Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Inquiry up and running

From Paul Waugh's Evening Standard Blog:

24 November 2009 7:29 PM

The Hutton Inquiry it 'aint

When Sir John Chilcot opened his long-awaited Iraq Inquiry today, he pointed out that it was not a court of law, nor an inquest. He wasn't kidding.

In place of the Cathedral-like grandeur of Lord Hutton's Royal Courts of Justice, the Chilcot hearings are plonked in what looks like a stockroom in a concrete bunker.

The QEII conference centre is an unlovely splodge of modernism even to its admirers, but somehow the Cabinet Office managed to find one of its dingiest, pokiest rooms in which to take evidence on Britain's biggest foreign policy disaster since the Second World War.

Whereas Lord Hutton sat literally on high, Delphically peering over his half-moon specs from the bench, Chilcot has to make do with a few plastic tables and chairs and a wobbly set worthy of Crossroads. Fittingly for this ersatz inquiry, the chairs - and I personally felt them for you dear Reader - are cheap, black, "leather-effect".

There was no dashing James Dingemans-figure, Hutton's forensic counsel. No documents placed immediately online. No electric anticipation. Empty seats, to my surprise, dotted the hearing room's public gallery. Without the hacks allowed in at the last minute, it would have been even worse.

There was even a cut-price minute's silence for the hundreds of thousands of civilians and troops killed in Iraq. Chilcot announced a few moments of respect for the dead, but they lasted literally 10 seconds by my count.

Overhead, there was a huge ventilation duct, hovering like an engorged worm over the proceedings. The dangling black wires, for hastily-rigged lights, resembled its innards.

Yet while the Hutton Inquiry may have fizzed and dazzled us during its hearings stage, the 'whitewash' report he ultimately produced was proof that not all that glisters is inquiry gold. Maybe, despite - or because of - its inauspicious surroundings, the Iraq Inquiry was going to yield a more telling verdict on the war?

Unfortunately, as soon as Sir John kicked off proceedings, he and his fellow Privy Councillors engaged with witnesses with a chumminess that did nothing to dispel the image that this is a far from independent inquiry.

The whole event felt for all the world as if the Athenaeum had been evacuated to a multi-storey car-park in Slough. I never expected the Spanish Inquisition, but this was a cross between a Chatham House seminar and a fireside chat at the Ambassador's residence. Without the Ferrero Rocher.

Our Man in Saudi (Sir William Patey) was quizzed by Our Former Man in Moscow (Sir Roderic Lyne). Simon Webb, the MoD official witness, opened by pointing out that he had recently been elevated to a position chosen by Inquiry panellists Lady Prashar and Sir Lawrence Freedman.

The Knights of the Formica Round table were very accommodating, Chilcot himself nodding enthusiastically in agreement when Sir Peter Ricketts of the Foreign Office gave the Government line on Saddam and sanctions. All of them joked about the dastardly French and the money-grabbing Russians blocking brave Britain's attempts to sort out Saddam. As for the Americans, well they were clearly unaware of the legality of 'regime change'.

In a classic bit of FCO arrogance, Sir William opined: "I freely admit that sitting in the Foreign Office, sometimes you think 'why are we the only ones who bother?"

As if to underline the them-and-us divide in the room, the non-Sirs of the inquiry staff were given a bottle of tap water, while the panel and witnesses all had bottles of mineral water.

If Lord Hutton was the Establishment Judge, Chilcot and his pals were clubbier than Pall Mall. Atlhough Chilcot said that he and his colleagues had "an open mind", the room was freighted with shared assumptions and backgrounds.

But although the first day was not that encouraging, there was the odd shaft of fresh sunlight let into the murk of the QEII's boxroom. Sir William let slip he had drafted an 'options paper' in 2001 that included the idea of 'regime change'. It was soon dismissed on grounds that it would be illegal, and not even passed on to Number 10 (bang goes that conspiracy theory). Baroness Prashar showed a feisty determination to probe a little deeper than the others. Sir Martin Gilbert barely said a word.

Perhaps the most striking quote came right at the end, when Sir Roderic (who could turn out to be a wild card) asked a simple question.

"In terms of military threat, was Saddam and his regime in a cage?" he asked.

"Yes," replied Sir William.

Saddam's armed forces were being contained, albeit very imperfectly, through a mixture of no-fly zones, sanctions and UN work on weapons inspection.

True to form, the MoD's Webb tried to 'hawk-up' the answer of this FCO colleague, suggesting that actually when you took into account the threat posed by WMD then it was all more complicated. But the simple answer to a simple question had already slipped out.

Not a bad way to round off a largely flat, opening day.



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