Gordon Brown has told MPs the government will decide “very soon” whether to release the secret draft of the Iraq wmd dossier written by Foreign Office (FCO) spin doctor John Williams.
The Information Tribunal ruled two weeks ago that the document, which I requested in February 2005, should be released under the Freedom of Information Act.
At Prime Minister’s Questions this lunchtime, Tory MP John Baron asked Brown whether he would “now immediately release the document, and if not, why not?” Brown replied that “a decision will be announced very soon.”
Commenting afterwards Baron said, “The Government has for too long withheld the truth about the role played by spin doctors in producing the Iraq Dossier. Now the Information 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 public deserves to decide for ourselves the importance of this document in the run up to war.”
The existence of what is now known as the “Williams draft” was first revealed by the New Statesman’s political editor Martin Bright in November 2006. At the time of the dossier’s production, Williams was the FCO’s press secretary. The fact that a spin doctor produced an early draft of the September 2002 dossier has cast doubt on the government’s assertions that the document that took Britain to war in Iraq was the pure work of the intelligence services.
On 22 January, the Information Tribunal rejected the FCO’s appeal against a decision by the Information Commissioner that the draft should be released. In its ruling, the tribunal criticised inconsistencies in the FCO’s evidence and observed 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.”
This evidence included a letter from the FCO to the Commissioner which stated that the draft was prepared “at the request of” Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett, now head of MI6. The government has told both the Hutton Inquiry and parliament that Williams produced the draft “on his own initiative”.
The letter also stated that Williams was at a meeting on 9 September 2002 as “a member of a group tasked with drafting a preliminary document described by that meeting as ‘a draft assessment’ to be used in the production of a draft Dossier”. Scarlett produced what the government has always claimed to be the first draft of the dossier a day later. At the time, he referred to “considerable help from John Williams” towards that draft.
The government has directly denied that the Williams draft includes a reference to the notorious “45 minutes” claim. It is however believed to contain a number of other instances of “sexing-up” that first appeared in Scarlett’s draft. As the New Statesman reported last week, Scarlett’s draft includes the first appearance in a published draft of a false claim that Iraq had “purchased” uranium from Africa. It appears that this claim is also in the Williams draft.
The FCO press office was this afternoon unaware of Brown’s comments and unable to clarify what “very soon” means. The government has until 19 February either to release the document or appeal to the High Court on a point of law. Ministers also have a veto over Freedom of Information Act requests, although this has never been used.