by Chris Ames
In March 2004 John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and one the man technically responsible for the sexed-up September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, sent an email to Charles Duelfer, the head of the CIA-led Iraq survey group (ISG), asking him to sex-up up the ISG’s interim report by inserting nine or so “nuggets” of claims about WMD that were already known to be false.
In 2008, I made a freedom of information request for the Scarlett email, which the Cabinet Office turned down, largely based on Section 27 of the FOI Act, which relates to possible damage to international relations. I wrote about that episode here.
A month ago, I made a new request, on the basis that the passage of time and the possibility that the Iraq Inquiry would publish the email would have taken the sting out of the alleged damage releasing the email would cause. For once the Cabinet Office did not cite the Section 22 exemption, based on forthcoming publication by the Inquiry. Instead it claimed, rather confusingly that:
Most of the information you have requested is exempt under section 23(1) of the Act, because the information relates to the bodies dealing with security matters, or was supplied to the relevant authority by one of these bodies.
All of the information requested that is not exempt from disclosure under section 23(1) is exempt under section 24(1) of the Act, which exempts information from disclosure if its exemption is required for the purpose of safeguarding national security.
some of this information is being withheld under Section 27(1)(a), (c) and (d) of the Freedom of Information Act which exempts information if its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other State; the interests of the United Kingdom abroad; or the promotion or protection by the United Kingdom of its interests abroad.
It’s not clear that any of this is true and I have asked for a review. But it is interesting that the Cabinet Office has not relied on Section 22. This may be because the Inquiry is steering clear of the story and will not publish the email. Or it may be that the Cabinet Office has finally realised that the exemption does not apply to information that the public authority of whom a request has been made does not itself intend to publish or have published.
Ironically, in an interview with Civil Service World, Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood described how he pushed the boundaries of what the Inquiry could publish:
[With] intelligence material, material relating to Tony Blair’s correspondence with George Bush, government departments basically took the line: ‘We’d never release this stuff. Of course the inquiry should see it, but we’d never release it publicly’.
“Actually, ironically, even though the newspapers accuse me sometimes of trying to cover things up, or whatever phrase they use, I took the view after a lot of deliberation – not months, but several weeks, to be fair – that it was right in this very exceptional case that this material should in general be published. And it will be, as a result of that judgement that I took. So I was really trying to find the right balance between what the inquiry wanted to do, and what departments wanted to do, with government lawyers. And in the end, I basically sided with the inquiry because I think in this very exceptional case, for Tony Blair’s memos to George Bush not to be published wouldn’t be right. For the Cabinet minutes not to be published wouldn’t be right.”
“So you will see, when it is finally published, that there’ll be a lot of material that would never previously have been published alongside an inquiry of this sort. And I think that was the right judgement to make. So it frustrates me a little bit, to be honest, that I’m being accused of trying to get in the way, or covering things up, because that is just absolutely not the way in which I’ve approached it.”