The news that Chilcot has surrendered to the civil service establishment in not publishing the full evidence about the Iraq War is as depressing as it was predictable. He was told by Gus O”Donnell, the head of the civil service in 2011, that there was no way he could publish all the evidence that he and his Inquiry members had seen, the implication being that the most revealing and controversial parts of the evidence had to be kept firmly hidden under lock and key. What he should have done of course, on grounds of the need for full accountability in the national interest, was to defy the dead hand of the civil service suppression of the truth and published the full evidence ‘without fear or favour’, or at least published it all in redacted form (i.e. blacked out) so that we would all know the extent of the crucial evidence being withheld. Alternatively, if Blair is now saying he’s not responsible for the blockage, he could publish it himself. But of course you cannot believe a word Blair now says, especially when his own interests are threatened, and the subliminal line being put about that the blockage is all the fault of the Americans simply won’t wash.
There is a critical issue of State power here. If you’ve committed a murder or as a public figure you raped a girl 30 years ago, every lurid detail about your past is dragged out into the daylight in open court. But if you’re executive head of State and send hundreds of troops to their death in Iraq and Afghanistan, with thousand more maimed and wounded, the degree of your responsibility is kept secret. Openness and transparency is an admired characteristic of societies, particularly in the US and to some extent (as an aspiration at least) in the UK, but those who set the rules apply it to everyone except themselves, though it is only at that level of power which affects the lives and fate of thousands of citizens that transparency really matters. This has nothing to do with national security: it’s all about the self-serving interests of the perpetrators of the war and saving them from intense embarrassment or worse.
The ramshackle nature of accountability in this country is ruthlessly exposed by this whole episode. First, every one of the inquiries into the Iraq war has been flawed. The foreign affairs select committee was never shown the secret papers. The Hutton committee was a blatant whitewash. The Butler inquiry reached many of the right conclusions, but soft-pedalled its recommendations. Second, Chilcot, a former permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland office, was carefully selected as someone who could be relied on to adhere to civil service protocol if it came to a showdown, as it has. Third, as a further protection for those charged with responsibility for terrible events, they are to be given prior sight of those parts of the report that apply to them so that they have a chance to alter or tone down what it says before it’s published. And fourth, most important of all, the whole process of the civil service shutting down the truth should not be allowed to continue: the decision about what is covered by a strict interpretation of national security should be taken instead by the Information Commissioner and not muffled by those whose first instinct is always secrecy.