As the government challenges the Information Commissioner's ruling it should publish the secret first draft of the Iraq dossier, a Tory MP has challenged it to come clean about the role its spin doctors played in sexing-up the case for war.
And I can reveal the government is suppressing many more crucial documents that were not disclosed to the Hutton Inquiry.
Last week Foreign Office (FCO) minister Kim Howells admitted trying to conceal the origins of the first full draft of the weapons of mass destruction dossier, produced by former FCO press secretary John Williams. Howells is also blocking the release of an unknown number of documents showing the involvement of the Coalition Information Centre (CIC) in preparing the dossier that took Britain to war in Iraq.
The CIC papers are among many documents covering the production of the September 2002 dossier that have been identified and requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The government has almost invariably refused to release these documents, claiming that to do so would be prejudicial to the conduct of public affairs, international relations or national security, even though it is now five years since the dossier was published. The common thread in the suppressed documents is that they challenge the government’s claim that the dossier was the work of the intelligence services.
Last November the New Statesman revealed that the first full-length draft of the dossier was produced by Williams, not former Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett. In August the NS revealed that Williams had based his version on an even earlier document from the CIC, the propaganda unit set up by Alastair Campbell to promote UK participation in US led wars.
It was Tory MP John Baron who obtained this evidence. Howells had sent Baron a copy of the letter that the government sent the Hutton Inquiry with the Williams draft. Initially this had the reference to the CIC redacted on the grounds that it was “sensitive”, but Baron used the FOIA to insist that the full text be disclosed. He then tabled a parliamentary question asking why the missing text had been seen as sensitive. Last week Howells replied, admitting that text had been redacted “because we wished to protect the process that Williams used”.
Baron also made a further request under the FOIA, to see all correspondence to and from the CIC as the dossier was being written. The FCO admitted holding “some information” – a standard formula in these cases – but did not state what that information was. Howells then blocked the request, using the catch-all Section 36 exemption, that disclosure would inhibit the provision of free and frank advice to ministers. This was the same exemption former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had used to suppress the Williams draft. Howells admitted that officials had wrongly blocked disclosure without first seeking ministerial approval.
The FCO is still refusing to state how many documents it has and is refusing to deny that there is a substantial number of undisclosed papers, inspite of repeated requests.
The government has already the blocked the release of a number of documents on the dossier that were not supplied to the Hutton Inquiry and the Information Commissioner is due to decide soon whether they should be published. The possibility that the government may hold a further raft of undisclosed papers suggests that the dossier cover-up was even greater than previously realized. Lord Hutton said nothing about the CIC’s involvement, although his Inquiry was briefly told about it. The Butler Review also made no mention of the CIC, reporting that the dossier was in the “ownership” of the Joint Intelligenc Committee from the outset.
Paul Hamill, the CIC’s “head of story development” was one of four spin doctors named by Scarlett in a letter to Tony Blair as having been involved in ensuring that the dossier “deployed the intelligence effectively”. Hamill is also the likely author of the February 2003 “dodgy” dossier, which was revealed to have been largely copied off the internet.
On Thursday and Friday this week, the Information Tribunal is hearing the FCO’s appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decision that the Williams draft should be released under the FOIA. The FCO has resisted release of the draft for nearly three years.
Speaking to the New Statesman website, Baron, who has pursued the issue through debates and questions in Parliament, asked:
"Just what has the FCO got to hide? Why is the Government being so secretive about the involvement of the CIC, unless it is trying to cover up the prominent role played by spin doctors in the lead up to the war?
"This case has again exposed the casual attitude of the FCO towards its Freedom of Information responsibilities. It is high time we were told the truth about the presentation of Britain's case for war in Iraq."