By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
LONDON, Feb. 26 -- A British official on Tuesday ordered the government to release minutes from two meetings of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet in March 2003, saying they could shed light on "uncertainties and controversies" surrounding Britain's decision to join the United States in the invasion of Iraq.
"There is a widespread view that the justification for the decision on military action in Iraq is either not fully understood or that the public were not given the full or genuine reasons for that decision," Information Commissioner Richard Thomas said in his ruling on a request made under the Freedom of Information Act.
The case illustrates how sensitive the Iraq war remains five years after the invasion. The war is extremely unpopular in Britain and was a key factor in Blair's departure after a decade in office. Many people in Britain remain skeptical and suspicious about the government's motivations for becoming the Bush administration's chief ally in Iraq.
Thomas rejected government arguments that the minutes should be exempt from public release because they deal with the formulation of public policy and ministerial communications. The Cabinet Office had argued to him that public disclosure of minutes would inhibit free and candid debate about sensitive issues in future cabinet sessions.
Thomas, who was allowed to inspect the minutes as part of his deliberations, said that while he respected the government's position, "arguments for the withholding of the information are outweighed by the public interest in its disclosure."
The information commissioner's ruling is binding, but the government has 28 days to appeal. A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said officials were reviewing the decision.
"The requirements of openness and transparency must be balanced against the proper and effective functioning of government," the Cabinet Office said in a statement Tuesday.
A spokesman for the commissioner declined to identify the person who filed the Freedom of Information request for the minutes of meetings held March 13 and 17, 2003.
Stephen Byers, who left a cabinet minister post in the Blair government in 2002, said that even if the government released the minutes, "I think a lot of people will be rather disappointed -- the request was for the wrong thing."
Byers said minutes of cabinet meetings are "very broad-brush" and would note only which topics were discussed and what decisions were reached but would "not give a flavor of the to-and-fro of the debate."
Byers said detailed notes are kept by the cabinet secretary and two or three civil servants present at the meetings. Those notes would contain a full record of the discussions and reveal arguments and positions taken by ministers.