Why I have no faith in the Chilcot inquiry on Iraq

Five reasons to be cynical

1) Chilcot himself. Is this "establishment" man really going to get to the bottom of how we ended up in Iraq? Can someone who acted as a "staff counsellor" to MI6 between 1999 to 2004 be a credible investigator of the flawed intelligence produced on Iraqi WMDs, by MI6, between 2002 and 2003? Will an ex-permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office be able to challenge ministers or his former colleagues in the civil service?

Sir John Chilcot also happens to be a former member of the 2004 Butler inquiry into Iraq intelligence, which failed to land any significant blows. Here is how Philippe Sands, QC describes Chilcot after watching him closely during the Butler inquiry: "Having some familiarity with Sir John's questioning . . . it is not immediately apparent that he will have the backbone to take on former government ministers."

Sands has also referred to the occasion when the Butler committee took evidence from the former attorney general Lord Goldsmith on 5 May 2004:

The uncorrected transcript shows some members of the inquiry pressing him hard. By contrast, Sir John's spoon-fed questions give every impression of being designed to elicit a response from the attorney general that would demonstrate the reasonableness of his actions and those of the government.

2) Recent history. Do you remember the last time an "independent" inquiry revealed the whole "truth" about this or that government misdemeanour or cover-up? Critics of the war had high hopes for every single one of the four previous Iraq inquiries (Hutton, Butler, ISC, FASC) -- and each time their hopes were dashed.

Twas ever thus. As James Callaghan put it after the Franks report of 1983 effectively exonerated Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands:

For 338 paragraphs he painted a splendid picture, delineated the light and the shade, and the glowing colours in it, and when Franks got to paragraph 339 he got fed up with the canvas he was painting, and chucked a bucket of whitewash over it.

3) The composition of the committee. How can you have faith in Sir Roderic Lyne, another establishment man, former senior civil servant and British ambassador to (anti-war) Russia during the Iraq war? As the Labour MP Lynne Jones pointed out in the Commons in June:

He [Lyne] was a special adviser to BP, which currently has major interests in Iraq. Regardless of whether that represents a conflict of interests, it does not help public confidence given the concern that we went to war for oil.

And, as my colleague George has pointed out, "the fact that the inquiry's members include Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the architects of the doctrine of 'liberal interventionism', and Sir Martin Gilbert, who once declared that Bush and Blair could 'join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill', does not inspire confidence." Indeed.

4) The media. Journalists, especially lobby correspondents, on both sides of the Atlantic, have been too quick to swallow the government line on Iraq, have "moved on" at the first sign of "Iraq fatigue" by their readers or viewers, and much prefer to discuss who is up and who is down in the Westminster village or inside the Beltway than to discuss Iraqi politics, intelligence issues or the effects of western foreign policy in the Middle East.

Take Peter Ricketts, former JIC chair and ex-political director at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Ricketts is testifying this morning in front of the Chilcot inquiry. But how many journalists have reported on the leaked "confidential and personal" memo that Ricketts sent to his then boss, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in March 2002?

In it, Ricketts wrote that "by sharing Bush's broad objective the Prime Minister can help shape how [Iraq policy] is defined" and conceded that "what has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein's WMD programmes . . . even the best survey of Iraq's WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile or CW/BW fronts". Here it is, in all its glory, on the excellent Downing Street Memo(s) website.

5) Teflon Tony. The truth about Iraq -- the lies, cover-ups, war crimes, torture, etc -- has never seemed to stick to Tony Blair. Had the British government got its way last week, and the Germans caved, Blair would be enjoying his first full week as president of Europe at the same time as the Iraq inquiry kicked off. It would have been, to borrow a phrase from Bliar himself, "palpably absurd".

Oh, and by now, you will have worked out that I disagree with George on Chilcot and am happy, for once, to include myself in the "green ink brigade" to which he refers. I hope to be proved wrong. But, given these five things, I doubt it.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.