“Hello?” *** “OK.” *** “‘Bye.”

John Rentoul

45071591 blair phone getty 226 Hello? *** OK. *** Bye.Infuriated by a report of a case before the Information Tribunal by the grand but anti-Blair Richard Norton-Taylor, I took the precaution of reading the decision by Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner (pdf of Decision Notice FS50341647).

The Foreign Office is appealing against Graham’s decision that parts of the transcript of a telephone conversation between Tony Blair and George Bush in March 2003 should be published.

I thought that this was nincompoopery of the highest category, the results of Freedom of Information gone mad. The Act ought to have an absolute exemption for policy advice and for policy discussions with foreign leaders. Otherwise no one will give ministers honest or difficult advice and no foreign leaders will say anything useful to British prime ministers.

The dangers of a subjective “public interest” override are illustrated by Graham’s pompous anti-war bias in his decision (paragraph 67):

The Commissioner considers that accountability for the decision to take military action against another country is … paramount.

That may be true, but publishing confidential transcripts is not accountability. The Government was accountable for the decision to take military action to the House of Commons and to the British people. The Commons voted in March 2003 and has had every chance to vote since on the results of inquiries by the Foreign Affairs committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Hutton inquiry and the Butler inquiry. The British people voted in 2005.

So I thought Graham’s third-person opinion that the need to publish was “paramount”, apparently taking precedence over the requirements of good government and of US-UK relations, was arrogant and wrong.

Fortunately, that was not what the Commissioner was arguing. Look at paragraph 86:

The Commissioner has decided to order partial disclosure of the information in this case, such disclosure being limited to select extracts of the information which concern the Iraq issue only from the UK perspective, and which do not reveal any confidences or information given by the US, nor prejudice UK relations with either the US, the UN or any other countries.

In a secret annex to his decision, Graham sets out the bits of the transcript that he thinks should not be published, namely anything that President Bush said, or that Blair said referring to anything that Bush said, or anything that would “prejudice UK relations” with the US, other countries or the UN.

In which case, it is hard to see the point of publishing any of it at all. All that can be left must be “Hello?” and “OK” and “‘Bye”.

All the same, I doubt that the US authorities will take such a relaxed view of disclosure. If a President thinks the transcript of private conversations is going to be published by a foreign country, he will be circumspect. That is not in Britain’s interest.

And, even if it were harmless in this case, the pomposity of the Commissioner’s way of saying that he did not agree with the war is annoying and alarming:

The Commissioner considers that such was the gravity and controversy of the decision by Prime Minister Blair to commit the country to the military action taken in Iraq, then any information which might provide the public with an insight or awareness of the Prime Minister’s thinking during the critical period when the decision was finalised, and its implications for the UK carries with it a powerful and compelling public interest in disclosure.

This is anti-war shoemakers, on stilts. The only reason for thinking it important that these transcripts must be published is that they contain the hidden “real” reason for going to war – because that decision was so unreasonable that no right-thinking peacenik could have made it.

The reasons that Cabinet and Parliament authorised military action were the reasons given at the time. It was not possible for Blair to have secretly “committed” the UK to war in conversation, or correspondence, with Bush.

The Information Commissioner should not be siding with the conspiracy theorists, but, more importantly, he should not be allowed to undermine the US-UK relationship in this way.

Photograph: Getty Images

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  • Andreas Bodensohn

    It was not possible for Blair to have secretly “committed” the UK to war in conversation, or correspondence, with Bush.

    Is it possible Blair had already promised Bush to do his utmost to bring in British troops on the US side, even if it took doctoring with dossiers and possibly deceiving Parliament?

    Lets make that #1 on the list of Questions To Which The Answer Is YES.

  • J

    Yes, Mr Tar, if I have understood your comment correctly, I do think the same position applies vis-a-vis the Falklands War: political leaders need to be held to account for their actions, and as they have a strong self-interest in hiding information which may not cast them in a flattering light, we need an independent authority which is able to scrutinise all the information held in our name, and form an independent judgement about where the public interest may differ from the interests of the government of the day.

    It is long established in the courts that the interests of the government of the day do not exhaust the public interest, and to permit politicians (or civil servants, or military officers) to deny that there is any difference would be dangerous indeed.

    That is not to say that the timing of the decision on whether or not the information should be disclosed is not important.  Clearly it can be, particularly with military matters, or even some economic matters.  It would not be desirable to disclose details of a particular operation when it is about to happen, or is already under way.  But in order to know, after the event, whether everything went according to plan, or if something went wrong, we need someone independent to be able to see the information held and decide whether any claim for secrecy is legimitately justified, or is more a matter of saving people from embarrassment or accountability.

  • takeoman

    That is the question that Rentoul J. is always very careful to avoid.

  • Anthony Miller

    These are exactly the same arguments as were advanced for decades before the Freedom of Information Act was passed. “Oh no, we cant have it because Government will fall apart under that degree of scrutiny.” Yet now we have FOI and as far as I can observe the business of government has not given way to social anarchy.

    I refer Mr R to Woodrow Wilson’s 1st point in his list of 14 points on which the League of Nations and it’s modern day descendent the UN are founded. The ideal that there should be…

    1.Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.

    …idealistic perhaps but secrets are not desirable in forigen policy ? Who are they secrets from ? It can only be the people. Clandestine deals between nations are a fertile soil for the weeds of war.

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