Tuesday, February 24, 2009

UK blocks publication of Iraq war discussions

LONDON (AP) - Britain's justice secretary overturned an order on Tuesday that would have forced the government to make public the formal minutes of two contentious Cabinet discussions held before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

It was the first time a special ministerial veto has been used to overturn a decision by Britain's Information Tribunal regarding the country's Freedom of Information Act of 2000.

The minutes detail a Cabinet's consideration of advice it was receiving on the legality of the Iraq war, and the order by Justice Secretary Jack Straw to keep them private set back a long-standing effort to seek insight into one of the most contentious periods in recent British history.

The decision to join the invasion in 2003 sparked widespread domestic opposition and helped transform public opinion of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In Britain, Cabinet papers usually remain private for at least 30 years, but those containing sensitive material can be kept closed even longer.

In the case of the formal minutes from the Cabinet meetings on March 13 and 17, 2003, Britain's Information Tribunal said in its decision last month that "maintaining the confidentiality of the formal minutes of two Cabinet meetings at which ministers decided to commit forces to military action in Iraq did not ... outweigh the public interest in disclosure."

But it also said some portions of the discussion that took place would remain closed, and that sensitive material would be removed in order to protect Britain's foreign policy.

The Information Tribunal typically serves as the final arbiter on freedom of information matters - but the government can override its decision in exceptional circumstances.

Straw said disclosing the minutes would make Cabinet ministers reluctant to discuss politically charged matters in an official setting.

"In short, the damage that disclosure of the minutes in this instance would do far outweighs any corresponding public interest in their disclosure," Straw told lawmakers.

Straw was Blair's foreign secretary when the Iraq war began and closely tied to the decision to go to war. In a 2003 interview, Straw said he was willing to put his job on the line to secure party support for the invasion.

Peter Goldsmith, then the government's chief legal adviser, initially raised doubts about the legality of the war, but on March 17, 2003, gave an unequivocal view that military action was justified under existing U.N. resolutions.

Straw's decision comes after U.S. President Barack Obama pledged in his inauguration speech to open a new era of government accountability.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who succeeded Blair in 2007, backed a law that would have kept secret breakdowns of lawmakers expenses, but dropped the plan when opposition parties said they wouldn't support it.

The U.S. has had Freedom of Information legislation for decades, but campaigners in Britain say the country's leaders are struggling to adapt to a culture of openness.

"They simply haven't agreed to abide by the rules that they set out for themselves," said Maurice Frankel, of British advocacy group the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

Though Blair once promised more government openness, officials often have tried to narrow the scope of the 2000 legislation. Straw also has proposed laws that would allow inquests into the deaths of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to be held in secret.

The deaths have repeatedly embarrassed the British government by exposing lack of equipment for forces of the ground and incidences of friendly fire.

Despite Straw's decision on Tuesday, some elements of Britain's thinking in the run-up to the war have been leaked to the press, including the so-called Downing Street memos, which allegedly showed that Straw privately questioned the wisdom of the invasion.



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