Iraq dossier emails 'devastating'

This is a guest post by Chris Ames

The new revelations about Tony Blair’s Iraq dossier are pretty devastating. Emails revealed intelligence experts veering from despondency about exaggerated claims to black humour about Doctor Frankenstein while policy officials asked for unhelpful caveats to be removed. Surely this is why the documents have been hidden for so long.

I first asked for these papers in June 2005, nearly four years ago. The Cabinet Office delayed for as long as it could before turning down the request, at which point I appealed to the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas. Last September, nearly three years on, Thomas ordered that the papers should be released, hinting along the way that they would provide ‘evidence that the dossier was deliberately manipulated in order to present an exaggerated case for military action’.

The Cabinet Office then quietly appealed the case to the Information Tribunal. Given recent tribunal decisions, such as the cabinet minutes case, they can’t have had much hope of achieving anything other than a further delay.

It’s not clear that the Cabinet Office even intended to fight the case. At the beginning of last week, as it was due to submit skeleton arguments, it told the tribunal that it was withdrawing. This looks like a scandalous waste of time and public money.

The Cabinet Office promised the tribunal that it would give me the papers ‘as soon as practicable’. But no-one told me this until I went to the scheduled hearing on Monday this week. The Cabinet Office was still reluctant to tell me what was happening. Eventually it was claimed that they had been put in the post on Monday night (9 March). [UPDATE: I have just received the documents in the post (Friday morning, 13 March). They package is dated Wednesday 11 March]

Whether this really happened remains to be seen. I have still not received the hard copies. Yesterday morning the Cabinet Office emailed me electronic copies and I learnt that they were going to publish them at midday. This is what government departments usually do with freedom of information requests, discouraging journalists from thinking that they will get much of an exclusive.

In spite of these apparent attempts at news management, the media have woken up to what the documents show. The Iraq dossier was deliberately sexed up, against the wishes of the intelligence community. The case for war was heavily spun.

Straw overrules Information Tribunal

This is a guest post by Chris Ames

Jack Straw’s decision to veto the release of the minutes of two pre-Iraq war cabinet meetings is a dagger to the heart of the Freedom of Information Act. No one who has seen New Labour’s approach to spin and to freedom of information will have expected the papers to be given up without a fight. But that it has come to this so soon says a lot about the man and the government of which he is an immovable fixture.

It is four weeks since the Information Tribunal ruled that the Cabinet Office must release the official record of the two meetings at which the attorney general’s advice (or lack of it) on the legality of the war was discussed. The government had exactly that length of time to choose whether to comply, to launch an appeal or simply veto the request outright. In the end, it chose to put our expectations of government transparency out of their misery.

Straw recognised that the tribunal’s interpretation of the Act –– which he himself took through Parliament –– poses serious challenges to the way that we are currently governed. But he failed to understand that it is the way that decisions are taken, not the possibility of disclosure, that needs to change.

Of course the government may continue to argue that the minutes will not show that anything went wrong, as the Cabinet failed to challenge Tony Blair over Iraq. They can do that because we will not see them. To complete the circle, they may say that the minutes do not therefore justify breaching collective cabinet responsibility and confidentiality. Those of us who think that things went very badly wrong would argue that neither convention is worth saving.

As with the Iraq war, Labour has the Tories for company on the wrong side of the argument. Tempted though the opposition may have been to call for Labour’s dirty washing to be aired in public, they are backing Straw. They are clearly preparing for government and do not want to feed expectations that they will make their own deliberations public.

As Straw justified his decision –– one that was officially taken collectively by the cabinet –– he reeled off the statistics for how many Freedom of Information requests have been dealt with without anyone deploying the veto. But that completely misses the point. If ministers can pick and choose what the Act does or does not cover, the most important and most damaging secrets will always be kept under lock and key.