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Monday, April 14, 2014 

How long before we need an inquiry into the inquiry?

Governments change, ministers come and go, but if there's something that doesn't alter in our modern political culture, it's there's always one inquiry or another stuck in the mire.  For a long time it was the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which took 12 years to report on the events of a single, if extraordinary, confused and controversial day.  More recently we had Sir Peter Gibson's cancelled inquiry into extraordinary rendition and the British state's alleged complicity in it.  Gibson's short report sat waiting to be published for 18 months, as arguments raged about whether a single, if crucial strand of correspondence within MI6 concerning the mistreatment at Bagraim air base could be declassified.  Not fully, it was decided, Gibson giving in.  Another inquiry now waits in the wings, due to conducted by those thoroughly decent chaps at the Intelligence and Security Committee.

We are though forgetting the Chilcot inquiry, aka the umpteenth attempt to have a definitive inquiry into how we went to war with Iraq, which started hearing public evidence in November of 2009.  Almost five years on, and three years since it finished its public hearings, we're still waiting for the report to published.  First the suggestion was the "Maxwellisation" process of writing to those criticised was likely to begin by the middle of last year; then came the news there were disagreements between Chilcot and the Cabinet Office over the publication of documents and memorandums between Tony Blair and George Bush.  It wasn't clear and still isn't clear now whether this the result of complaints by Blair or the state refusing to declassify this higher level material, or whether the US may also have objected.  The Graun reported at the end of last year that a compromise had been reached and the inquiry was likely to reach a conclusion by mid-year; now the Independent says those stories were "mere optimism" and the negotiations are still deadlocked.  With the "Maxwellisation" process still to start, and indeed with the very conclusions apparently yet to be written, even if there's a deal during the summer recess it seems unlikely the report will be published until this time next year.

Complaining that this is ridiculous seems to miss the point.  Every inquiry dealing with "sensitive material" is always caught up in seemingly endless discussion about what can and can't be safely made public lest national security be affected.  After all, when the MoD decides to block publication of a book it first commissioned, it doesn't seem quite as ludicrous more care is taken over personal communications between world leaders.  It does however suggest delay is built into these inquiries, governments always believing the more time passes between a controversy and its final resolution the less chance that something beyond criticism of those responsible is taken. 

This remains the case regardless of changes in government, as exemplified by the cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood.  Without letting Blair or Gordon Brown for that matter off the hook, the delay seems to rest with the refusal of the Cabinet Office to countenance releasing anything in the wider public interest that is also secret.  Hence Heywood's visit to the Guardian to demand the return of the Snowden files, where he made clear the government will decide when debates on such subjects begin and end.  This would also tally with the news from Craig Murray that the government has lobbied the Americans on the release of the Senate Intelligence Report on rendition, lest it undermine their efforts to block legal action by Abdul Hakim Belhaj over his rendition to Libya.  It was after all the release by an American court of far more damning evidence of the torture of Binyam Mohamed that led the High Court here to release the "seven paragraphs".

The very least we deserve is to know precisely why publication continues to be delayed and by whom.  It's all very well for Nick Clegg to say the report should be published now, without giving any suggestion as to whether he has done anything practical to smooth or speed the process, but we need more.  With Blair continuing to defend the war, it's difficult to see how he could be trying to delay the inevitable: he is more than ready to brazen out whatever Chilcot chooses to throw at him.  Instead it once again seems to be the secret state acting as a block, always wanting to be in control, while refusing to take responsibility.  Once Clegg and his party would have promised to try and do something about that.

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