by Chris Ames
The government has indicated that it will again block the release of documents relating to the September 2002 Iraq dossier, on the grounds of “damage to international relations”. This suggests that it hopes to conceal what foreign countries or international institutions said about the dossier as it was being drafted.
The documents could shed light on some of the most controversial claims in the dossier, including a notorious claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa and a suggestion that its acquisition of aluminium tubes was related to a nuclear weapons programme.
The new revelation comes in a letter I have received stating that there will be a further delay in the Cabinet Office’s consideration of my freedom of information (FOI) request for further unpublished comments on the dossier. Earlier this year, the Cabinet Office was forced to disclose a number of comments on an early draft dossier, having sought to block their release for over three years.
These comments showed that intelligence analysts were sceptical of the dossier’s claims and that one Cabinet Office official suggested that it would make a better case for “action” without the caveats and qualifications that would appear in an “authentic” intelligence assessment.
My new request is for comments on later drafts of the dossier and could prove just as revealing. However, the Cabinet Office had already stated that some information within the scope of the request come from or relates to the security and intelligence services and is therefore entirely exempt from FOI disclosure requirements. It also says that disclosure of other information could threaten national security but is considering whether it should nevertheless be released on public interest grounds.
It has now identified a third type of information, whose release would not have security implications, but which falls under section 27 of the FOI Act, which exempts information whose disclosure could prejudice “international relations”.
The Cabinet Office has used this exemption on a number of occasions to block information relating to the Iraq war. It successfully argued that comments offered by former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix should not be disclosed in the earlier case, although it subsequently emerged that Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary, had already disclosed the comments. It also used the exemption to block release of an email in which former Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett is alleged to have asked for the report of the Iraq Survey Group to be embellished.
It is known that one or more of Britain’s allies provided information during the period covered by the FOI request that cast doubt on some of the more controversial claims in the dossier.
A memo from Scarlett that was released to the Hutton Inquiry shows that a reference to high specification aluminium tubes was “toned down” and removed from the dossier’s executive summary following “some very recent exchanges on intelligence channels.” The Butler Inquiry later found that the claim in the published dossier had nevertheless been “materially strengthened” by omitting serious doubts about the suitability of the tubes.
Scarlett also told the Hutton Inquiry that between the drafts covered by the FOI request, new intelligence was received that caused him to tone down the claim that there was “compelling evidence” that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa.
The Cabinet Office has said that it hopes to conclude its consideration of the public interest issues by 19 October. The FOI request has nevertheless identified that unpublished documents exist that could throw light on some of the dossier’s most controversial claims. If the documents are not released, the Inquiry should ask to see them.