Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Iraq Inquiry (aka The Damned Don't Cry)

Alastair Campbell will appear before the Iraq inquiry for just three hours next week. It will be the first test of Sir John Chilcot's new approach, where high-profile witnesses will supposedly be asked tougher questions than have been put so far. If Chilcot and colleagues keep their promise, are up to the job, and ask questions based on documents that cannot be spun out of existence, it should be the moment when the spinner's previous questionable statements and half-truths catch up with him.
Many people -- including myself -- think that Tony Blair's former director of communications still has a lot of questions to answer about the September 2002 dossier that made the case for war. But his involvement goes well beyond that. In the first few weeks of the inquiry it has been admitted by those close to Blair that the prime minister chose to go along with US plans for regime change, on the pretext of dealing with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It was Campbell's job to make that pretext stand up, however much it wobbled. He could simply say as much and admit that he stretched the truth. But he may feel that he is in far too deep for that – not just the original claim but the subsequent denials, before and after the death of Dr David Kelly.

The above is from Chris Ames' "Will Chilcot grill Alastair Campbell?" (Guardian) and Tim Castle and Michael Roddy (Reuters) say that Campbell "will be the highest profile witness to appear so far before the inquiry." BBC News explains Campbell "was Mr Blair's press secretary from 1994 to 2003." The Iraq Inquiry has resumed public hearings today. If you're late to the party, BBC offers an overview of the Inquiry here and the Guardian's Iraq Inquiry folder is here -- with the latest additions as well as their previous coverage. Channel 4's Iraq Inquiry Blogger has live blogged each day's public hearing and is back today and offers this "Last time, on Dynasty . . ." update:

If Sir John thought his statement at the end of December's evidence might put discussion of the Inquiry and its work on hold for a few weeks he was quite wrong.
Before the year was even out there was criticism of the committee’s decision to delay taking evidence from Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Development Secretary Douglas Alexander until after the General Election – whenever that may be.
The Chilcot panel explained that in order to keep proceedings impartial, ministers who are still doing the job the inquiry wants to ask them about (remember, its remit stretches right up to July ‘09) should wait until then to prevent "hearings being used as a platform for political advantage." Opposition parties smelled a rat and said as much.
Then, just this past weekend, the former Tory PM Sir John Major -- who, it must be said, backed Blair's decision to go to war in 2003 -- let loose: unlike some of its critics he said the Inquiry had already raised big questions about how and why the UK joined the invasion.

Statement at the end of December? John Chilcot chairs the Iraq Inquiry and for reasons known only to himself decided to make the last day of public hearings in December all about him. It was the sort of self-pitying performance not seen since Joan Crawford starred in The Damned Don't Cry. December 17th, he decided to conclude the public hearings for the year with a lengthy statement defending the committee, a statement that went on for approximately five pages in the official transcript. The lengthy monologue included the following:

We have not been trying to ambush witnesses or score points. This is a serious Inquiry and we are not hear to provide public sport or entertainment. The whole point of our approach has been to get to the facts. We have been asking fair questions and have been expecting, and getting, full and truthful answers. That is the essence of a formal public inquiry and witness[es] have responded to this approach by being commendably open and candida, highlighting a number of issues which we shall examine much more closely as the Inquiry continues. Our model of questioning and our selection of witnesses in the hearing up until 11 January is designed to help to establish the narrative. We took a conscious decision to do this through the oral hearings rather than through the publication of a mass of documentary material because we believe that this is the most helpful way to provide the necessary context. We have, therefore, not yet made any requests to government to declassify documents to allow them to be published. As we move into the next phase of evidence taking, where we will hear from ministers and the most senior civil servants and military officers, the Inquiry will increasingly wish and need to draw on government documents and records which are currently classified, in some cases highly classified, in its questioning.

Today's scheduled witnesses are Gen Nichols Houghton, Simon McDonald, William Patey and Vice Adm Charles Style. William Patey was the British Ambassador to Iraq (2005 - 2006) and the Press Association reports he has told the Inquiry today "that for the first time in his career he had received orders directly from the prime minister." The Telegraph of London notes:

He added: "They were quite reasonable instructions, provided you realised that they weren't in my gift or solely in the gift of the British Government.
"There was a tension between the desire for instant results and the realities on the ground. What you could achieve in the sort of timescales that London needed for political reasons - there was a disconnect."
Sir William said that, in particular, he had been under pressure from Downing Street to engage with the radical Shia cleric, Muqtada al Sadr, who was leading an insurgency against international coalition forces.

One person who will not give testimony to the Inquiry is Prince Charles. He was in the news over the weekend as reports surfaced claiming he had spoken out against the Iraq War to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair before the illegal war started. Laurence White (Belfast Telegraph) weighs in:

I feel inclined to accept that it is true. While the Prince's spokesman has refused to comment on a story based on "speculation", you can bet your bottom dollar if it was totally untrue he would have denied it in no uncertain terms.
Much has been made of the fact that Charles was acting unconstitutionally by lobbying senior politicians and foreign diplomats against the decision to go to war. Technically that may be true, but is it proper to gag the Royal Family in such a way? Charles' two sons have military careers, his brother Andrew fought in the Falklands.
Why should he be the only person in the UK not allowed to have a view on the decision to go to war in Iraq? We often say that the Royal Family should be more like the people they reign over. Well this was one instance when Charles, apparently, was echoing the views of many ordinary people and to my mind he was right to express his anti-war sentiments.

The Iraq Inquiry has received very little attention in the US media. But then Iraq receives little attention from the US media. Especially true of Panhandle Media -- a point we'll return in greater detail later today. But for now, let's note that Amy Goodman can 'go to the silences' for the hour . . . or at least to where NPR's Morning Edition already was this morning before Goody ever began broadcasting. And what's more silent than a huckster with a book deal? Check list! The Manny, Moe and Jack of Harvard writes an insta-book and we're all supposed to pretend this is brave media. In the real world, real doctors don't hawk their wares, only whores do.

Iraq makes a brief appearance (number four out of ten -- with a paragraph in number five) in Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse's "The Year of the Assassin" (Asia Times):

Obama swept into office, in part, on a pledge to end the US war in Iraq. Almost a year after he entered the White House, more than 100,000 US troops are still deployed in that country (about the same number as in February 2004). Still, plans developed at the end of the Bush presidency, and later confirmed by Obama, have set the US on an apparent path of withdrawal. On this the president has been unambiguous.
"Let me say this as plainly as I can," he told a military audience in February 2009. "By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end ... I intend to remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011."
However, Robert Gates, his secretary of defense, has not been so unequivocal. While recently visiting Iraq, he disclosed that the US Air Force would likely continue to operate in that country well into the future. He also said: "I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see agreements between ourselves and the Iraqis that continues a train, equip and advise role beyond the end of 2011."
For 2010, expect platitudes about withdrawal from the president and other administration spokespeople, while Defense Department officials and military commanders offer more "pragmatic" (and realistic) assessments. Keep an eye out for signs this year of a coming non-withdrawal withdrawal in 2011.

In the words of Stevie Nicks: "Welcome to room, Sara, Welcome to the choir, sir" ("Welcome To The Room . . . Sara," written by Stevie, first appears on Fleetwood Mac's Tango In The Night).

Marcia's "Hey KPFA, where are the women?," Ann's "The Morning Show's sexism is showing," Ruth's "A sexist broadcast from Women's Media Center," Kat's "Comic, Flashpoints, year end" and Elaine's "The Infantile Norman Solomon" covered public radio last night (and I'm mentioning them again in part to remind myself to work it into the snapshot today) and Kat includes, from Indybay Media, this open letter from Dennis Bernstein of KPFA's Flashpoints Radio:

Open Letter to KPFA General Manager, Lemlem Rijio and the KPFA community
by repost from D. Bernstein
Thursday Dec 31st, 2009 12:37 PM
Dennis Bernstein replies to a letter sent by KPFA General Manager Lemlem Rijio to the staff list concerning the cuts to Flashpoints
Open Letter to KPFA General Manager, Lemlem Rijio and the KPFA community of Listeners
/And A Bold Proposal
By Dennis Bernstein, Executive Producer, Flashpoints
On December 30th
[Response to Rijio letter of 12/30, KPFA Staff: KPFA Open Letter on Budget Reductions, which is not copied here due to a confidentiality notice]

KPFA GM, Lemlem Rijio addressed the KPFA Pacifica community in an open letter . . about the current financial crunch at KPFA. While the crunch is real, I would of course disagree with several statements made in the letter by MS Rijio.
But let me just shed light on one point, in which she directly addresses Flashpoints, and then I'd like to offer a bold proposal to Management and workers at KPFA, to step up and stand strong for Free Speech Radio.
Ms Rijio states in her open letter: "At the current staffing level (after cuts to all programs), Flashpoints has more staffing per hour than all other public affairs programs at KPFA."
Really? Under current management, Flashpoints has lost fifty percent of its budget, leaving the show with 80 paid hours for staffing.

Currently KPFA news has well over 200 paid hours for staffing, five times the plant space as Flashpoints, and their own broadcast studio. They also have full access to Free speech Radio News which is a major contributor to the news cast. According to the official budget figures for fiscal 2005/2006, the news department budget went up over $50,000 dollars under current management, while the Flashpoints budget was cut. Administration went up over $30,000 dollars in the same period. The trend continued, as MS Rijio expressed her priorities clearly, by continuing to cut (and censor) Flashpoints, while increasing the budgets for the morning show and the news and administration.

Statement of Fact: The Flashpoints budget has been slashed in half under current management.
Question: Have the budgets for the morning show and the KPFA news gone up or down under the same management?
Question: Did current management bust the budget, and are they now using the bust as an excuse to get rid of, or at least marginalize a radical edgy show like Flashpoints?

MY Challenge: Ms Rijio writes in her open letter, "program teams, were given the opportunity to voluntarily spread the cuts among themselves, and some staff voluntarily reduced their hours to lessen the impact on their co-workers." Well here's my response to my boss: OK I will volunteer to go on an unpaid six months leave, and work for free, starting immediately if six of my brothers and sisters at the top of the KPFA pay scale will do the same. That would be say the two top managers, and 4 senior members of CWA (let's make room for the next generation).

One more thing, it is my understanding that several people were given major increases in their hours, even while others were being cut. Those hours should immediately be returned back to the hour pool and given back to the people who were just laid off.
If you agree to this action, in support of KPFA,the people’s radio station, Ms Rijio, then I think that it will go a long way to getting us over the financial hump, without hobbling Flashpoints and Hard Knock Radio, which have been hit hardest by the crunch, and which are born under the banner of Pacifica founder, Lew Hill.

In closing, Ms Rijio, I do admire your decision to bring this conversation out into the light of day, with your open letter to the KPFA community. I look forward to this frank open dialogue on how to keep KPFA Free Speech, non-corporate radio strong and viable into the 21st Century.

In Struggle, Dennis Bernstein Executive Producer, Flashpoints, CWA/KPFA member,
dbernstein [at] igc.org

The e-mail address for this site is common_ills@yahoo.com.