Justice secretary accused of cover-up on Iraq war decision

By staff writers
February 25, 2009

Freedom of information campaigners have reacted with anger to UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw's decision to veto publication of minutes of key Cabinet meetings in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.

Opponents of the war say that it amounts to "yet another government cover up", and coincides with accusations that the British authorities have been complicit in torture at Guantanamo Bay.

The Information Tribunal ruled in January 2009 month that the Cabinet minutes from 13 and 17 March 2003, which relate to the government's receipt of advice on the legal status of the war, should be published.

It rejected a government appeal against the Information Commissioner's ruling that the papers be published because decisions taken in the run-up to 2003 invasion of Iraq were "momentous" and controversial.

The government could have appealed against the Information Tribunal's decision in the High Court, but has decided instead to use the ministerial veto for the first time since the Freedom of Information laws came into force.

Freedom of Information campaigners say the use of the veto in this case could set a precedent for less controversial material to be withheld in future. But they also oppose it in principle.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said ministers should have either accepted the Tribunal decision's or challenged it in the High Court if they believed they had legal grounds to do so.

He strongly contested Mr Straw's claim that the veto was necessary to the preservation of good Cabinet government - saying the reverse was the case. First, because it would encourage a greater sense of responsibility and accountability in future. Second, because it was a special case, not a general precedent.

The government has been backed by the Conservative opposition, but criticised by the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and civil liberties groups.

Labour MP Tony Wright, who has also criticised Mr Straw's move, says that the issue at stake is the whole process by which the decision to go to war was taken, rather than specific contents of discussions.

Mr Straw's decision to refuse public scrutiny of a policy widely regarded as a disastrous one comes a few days before the Convention on Modern Liberty in London and across the UK, which will call for more open governance in Britain and an end to attacks on civil rights, abuse of anti-terror laws and the imposition of a 'database state'.

It is now believed that the attorney-general, whose deputy resigned over what she saw as the illegality of the war, changed his own mind three days before it was sanctioned.

Campaigners believe that the minutes will show that the government gave insufficient attention to objections, and that its desire to avoid publication is not to do with principle but with a wish to avoid political embarrassment.

The government is also seeking to prevent a full, formal public enquiry into the Iraq war.

More on the Convention on Modern Liberty - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8763

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