Freedom Of Information: Government could be forced to publish secrets of Iraq memo 1

Via Blairwatch

Al Jazeera continues to seek clarification on the Daily Mirror report of a leaked memo that alleged “President Bush planned to bomb Arab TV station Al Jazeera” and reiterates its call to see a copy of the relevant section of the memo.

Civil servant, David Keogh and MP researcher Leo O’Connor were jailed today for leaking the secret four-page memo. Press and public were banned from the trial which has been heavily criticized by MPs and civil rights groups.

The memo is purported to have recorded discussions regarding the events in Falluja between Tony Blair and George Bush in the Oval office in 2004. Former defence minister, Peter Kilfoyle, stated that ‘There remain unanswered questions about the discussions about the attack on Falluja and subsequent deaths of many hundreds of civilians’.

Another approach to get at the truth is described in todays Independent

What did Tony Blair tell George Bush when they discussed Iraq?

Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, considers how the Freedom of Information Act might provide the answer

A civil servant and an MP’s researcher were yesterday sentenced by an Old Bailey judge for being involved in the disclosure of the contents of a top-secret Iraq memo which recorded conversations between Tony Blair and George Bush during a 2004 meeting in Washington. The same memo has been the subject of an 18-month inquiry under the Freedom of Information Act.

A request made to the Government for the memo’s formal disclosure under the right-to-know legislation is now with the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, who has the power to order release of the four-page document. Such a move would be extremely embarrassing for the Government and undermine the decision to prosecute the two men under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

The trial judge has already imposed a court order preventing any further reference to the contents of the memo on the grounds that such publication would be a threat to national security. In such circumstances it seems very unlikely that Mr Thomas would be able to find an argument in favour of disclosure.

But a careful reading of the Downing Street response letter to the Liverpool academic who first made the request in December 2005 shows that national security is not one of the exemptions that its FOI team relied on to deny access to the document. Instead the Government said that the information would damage international relations between Britain and America. It reads: “The effective conduct of international relations depends on maintaining trust and confidence between governments.”

This is not the same as national security, which government lawyers in the Old Bailey trial had argued would be damaged if the memo was published. They even said that disclosure could threaten the lives of British troops serving in Iraq.

The precise detail of the information being sought is now covered by the terms of the Old Bailey gagging order. But it is clear from the correspondence between the Cabinet Office and the FOI requestor that both sides knew what was at stake.

Part of the argument raised by the academic in favour of disclosure is that the possible content of the memo has already been alluded to in the media and therefore the information is already in the public domain. The content of the memo has been confirmed by a respected source, a Member of Parliament, Peter Kilfolye.

The requestor also reminds the Cabinet Office of guidance from the Department for Constitutional Affairs (now the Ministry of Justice) on the application of the exemption for possible harm to international relations:

Individual requests for information must be considered on their merits but you should take account of what is already in the public domain when assessing prejudice to international relations. The fact that similar or related information is already in the public domain may reduce or negate any potential prejudice.

The Liverpool academic made the same request for disclosure of the memo to the US State Department under the American Freedom of Information Act. It was seven months before he got an answer. And when he did, it was even more disappointing than the one he received from the British government. It read simply: “No records responsive to your request were located.”

A quite astonishing result given that a civil servant was jailed for six months yesterday because a jury found that he had leaked this memo to a researcher working for an anti-war MP. If the memo didn’t exist, then he must be innocent.

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One thought on “Freedom Of Information: Government could be forced to publish secrets of Iraq memo

  • Strategist

    Keep plugging away at this one! We should all get to read a memo that has ended up with two guys in jail for 6 months. The quote that sticks in my mind was Keogh's view that the memo needed to be known because Bush was behaving like a madman.

    Also, if available, info on which jail these guys are in, and where to send letters of support etc.

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