was a significant moment in British politics; but not as significant as it ought to have been. Six years and three months after British troops entered Iraq as part of a US-led invasion force, the Prime Minister announced that there is, at long last, to be an independent investigation into the most controversial British military engagement since the Suez crisis.

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Adrian Hamilton: This exercise won't even ask the hard questions

The Government had previously refused to establish an inquiry into the Iraq invasion arguing that it would be inappropriate to conduct such an inquest while our troops were still serving in Iraq. But the lowering of the Union flag at the British Army's Basra base two months ago put to rest that unconvincing excuse for inaction.

There are elements to Gordon Brown's statement yesterday that deserve to be welcomed. The timeframe for the inquiry (going back to the summer of 2001) should be sufficiently broad to cover all the contentious issues leading up to the invasion. Some key questions, particularly relating to the crucial pre-March 2003 period need to be answered. Was the diplomatic alternative to military action shut down prematurely? Did the Government distort the security intelligence it received regarding Iraq's weaponry? And precisely what advice did the Cabinet receive, and when, regarding the legality of the prospective invasion?

Whatever one's view of the wisdom of the military operation, these remain legitimate questions. There will be those who argue that they have been adequately addressed by the Hutton and Butler inquiries. But the first of these was tasked with looking specifically into the death of the Ministry of Defence scientist David Kelly. The second focused on the failings of the intelligence services, rather than the role of the Government. And neither provided the comprehensive and forensic evaluation of the build-up to the conflict that is needed.

The choice of Sir John Chilcot, an individual who enjoys no great reputation for independence, to chair the inquiry is disappointing. But Mr Brown is surely right to appoint non-partisan figures to the panel. The passions aroused by the invasion are, regretfully, still run too high to hold a cross-party inquest. It is disappointing too that the inquiry will not report until well into next year, although we should be pleased we are not facing an open-ended investigation along the lines of the Bloody Sunday inquiry. But the most disappointing and unsupportable aspect of yesterday's statement is that that the inquiry is to be held behind closed doors. Mr Brown offered the argument yesterday that national security would be jeopardised by making the proceedings public. But that will not wash. The Hutton inquiry provides a clear recent example of a public inquiry which took evidence from high-ranking members of the intelligence services and yet whose proceedings were fully open to the public and media. When Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, gave testimony to Lord Hutton he did so through an audio link. This is no reason why the same kind of safeguards should not be applied once again.

The Government's decision to throw a veil over the proceedings of this inquiry sends the dangerous message that this exercise is less about learning lessons from the invasion of Iraq than smothering past mistakes. The Prime Minister made the first tentative step towards open government yesterday by establishing this investigation. Now he needs to follow his arguments through to their natural conclusion by requiring the inquiry to produce interim reports and to conduct its proceedings in the clear light of day.


From The Times:

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June 16, 2009

No Cause for an Inquiry

Judgment on the Iraq war is a matter of politics. Repeated public inquiries have diminishing value and are a quasi-judicial way of supplanting democratic decisions

Gordon Brown announced yesterday an inquiry into the Iraq war. It will begin work under Sir John Chilcot, a former civil servant, next month. To the derision of opposition MPs, it will take a year to report (so beyond the date of the next election) and will hear evidence in private. Scepticism is the right response, but not for the reasons advanced by Mr Brown's critics.

The military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein was intensely controversial and led to the deaths of 179 British servicemen. To scrutinise that decision is right and necessary. But two inquiries have already been held: Lord Butler's considered intelligence failings about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction; Lord Hutton's examined the circumstances of the death of David Kelly. The announcement of a third inquiry suggests cynicism by an embattled Prime Minister and sectarianism by opposition parties who want not so much a disinterested inquiry as an official admission of guilt.

There are many aspects of Britain's intervention in Iraq from which lessons must be learnt. These include the failure to establish security immediately after the fall of Saddam and to provide adequate equipment for British troops. But the establishment of the Chilcot inquiry is prompted not by practical military concerns so much as a preconception that the Iraq war was wrong.

Anticipating the inquiry, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, declared: “We are talking about the biggest foreign policy mistake since Suez.” The place to have that argument was, and remains, the floor of the House of Commons. To try to resolve the issue by repeated public inquiries is to supplant the prerogatives of an elected Government by quasi-judicial means. The intention to hold a further inquiry predates Labour's recent disasters. There is little doubt, however, that the timing has been tailored to bolster Mr Brown's weak position with querulous backbenchers. Downing Street has justifiably pointed to the independence of the members of the inquiry, which includes (excepting one crossbench peer) no politician. It has also stressed the inquiry's scope, covering the period shortly before 9/11 to the completion of the withdrawal of British forces from Basra next month.

It would admittedly be unlikely if so broadly conceived an exercise yielded no useful incremental information, if at high cost to the taxpayer. The arduousness of the brief requires long deliberation if the job is to be done well. Hearing evidence in private, which is not the same as keeping conclusions secret, is justifiable too. It may encourage greater candour by witnesses.

But the very expansiveness of the exercise undermines its rationale. Inquiries into military campaigns are valuable when they isolate identifiable weaknesses. The Franks report in 1983 considered the failures of intelligence about Argentine designs on the Falkland Islands. After the Boer War, the Esher Committee inquired into Britain's unpreparedness for deploying troops overseas, and recommended the establishment of a General Staff. Neither inquiry was an attempt to judge a political decision to go to war.

Tony Blair's Government took a decision on bad intelligence but also a prudent assumption about the intentions of an aggressive tyrant. Iraq is a better place for the removal of Saddam and the belated success of counterinsurgency operations. Whether that justifies the initial military intervention is a question beyond the competence of a public inquiry. At best there is diminishing value in persisting with this exercise till critics of the Iraq war are satisfied with the conclusion. At worst, it is an exercise in short-term political cynicism intended to buy off the war critics. The result will be to undermine the credibility of such inquiries and, ultimately, to satisfy no one.



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