Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Minutes of the cabinet meeting that took us to war must be released.

The British government have been ordered to release the minutes of two cabinet meetings which were pivotal to the UK decision to go to war in Iraq.

In the latest ruling in a long-running battle under the Freedom of Information Act to force ministers to disclose the official record of two important meetings of Tony Blair's cabinet, the Information Tribunal upheld a decision yesterday by the Government's information watchdog that the minutes should be made public.

The three-man tribunal ruled that Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, had been right to issue a ruling last year compelling ministers to release the minutes of the meetings on 13 and 17 March 2003, when the cabinet discussed the legality under international law of the invasion to depose Saddam Hussein.

Cabinet minutes normally remain secret for at least 30 years but the tribunal upheld Mr Thomas's finding that the "gravity and controversial nature" of the discussions on the eve of war meant that there was a strong public interest in their disclosure.

The Cabinet Office has 28 days to release the documents or appeal to the High Court on a matter of law. Ministers could also take the unprecedented step of issuing a "veto" and refuse to issue the minutes despite losing their case under the provisions of the FOI Act, introduced by Labour in 2000. Downing Street said last night it was considering its response to the ruling.

The main point of interest in the minutes of these meetings is whether or not the cabinet were given the full story regarding the legality of the war.

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, presented a summary opinion at the March 17 meeting which argued that the Iraq war would be legal without a second UN resolution, which was a considerably less nuanced conclusion than the one he had arrived at in a paper he wrote on March 7th, which many believe was never shown to the cabinet.

Shortly before the start of the Iraq war, the then-attorney general Lord Goldsmith published a nine-paragraph statement saying why he thought the invasion would be legal under international law.

It was published as a written answer in the House of Lords and it said that the United Nations security council resolution 1441, passed in the autumn of 2002, "revived" the authority to go to war explicitly contained in an earlier security council resolution.

Advice from government law officers is normally kept secret. But Tony Blair had failed to secure another UN security council resolution explicitly authorising the invasion – the so-called "second resolution" – and at the time he was under intense pressure to prove to the public that war would be lawful.

Many MPs assumed that the nine-paragraph statement was a summary of a more considered legal opinion drawn up by Goldsmith in private.

But after the war it emerged that the nine-paragraph document – published on March 17 2003 – was all the legal protection the government had.

More embarrassingly, it also transpired that Goldsmith had written a much more considered, 13-page legal opinion on March 7 that expressed considerable reservations about the legality of the invasion.

The March 7 document was never shown to the cabinet, which met on March 13 and again on March 17 to discuss Iraq. Some campaigners believe that ministers were not told the full truth about the legal question marks raised by Goldsmith and that, if the government has to publish the minutes of those two cabinet meetings, they will prove that ministers were misled.

This was all occurring as the US and Britain were asking United Nations for the infamous second resolution, which they never got. Goldsmith had previously argued that the war could be considered illegal without that second resolution but, when the resolution was not forthcoming, he appeared to change his mind, setting aside previous nuanced considerations. Goldsmith suddenly argued that Saddam's failure to comply revived the security council's authorisation for the 1991 Gulf war (resolution 678) and, therefore, allowed the use of force to disarm Saddam.

Tony Blair has always insisted that the nine paragraph summary he presented to the cabinet was a "fair summary" of the advice he was given and insists that this summary is "consistent" with the longer view written on March 7th.

However, many of us feel that Lord Goldsmith changed his legal opinion to suit the political realities once it became clear that no second resolution was forthcoming, and there were people within the government who uphold that view:
Elizabeth Wilmshurst, deputy legal adviser to the Foreign Office, resigned in March 2003 because she did not believe war with Iraq was legal. Her letter setting out why said Lord Goldsmith "gave us to understand" he agreed with Foreign Office lawyers that the war was illegal without a new UN resolution but changed his advice twice just before the war to bring it in line with "what is now the official line".
Of course, none of this means that we will ever get to see these cabinet minutes. The government can appeal this latest decision or, failing that, simply veto the release of the cabinet notes, although this would be the first time the government has ever used it's veto.

One can't help but feel that the government will go to any lengths to prevent us from ever finding out exactly what took place in the run up to this war. To this day they are preventing any inquiry into the war, which is simply astonishing when one considers the fact that the war is almost in it's sixth year.

But, at all points, any information which we have gained has had to be dragged from the government piece by piece, with them at all times claiming that national security was at risk should they ever reveal the reasoning behind the decision to invade Iraq.

One day we will finally see what took place here. And, I suspect that Brown is going to do all that he can to prevent us from seeing this for as long as he can because, once we see it, we won't like what we are looking at.

There's no way to look at this Labour governments behaviour to date and conclude that full disclosure would help them. This has been a tacky business from start to finish.

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2 comments:

Steel Phoenix said...

Nothing like this ever comes out a t a time when anything useful could come of it. It is the nature of government.

Kel said...

I think they will use their veto rather than allow us to see what actually took place here.