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Monday, May 29, 2006

FOI forces UK to explain legality of Iraq intervention

In the UK there have been many FOI applications seeking access to the legal advice available to the government prior to the decision to commit forces to Iraq. The Government’s public position at the time was that the war was legal but the leak of a draft document indicated that the Attorney General had serious reservations.

The Independent newspaper took the Government on about the decision to refuse access.

The Information Commissioner last week issued an enforcement notice requiring the Attorney General’s Department to provide additional information, but stopped short of ordering disclosure of particular documents. The Commissioner said that
“As the Government chose to outline an unequivocal legal position, on such a critical issue at such a critical time, the balance of the public interest calls for disclosure of the recorded information which lay behind those views. By this means the public can better understand the background and rational behind that published statement and the extent to which reliance upon those final conclusions was in fact justified”.
It has now been disclosed that UK service chiefs and others said that a clear statement that involvement in Iraq was legal was required before they could support the intervention, and that there was strong pressure exerted to convince the Attorney General to issue his positive statement.

Prime Minister Howard in Parliament on 18 March 2003 quoted the British Attorney General’s views and his own legal advice that the intervention in Iraq was legal, but that advice was not tabled and has not been disclosed.

We probably only have 27 more years until the Australian records are open to public access.

The Weekend Australian Financial Review had a long and detailed article about Australian decision making leading up to the decision to commit troops to Iraq, almost entirely based on overseas sources. The essay on which the article is based -"Going to war: penetrating the veil on Iraq" is downloadable from this page. As the author Garry Woodard says
"In Australia Prime Minister John Howard runs a tight ship, aided by a more compliant party, parliament, public service and press".

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