by Phil Hazlewood
Tue Feb 26,
The British government was ordered Tuesday to release the minutes of ministerial discussions about military action in Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.
In a move likely to stoke up fresh controversy over the divisive war, the information commissioner Richard Thomas said the papers should be released because of the "gravity and controversial nature" of the discussions.
"The commissioner considers that a decision on whether to take military action against another country is so important that accountability for such decision-making is paramount," he said.
"In this case, in respect of the public debate and controversy surrounding the decision to take military action in Iraq, the process by which the government reached its decision adds to the public interest in maximum transparency."
Nearly five years on, Britain's involvement in the US-led military action against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's regime remains controversial.
Animosity towards the governing Labour Party and the former prime minister Tony Blair lingers because of the now discredited basis for invasion -- Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction -- and the human and economic cost of war.
Thomas's ruling follows a freedom of information request for the minutes of two cabinet meetings in March 2003, where ministers discussed the then attorney general Lord Peter Goldsmith's advice on the legality of war.
Blair's government strongly resisted demands for the advice of its most senior legal adviser to be made public, until a large section was leaked during the 2005 general election campaign.
Goldsmith then denied ministers pressured him into changing his mind to rule that invading Iraq would be legal in international law even without a second United Nations Security Council resolution.
The Cabinet Office has refused to release the minutes, arguing they were exempt because they related to the formulation of government policy and ministerial communications.
Thomas, whose remit is to promote public access to official information and to protect personal data, said the public interest in disclosing the minutes outweighed that of withholding them.
Disclosure would not necessarily set a precedent, he added, but allowed passages that could be deemed damaging to Britain's reputation abroad could be "redacted" or blacked out.
The Cabinet Office, which said it was "considering" the ruling, has five weeks to appeal.
Former international development secretary Clare Short, who resigned from government after the invasion, said the ruling was "very interesting" but feared it may be a "sanitised" version.
"But I think having made this decision, the discussion won't stop there. There will be pressure for more," she told BBC radio.
The smaller opposition Liberal Democrats said the ruling reinforced their call for an independent inquiry into the reasons for war.
The government was last week forced to release an early draft of its so-called "dodgy dossier" written by a government communications advisor.
But officials say the final version -- including the erroneous claim that Iraq could launch WMDs within 45 minutes -- was the work of intelligence agencies alone.