More on Jack Straw and freedom of information

This is a guest post by Chris Ames

Earlier this month I pointed out the acute double standard that the government applies to disclosing ‘confidential’ information. By way of a quick update, I can report that it is actually worse than it looked.

The gist of the story then was that the Cabinet Office had succeeded in censoring part of a document that it was forced to disclose under the Freedom of Information Act, even though Jack Straw had already published the document in full when he was Foreign Secretary. The missing part of the document revealed that former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix had commented on an early draft of the September 2002 Iraq dossier and Straw used it to divert attention from the withdrawal of the notorious 45 minutes claim.

I have since obtained the letter that Straw’s private secretary sent Blix before Straw published the document. It shows that Straw did not actually obtain permission to publish Blix’s comments in the way that he did. Instead, he warned him that he might have to refer to one comment — that the dossier ‘did not exaggerate the facts, nor revert to rhetoric’ –– and sought to ‘check’ that he would have no objection.

In a piece yesterday for Comment is Free, I quoted from the letter that Blix sent Straw’s private secretary in response. I show how Straw ignored Blix’s clear statement that he had not seen the intelligence on which the dossier based its claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and so ‘obviously’ was not endorsing those claims. In spite of this, Straw told parliament 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.’

The net effect of what Straw did here is probably worse than what the Cabinet Office warned against when censoring Blix’s comments. Anyone planning to trust the British government with confidential information is likely to assume not only that the information may be disclosed at some future date but that it might also be seriously misrepresented.

What the government will not do of course is to disclose ‘confidential’ information –– unless it suits its purposes to do so.