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23 January 2008

’Release dossier’, ministry told

Chris Ames explains the significance of the decision to force the Foreign Office to release the secr

By Chris Ames

The Information Tribunal has today ordered the Foreign Office to release the secret draft of the Iraq WMD dossier written by former top spin doctor.

The move casts doubt over the government’s claim that the document played no part in the production of the dossier.

However, the Tribunal has allowed a handwritten note to be redacted which the Foreign Office claimed would be damaging to international relations.

The FCO has said that it is studying the Tribunal decision and declined to name the authors of the handwritten comments.

The secret draft was written by John Williams, the FCO’s then director of communications, on 7 and 8 September 2002, just days after Tony Blair announced that the government would publish a dossier of intelligence showing that Saddam Hussein threatened the world with his weapons of mass destruction.

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It preceded what the government would later claim to be the first draft, written by Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett on 10 September.

I first noticed references to the Williams draft during the Hutton Inquiry, although Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former director of communications, denied outright that there was such a document.

In February 2005, I asked the FCO for a copy under the newly implemented Freedom of Information Act. When then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw vetoed my request, I complained to the Information Commissioner, who found in my favour last May. But the FCO then appealed to the Tribunal, which published its ruling this morning.

The tribunal’s decision is sceptical of the government’s claim that Williams produced his version outside the main process of drafting the dossier. It states that “information has been placed before us, which was not before Lord Hutton, which may lead to questions as to whether the Williams draft in fact played a greater part in influencing the drafting of the Dossier than has previously been supposed.”

The tribunal is also very critical of inconsistencies in the government’s evidence and repeatedly observes that the main Foreign Office witness, Stephen Pattison, its Director, International Security, “was not involved at the time and volunteered no information about the source of his information”. It stated that “it is a matter of concern that the information given to the Information Commissioner on the very nature of the information in dispute was apparently different to the evidence given to us.”

These comments relate directly to the role of the Williams draft in the production of the dossier. The FCO had told the Commissioner that Scarlett commissioned Williams to write the draft but subsequently changed its story.

The tribunal refers to Pattison’s “assertion” that the draft was “not used in the dossier drafting process.” It commented that he was “apparently unable to identify any source for the assertion quoted above among either those who were so involved or from any contemporaneous document.” It also cited evidence suggesting “that the Williams draft in fact played a more significant role in the process” than the government has admitted. This includes the covering note that Scarlett sent Campbell describing his own first draft: “This has been significantly recast, with considerable help from John Williams and others in the Foreign Office.”

The tribunal also reveals that the draft was “annotated in two different persons’ handwriting, suggesting that at least one person other than the author had reviewed and commented on it despite Mr Pattison’s statement that it was put aside the moment it was first presented.” Again here, the tribunal can be seen to be skeptical of the government’s claim that Williams’ work was not taken forward.

However, the tribunal has ordered that one of the handwritten notes should be redacted from the draft when it is published. It is clear that the Foreign Office has claimed that disclosure of this comment would be damaging to international relations, a claim that it did not make at the time of its initial refusal. The decision notice states that this issue is covered in a confidential annexe.

On the content of the draft itself, the Tribunal reveals that some intelligence-related sections of the published dossier bear a resemblance to parts of the Williams draft, although this does not “lead on easily to the conclusion that one had been based on the other”. The dossier was finally published on 24 September 2002, two weeks after Scarlett’s “first draft”, and was central to the case it made to Parliament for war in Iraq.

Responding to the Information Tribunal decision, Conservative MP John Baron said: “This decision lifts the lid on government efforts to cover-up the role played by spin doctors in producing the Iraq Dossier.

“I am now pressing the Foreign Secretary immediately to make public the Williams draft, so that we can assess for ourselves the significance of this document in the run up to war – a war which we should never had been party to.

“The Tribunal agrees that the Williams draft could have played a greater part in influencing the drafting of the dossier than the Government has so far admitted – even to the Hutton Inquiry. The Government cannot hide this document any longer.”

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