Freedom of information when it suits
08 Apr 2009

chris_ames_140x140jpgWhy is British government trying to censor documents relating to the Iraq war it has already published, asks Chris Ames

A new twist in the tale of Tony Blair’s Iraq dossier has exposed the blatant double standard that the government applies to disclosing ‘confidential’ information. Freedom of information (FOI) requests and court papers showing UK complicity in torture will be blocked. But when publication serves a minister’s purpose of scoring a political point –– no problem.

Two weeks ago, I described here how I had acquired a previously secret list of documents that the Information Commissioner had allowed to be withheld or censored as part of an FOI release. These documents commented on an early draft of the September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’. They included a letter from the UK mission to the United Nations, from which the comments of an official of an international organisation had been ‘redacted’.

According to the Commissioner’s decision notice, the Cabinet Office had cited the exemption under Section 27 of the FOI Act, relating to damage to international relations. Officials had asserted that the comments were given in confidence and that publishing them would provide evidence that Britain does not protect confidential information, leading to an erosion of trust.

I said that the government had not previously disclosed that any such organisation had commented on the dossier. This was not quite true, and I hold my hand up to my error, although admittedly, I did not have all the information. When the Cabinet Office subsequently disclosed the identity of the letter’s author, a quick Google search revealed that Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, had already published it in full. The comments in the letter were from no less a figure than former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.

In 2004, having to announce the withdrawal of the notorious ’45 minutes’ claim, Straw was clutching at, well, straws. He claimed that ‘the evidence that we put forward was a view that was widely shared at the time by other foreign intelligence agencies, as well, as it happened, by Dr. Blix’. He quoted Blix, as reported in the letter, saying that the dossier ‘did not exaggerate the facts, nor revert to rhetoric, probably both desirable for its credibility’.

This was both misleading and unfair to Blix. As Straw admitted, Blix was shown an early draft of the dossier. Recently published documents have confirmed that it was deliberately hardened up between the draft in question, dated 10 September 2002, and the publication of the final document on 24 September. The 45 minutes claim was sexed-up and caveats and qualifications were removed. As Blix once put it, question marks were replaced with exclamation marks.

But did Straw also breach Blix’s confidence? It appears not, although he did not make this clear at the time, telling Parliament only that he had informed Blix of his intention to publish his comments. To an outside observer, it appeared that Straw was not only being cavalier with confidential information, but using it against the person who supplied it. In fact, Blix has told me that he could have objected to the disclosure, but did not.

Behind the farce of a government trying to suppress a document it had already published lies an important question. If Straw could obtain such consent as was required to make a political point, why could not the Cabinet Office have done something similar in relation to my FOI request?

The answer is that there is an acute double standard when it comes to confidential information. A government that can claim damage to international relations to suppress evidence of torture and cite cabinet confidentiality to withhold cabinet minutes will find a way around such concerns when it suits its own interests.

Last week the Cabinet Office confirmed that it is invoking the same FOI exemption to withhold another Iraq-related document, in this case an email that intelligence chief John Scarlett sent to the head of the post-war Iraq Survey Group, asking him to include false claims about Iraq’s WMD. Even though the information was generated by a British official, the government still claims confidentiality.

The Blix episode does not reflect very well on the Information Commissioner’s office (ICO) either. It does not appear to have checked that the letter was not already published or to have asked whether the Cabinet Office had taken the basic step of seeking Blix’s permission to disclose it.

But it was thanks to the efforts of the ICO’s solicitors that the full story was eventually revealed. Initially the Cabinet Office disclosed the information in question by typing the text of emails and letters into a new document rather than releasing the documents themselves. This was full of errors and withheld the identity of the Blix document’s author. When I complained, the ICO ensured that I got an accurate account of the information.

There are lessons for everyone involved in this saga. Most importantly it has shown everyone, including the Information Commissioner, the double standard that the government applies to the release of confidential information.

2 responses to “Freedom of information when it suits”

  1. […] as I disclosed earlier this month on the Index on Censorship website, Straw was less concerned about protecting confidential information when he had to tell […]