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Launching the Iraq Inquiry Digest: an online project

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As a partner of the Iraq Inquiry Digest, OurKingdom will be carrying its feed in its right sidebar

Today, with the help of colleagues and the support of openDemocracy and others, I am launching a new website to cover the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain's participation in the Iraq war. The site has big ambitions: it intends not only to be the definitive resource on the issue but also to hold the Inquiry itself to account. It will also be open and participative, even if the Inquiry isn't.

The site is called Iraq Inquiry Digest, which hopefully conveys an intention to make digestible both the existing information and the Inquiry's forthcoming public hearings. Its strapline is "everything about the Chilcot Inquiry in one place" and in pursuit of this the site already includes a lot of information. It aims both to be helpful to the Inquiry and  to challenge it to be transparent and not engage in an establishment fudge. It can be found at

I'm the site's editor and main contributor. Another significant contributor is Dr Brian Jones, who was head of the weapons of mass destruction analysis branch of the UK Defence Intelligence Staff until shortly before the Iraq war and gave evidence to the earlier Hutton and Butler inquiries. Also supporting the project and likely to contribute are Dr Chris Lamb, who made a freedom of information request for the  minutes of two key meetings of the British Cabinet; Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon was killed in Iraq; Dr Glen Rangwala who exposed the "dodgy dossier" on Iraq's alleged concealment attempts and MPs from each of the major UK political parties. Journalists Peter Oborne and Michael Smith, who published the internationally famous Downing Street documents, are also supporters, as are Index on Censorship.

So far we have attempted to assemble the existing evidence and define the questions that the Inquiry needs to answer. The overriding questions, which should be of interest to people across the world, not least in Iraq, are how did Britain come to sign up for the US-led invasion and what responsibility does it bear for the chaos and bloodshed that followed? 

Between now and the first public hearings, we will also be releasing new information and new analysis. When the hearings get going, we will comment on what we do - or don't - find out.

Assuming that it is not immediately obvious why such a site is necessary, I shall set out the context that led me to set it up. This should also go some way towards explaining the approach that the project will take in its attempts to be open and inclusive and leave no stone unturned.

The idea for the site came out of fears that the government planned to convert Gordon Brown's longstanding promise of an inquiry into a traditional British establishment stitch-up, which would investigate in secret and announce conclusions that no-one could test or challenge because the evidence on which they were based had not been disclosed.

Reports in the British media tended to support such fears and when Brown announced his model for the Inquiry in June he seemed to confirm them. The Inquiry, he insisted, had to take place in secret and would not apportion blame. His justification was that an inquiry that took place a quarter of a century ago - the Frank Inquiry into the Falklands war - took a similar approach.

Although a very rapid and powerful backlash caused Brown to change tack, the suspicion remained that neither he nor the Inquiry were as committed to transparency as they might be. After all, Sir John Chilcot, the Inquiry's chairman had apparently agreed to Brown's initial proposal. Was he not rowing back as fast as Brown when an exchange of letters was published, saying that the Inquiry would take place largely in public after all? Did he not wait for foreign secretary David Miliband to give permission for the Inquiry to "praise or blame whomever it likes", before making such an assertion for himself?

Indeed, what Chilcot said at his July press conference raised suspicions that the Inquiry will indeed shy away from making criticisms and pull its punches as establishment inquiries invariably do. "This committee will not shy away from making criticisms," he said.  "If we find that mistakes were made, that there were issues which could have been dealt with better, we will say so frankly." If the weight of evidence shows that, as many people suspect, Tony Blair and a clique of ministers and officials conspired to invade another sovereign country on a largely bogus pretext and then launched a massive cover-up, a conclusion that mistakes were made and that issues could have been dealt with better will be seen as little more than a whitewash.

That of course has been the fate of four previous inquiries, particularly the Hutton Inquiry, in spite of setting a new standard for openness and transparency by holding public hearings and publishing most of its documentary evidence online as it was received. The majority of the British public could not work out how Hutton had reached the conclusions that he did based on this evidence. His conclusions and those of the other inquiries have since been undermined further by the disclosure - largely through leaks - of  significant evidence that they either did not see or ignored. Hutton, who was investigating evidence that the government's spin doctors interfered with its September 2002 dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, somehow failed to disclose that the first draft of that document had actually been written by a spin doctor.

The result of these unsatisfactory inquiries is a huge disconnect between the British public's understanding of what happened to take the country into Iraq and the official narrative. The damage done to its faith in the democratic process is incalculable.

This, along with the scandal of MPs expenses, is the background to both the Chilcot inquiry and the Iraq Inquiry Digest. In a modern, ostensibly open society in which political figures are no longer trusted to have all the answers or always to tell the truth, the citizen can no longer sit back and allow the establishment to investigate itself. If we do, we will be in no position to complain if the Chilcot Inquiry merely concludes that mistakes were made in good faith by honourable people.

Not that Iraq Inquiry Digest has made up its mind about the Inquiry or its outcome. The website as it exists, with its list of questions and evidence, is only the starting point. It is intended to be open to all, both transparent and participative. The web provides the perfect vehicle for a project that allows the citizen to respond to the Inquiry, because it is immediate, accessible, international and particpative. If anyone thinks either the Inquiry or the Digest is missing the point about something, we want them to let us know.

We are also asking anyone with information that has been withheld or who knows about an attempt to mislead the Inquiry to let us or the Inquiry know - preferably both. This time, nothing must be allowed to fall through the cracks. Naturally, the confidentiality of anyone giving us such information will be respected.

One issue that has yet to be resolved is what the eventual output of the project will be. Although Gordon Brown failed to achieve a secret inquiry, he did manage to delay and extend the Inquiry so that no report - not even an interim one - will appear before the UK general election that must take place by June 2010. Should the Iraq Inquiry Digest try to produce some kind of summary before the election? In some ways Brown's efforts threaten the worst of both worlds. The chances are that new revelations will damage the government before the election, with no chance of a Hutton-style report that blunts their impact. If that is the consequence of a botched stitch-up, so be it.

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