Iraq inquiry: plug pulled on sensitive material
Chris Ames: the cutting of a live stream due to "sensitive material" has further undermined the beleaguered Chilcot inquiry
16 Dec 09

Yesterday at the Iraq inquiry, chairman Sir John Chilcot cut the live broadcast of a public hearing when former diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock strayed into a “sensitive” area. It could not have come at a worse time for the inquiry, as it tries to fight back against claims that it is hamstrung by restrictions imposed by the government on what it can say, what it can ask and what it can publish.

Conducting a live public inquiry whose proceedings are available almost live on the internet is no easy task and Chilcot is in the unenviable position of having to make very rapid decisions about what can be broadcast. But the inquiry has dug itself into a very large hole by not being open about what it is concealing. Now Chilcot has drawn attention to the issue and given his critics a field day.

Greenstock was telling the inquiry that after the invasion of Iraq the then US secretary of state Colin Powell was reading his telegrams to London “because he [Powell] wasn’t getting enough information from the Pentagon about what was really going on in Baghdad”. A redacted section of the published transcript is said to refer to intelligence matters. Presumably these refer either to how Powell got hold of Greenstock’s telegrams or how Greenstock knew he had got hold of them.

Either way, it was enough for Chilcot to stop the broadcast and carry on in secret for about a minute on the grounds that “we need to stay off sensitive areas”. At the end of the session, he explained that the censorship occurred “because there was a mention of sensitive information, as it is defined in our published protocols”.

I asked the inquiry whether, having looked at what was said, it is satisfied that it should be withheld and, if so, which part of which protocol it fell foul of. A spokesperson told me that: “Yesterday’s broadcast was interrupted for just over one minute due to sensitive information relating to national security being mentioned in the hearing. A redacted transcript is available on the website.”

So the inquiry has at least put on the record that information was suppressed on grounds that relate to national security, although the sensitivity appears to be more an issue of diplomatic embarrassment. Of course, because the information remains secret, we cannot know the reality.

This is the trouble with the protocols that the inquiry has agreed with the government: the list of reasons for taking evidence in secret and for not publishing “sensitive” documents is very lengthy and many of those reasons are extremely flexible. Strictly speaking the protocol in question requires that disclosure would “cause harm or damage to the public interest…including, but not limited to national security…”

The protocols have already come under fire from myself and others because they have been seen to restrict the inquiry’s openness in a way that has not been acknowledged.  The inquiry has not only failed to publish any of the “mountain” of documentary evidence it has been given, but failed to give any reasons. Neither has it acknowledged the extent to which its public questioning has been hamstrung by the now notorious protocol, which keeps it off “sensitive” areas.

As I noted here, I have tried to find out from the inquiry whether it plans to publish any documents during the hearings. It referred me to the statement on its website that “the committee intends to publish the key evidence with its report at the end of the inquiry. It may also publish material on the website as the inquiry progresses where this will help increase public understanding of its work.” When I suggested that the position might have moved on since July, I was told tersely: “I’ve already explained the position to you very clearly.”

It would seem that the inquiry and the government have agreed that no new documents will be put into the public domain until the end of the process. Last week, cabinet office minister Baroness Royall of Blaisdon gave a craftily worded answer to a parliamentary question from Lord Lester, seeking to know “whether members of the Iraq inquiry will decide whether government documents provided to it will be made available to the public; and, if not, who will make the decision.”

Royall said: “It is for the inquiry to decide which government documents it would like to make public when publishing its final report. The information protocol agreed between the government and the inquiry, published on the cabinet office website on 29 October, sets out the process for handling publication of the most sensitive documents.”

What is interesting here is firstly that Lester asked about publication of documents in general and Royall referred to documents published alongside the report, which could be a year or more away. It seems there is no expectation of anything being published now. Also, while Royall was right to say that the inquiry decides what it would like to publish, she hid the fact that it is for the government to “make the decision” on what it can publish. It is also untrue to suggest that the protocol covers only “the most sensitive documents”. It covers all documents provided by the government and provides a long list of reasons why they might not be published. Sensitivity is a very elastic concept.

Yesterday’s dramatic events brought the issue of censorship at the inquiry out into the open and onto the news bulletins. It would be nice to give Chilcot the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that conducting an inquiry that covers intelligence issues and is broadcast nearly live is a heavy responsibility. But if the inquiry remains in denial about what it is not allowed to say and to publish, it will continue to provoke suspicion.