Britain told to publish Iraq war discussions

Britain told to publish Iraq war discussions
Tue Jan 27, 2009

""The release of these minutes could be critical in how history views this decision," said Edward Davey, a spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrat party."

By Tim Castle

LONDON (Reuters) - Records of British cabinet discussions over the legality of invading Iraq, held in the buildup to war in 2003, must be released to the public, a tribunal ruled Tuesday.

Publication of the documents could embarrass Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose predecessor Tony Blair was accused by critics of glossing over lawyers' initial reservations about launching the invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Brown's office said it was considering its response to the ruling, made by a tribunal which decides on requests for documents under freedom of information laws.

The tribunal said it was in the public interest to release minutes of the cabinet discussions.

The documents from two cabinet meetings in March 2003 may reveal whether ministers were aware of an apparent change of mind over the invasion's legality made by the government's then senior legal officer, Attorney General Lord Goldsmith.

Previously released documents have shown that Goldsmith had cast doubt on the legal grounds of war on March 7, days before Blair ordered British troops in.

Ten days later, when Britain had failed to get a new United Nations resolution authorizing an invasion, Goldsmith gave the cabinet and parliament short written advice that war was legal -- and mentioned no doubts.

Blair denied Goldsmith had bowed under political pressure but opposition parties accused the then prime minister of deceit.

"The release of these minutes could be critical in how history views this decision," said Edward Davey, a spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrat party.

"The Labor government has put a wall of secrecy over the years since 2003 to prevent the full facts coming out," he told BBC television.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the opposition Conservatives have called for a full inquiry into the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which the government has resisted as long as British troops remain in Iraq.

Britain has said it will withdraw almost all its remaining troops from Iraq by the end of July.

The minutes of cabinet meetings would normally be kept secret for 30 years.

Britain's Information Commissioner ruled last February that the government should release the documents.

The government appealed against this ruling but Tuesday the tribunal upheld the Commissioner's decision. Continued...

Downing Street Minutes..More Coming Soon

Iraq minutes 'must be released'
Tony Blair
The order concerns meetings of Tony Blair's cabinet in 2003

Ministers have been ordered to release minutes of the cabinet meetings which discussed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The Information Tribunal upheld a decision that details of the March 13 and 17 sessions should be disclosed.

The sessions covered whether invasion was allowed under international law. Ministers failed to block the Freedom of Information bid to release minutes.

Downing Street said it was considering its response. The Lib Dems and Tories repeated calls for an Iraq war inquiry.

The Cabinet Office now has 28 days to decide whether to appeal to the High Court against the ruling.

Alternatively, the government could decide to veto the request under Section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act within 20 working days of the tribunal's ruling.

'Public interest'

More from the GUARDIAN

Government must release cabinet minutes on lead-up to Iraq war
Information tribunal orders publication of minutes following battle by campaigners

* Andrew Sparrow, senior political correspondent
*, Tuesday 27 January 2009 16.38 GMT

A British soldier stands guard in a location south of Basra, Iraq, in April 2003. Photograph: Dan Chung

A British soldier stands guard in a location south of Basra, Iraq, in April 2003. Photograph: Dan Chung

Secret government discussions about the Iraq war are to be disclosed after an information tribunal today ordered the release of cabinet minutes from 2003.

The decision follows a lengthy battle by campaigners, who have argued that the public interest in learning what was said about the planned invasion outweighs the public interest in cabinet discussions being kept secret.
Link to this audio

Ministers have strongly opposed the request, arguing that the Freedom of Information Act was never intended to allow for the publication of information of this kind.

The tribunal upheld a decision by the information commissioner that details of the sessions on 13 and 17 March should be disclosed.

The meetings considered the highly controversial issue of whether the invasion was allowed under international law. Lord Goldsmith, who was attorney general at the time, initially suggested that the legality of the invasion was legally questionable before subsequently issuing legal advice saying that it would be compatible with international law.

This has given rise to persistent claims that ministers were not fully briefed on the possible legal pitfalls of an invasion.

Today's ruling does not necessarily mean the minutes will be published because the government has 28 days to appeal.The tribunal said that the exceptional circumstances relating to the two cabinet meetings meant that publication was justified and that it would not set a precedent for the publication of all cabinet minutes.

Last year Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, ordered the government to publish the minutes. The government appealed to the information tribunal, which adjudicates when official bodies are unwilling to comply with rulings from the commissioner.

Ministers will now have to decide whether to publish the minutes, to appeal to the high court, or to issue a ministerial veto banning publication. Under the Freedom of Information Act the government has the right to refuse publication as a last resort, but this veto power has not been used since the act came into force in 2005.

Thomas said today: "I welcome the careful consideration that the information tribunal has given to this important issue. I am pleased that the tribunal has upheld my decision that the public interest in disclosing the official cabinet minutes in this particular case outweighs the public interest in withholding the information. Disclosing the minutes will allow the public to more fully understand this particular decision. I am also pleased that the tribunal reached the same conclusion as I did in relation to the publication of the handwritten notes of the meetings."

In its ruling the tribunal said: "We have decided that the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of the formal minutes of two cabinet meetings at which ministers decided to commit forces to military action in Iraq did not, at the time when the Cabinet Office refused a request for disclosure in April 2007, outweigh the public interest in disclosure. We have reached that decision by a majority and not without difficulty.

"We concluded that there was a strong public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of information relating to the formulation of government policy or ministerial communications (including, in particular, the maintenance of the long-standing convention of cabinet collective responsibility).

"However, this is an exceptional case, the circumstances of which brought together a combination of factors that were so important that, in combination, they created very powerful public interest reasons why disclosure was in the public interest."

Although the tribunal said that the minutes ought to be published, it also accepted that some sections should be redacted, or edited, "to avoid unnecessary risk to the UK's international relations".

The tribunal also ruled that "certain informal notes" taken alongside the formal cabinet minutes did not need to be published.

In its ruling, the tribunal said that the controversy about Goldsmith's legal advice was a factor in persuading it to come down in favour of publication.

"The decision to commit the nation's armed forces to the invasion of another country is momentous in its own right, and ... its seriousness is increased by the criticisms that have been made (particularly in the Butler report) of the general decision-making processes in the cabinet at the time," the tribunal said.

"There has also been criticism of the attorney general's legal advice and of the particular way in which the March 17 opinion was made available to the cabinet only at the last moment and the March 7 opinion was not disclosed to it at all."

The Cabinet Office now has 28 days to decide whether to appeal to the high court against the ruling.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "The information commissioner has just made an announcement on this and we are considering our response."

William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, said: "Rather than have items of evidence dragged into the public domain piece by piece the government should set up a full-scale privy council inquiry into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war.

"The sooner we can learn the lessons of the war the sooner we can apply them. It is imperative to begin an inquiry before memories have faded, emails have been deleted and documents have disappeared."

Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, said: "This is a very welcome and long overdue decision. The public clearly has the right to see the minutes. Their publication may help answer some critical questions, and certain people may find themselves in an even more difficult position.

"The government must now accept this decision, and publish the minutes without delay."

Related: ACLU Calls for Release of Bush Secret Memos

Civil rights group to Obama: Release secret Bush memos
Mike Sheehan
Published: Wednesday January 28, 2009

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is calling on the Justice Department to release Bush administration documentation pertaining to torture, surveillance and other controversial national security policies.

The civil rights watchdog sent a letter today to the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, the same office that provided legal advice to the White House under George W. Bush.

The secret memos were essentially the legal foundation for many of the Bush adminstration's questionable practices, says the ACLU in a news release received by Raw Story.

The Bush White House vigorously fought the release of such revealing (some would say, damning) documentation in the interests, it insisted, of protecting national security and other factors.

The ACLU's filing of the Freedom of Information Act request follows President Obama's recent directive to minimize federal secrecy and "usher in a new era of open government."

The request is seen as a test of the freshly inaugurated president's transparency policy. "The ACLU now sees a new opening," writes Marisa Taylor of McClatchy Newspapers.

The new policy is a promise by Obama that the rights group hopes he follows through with. "President Obama should be commended" for his commitment to openness, said an ACLU director. "We're eager to see this commitment put into practice."

The release of the secret documentation will help the nation--and the world--move on from the "lawless conduct" of the Bush administration, the ACLU argues.

More details on the ACLU's pursuit of the information release is here. Excerpts from their press release today follow...


The Justice Department continues to withhold many legal opinions, including memos purporting to allow torture and warrantless surveillance. The ACLU has previously sought the memos through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

"Releasing the memos would allow the public to better understand the legal basis for the Bush administration's national security policies; to better understand the role that the OLC played in developing, justifying, and advocating those policies; and to participate more meaningfully in the ongoing debate about national security, civil liberties, and human rights," said the ACLU in the letter.

In its letter, the ACLU called on the OLC to release, at the earliest possible date, dozens of legal memos related to interrogation, detention, rendition, surveillance and other Bush administration policies. Since 2003, the ACLU has filed three lawsuits to enforce FOIA requests seeking the OLC legal opinions and other government records. These lawsuits have resulted in the release of thousands of documents, but most of the key OLC memos are still being withheld.