One often forgotten driver of openness are Public Inquiries. Large, detailed and forensic, they are often seen as way for politicians to hide a problem away. Yet they can also be very helpful in pushing the boundaries of what we can access.
Inquiries can create pressure by what they expose. The Arms to Iraq inquiry of the 1990s unearthed all sorts of scullduggery and helped lead to the UK Freedom of Information Act (and the famous phrase being ‘economical with the truth’). In Ireland the famous beef scandal did a similar thing. Due to their detail they can also give all sorts of interesting pieces of information that journalists can chase. The succession of Iraq War inquiries (now on its fifth) helped Chris Ames put together an amazing series of documents chronicling the development of the famous WMD dossier-you can see the results of his many years of effort here. His paper trail revealed that much of what politicians said was very, very economical.
Even when Inquiries don’t reveal all, they tell us where the gaps are. The gaps in their knowledge are often as interesting as what they expose-the famous 9/11 redactions that Obama promised to release (but hasn’t) continue to attract attention. In December last year two members of Congress were pressuring for a 28 page redaction of a Congressional inquiry to be released dealing with possible foreign assistance in the attacks (there’s a detailed discussion here).
In the last week there are two interesting inquiry related stories to keep an eye on. The first is the Chilcot inquiry into Iraq. It seems the inquiry has been battling to access certain notes (130 in all) written by Blair to Bush in the run up to the Iraq war-notes someone appears very keen on not releasing. Cameron has now promised the report will be released in 2015.
The second is the Snowden leaks of NSA surveillance. Today it emerged the Guardian has used the US FOIA to obtain a report detailing the damage it did-it claims the revelations did huge damage-but the actual evidence is itself blacked out.