UK Covered Up Israel Connection to False Intelligence
- Report: U.K. gov't hid reference to Israel on Iraq weapons dossier
The British newspaper The Guardian reported Thursday that the Foreign
Office in London had successfully managed to conceal a reference to
Israel in a September 2002 document on Iraq's weapons of mass
destruction, fearing harm to bilateral ties.
The Guardian says that the word "Israel" was handwritten next to a
statement in the "now discredited" dossier which said that "no other
country [apart from Iraq] has flouted the United Nations' authority so
brazenly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction."
According to The Guardian, "a senior Foreign Office official" says
that the move was aimed at preventing any damage to relations between
Israel and the United Kingdom.
The Guardian report also says the Foreign Office made no effort to
conceal handwritten notes listing other countries such as the U.S.,
Japan and Germany in sections dealing with Iraqi belligerence.
According to The Guardian, the decision to remove Israel from the
dossier was made by a body called The Information Tribunal, which
"adjudicates on disputes involving the Freedom of Information Act."
The tribunal heard the case after the Foreign Office reportedly
appealed the decision to release the dossier in its entirety.
The newspaper quotes a statement to the tribunal by Neil Wigan, head
of the Foreign Office's Arab, Israel and North Africa Group, in which
he reportedly said "he did not know who had referred to Israel in the
The Guardian quotes Wigan as saying that, "I interpret this note to
indicate that the person who wrote it believes that Israel has flouted
the United Nations' authority in a manner similar to that of the Iraqi
regime of Saddam Hussein."
According to The Guardian, Wigan said that the revelation that Israel
is mentioned in the dossier "would seriously damage the U.K.'s
relations with Israel."
The Guardian also quotes Wigan as saying that comparing Israel to
Saddam Hussein and the "implied accusation of a breach of the UN's
authority by Israel are potentially very serious."
He also reportedly said that, "Unfortunately, there is perception
already in Israel that parts of the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth
Office] are prejudiced against the country."
A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown would not
comment on the document itself but said: "Our position in terms of
encouraging all signatories of the [nuclear] non-proliferation treaty
to abide by that remains the same."
"But we also recognize Israel's position needs to be looked at in a
regional context, bearing in mind they have neighbors such as Iran who
deny the right of Israel to exist."
Succumbing to three years of pressure from freedom of information
campaigners, the British government released the once-secret draft
document on Monday.
The 32-page document, written by a former director of communications
at the Foreign Office, cites intelligence sources to state that Iraq
had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and could easily use
them since it had done so before.
The document, amended in the margins, makes no mention of Saddam
Hussein being capable of launching weapons of mass destruction within
45 minutes, a false claim later used in another government dossier to
make the case for going to war.
· Freedom of information law tested over Iraq papers
· Censorship often hides obscure, harmless facts
Closed hearing and a secret ruling: how the word Israel was deleted
February 21 2008
The battle over the Iraq dossier draft has followed a familiar pattern of Whitehall attempts to block freedom of information requests.
When a researcher first applied to the Foreign Office for the release of the draft dossier, it turned the request down. The ministry then failed to conduct the required internal appeal against its decision.
Its next move was to try to persuade the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, that the document - including the word "Israel" - was exempt under section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act, concerning free and frank discussion.
That failed and Thomas ordered disclosure of the entire document, Israel and all. So the Foreign Office appealed to an information tribunal.
This time it claimed the word Israel breached section 27, covering international relations..
Chris Ryan, who chaired the tribunal, is a solicitor, a former partner at Norton Rose, specialising in intellectual property. In his public judgment, no reasons were given for the deletion of the word Israel. Instead, he said his ruling on section 27 itself was a secret.
Since the Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005, there have been a number of prolonged disputes over the way in which Whitehall departments have handled requests.
One landmark case that eventually reached a tribunal last year involved the minutes of meetings at the Department of Education.
It transpired officials had initially tried to censor an innocuous extract that read: "The group discussed the latest situation on school budgets and funding." It was claimed that the public interest required this sentence to be suppressed because it dealt with "policy formation" by Whitehall.
Officials went on to argue unsuccessfully that the names of senior officials who made such remarks should also be censored, for fear they would no longer be willing to speak out.
"The basis of this approach is a fear of what will happen if a wide class of information is unprotected," according to Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
"People look at the worst-case scenarios." He says officials frequently dig their heels in on principle, even though the rules are clear that every case should be decided on its own merits. Official guidance also says that mere embarrassment is no reason to censor documents. There has to be real harm.
Yet the Foreign Office has been discovered in the past to have suppressed documents on what turned out to be tenuous claims of damage to "international relations". Last year, it refused to let the National Archives release papers about the Falklands, some dating back 80 years, on the grounds they would gravely affect relations with Argentina, and even also with Spain, which still objects to a similar British occupation of Gibraltar.
But when duplicates of some of the papers came to light by accident, it turned out that one censored memo from 1968 merely read: "Our title to the Falkland Islands rests on prescription ... The law on acquisition of title by such means is not well settled."
Another allegedly explosive statement was written for Stanley Baldwin's cabinet back in 1927. It reads: "Our rights of possession were not so incontestable as to render a renewal of the old controversy desirable from a British point of view."
Officials have also fought repeated campaigns to suppress frank handwritten comments on drafts, to try to protect the principle that only formal, sanitised minutes and memos should ever be made public.
How Labour used the law to keep criticism of Israel secret
Crowds attending an Israel solidarity rally in Trafalgar Square in 2002. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian
The full extent of government anxiety about the state of British-Israel relations can be exposed for the first time today in a secret document seen by the Guardian.
The document reveals how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) successfully fought to keep secret any mention of Israel contained on the first draft of the controversial, now discredited Iraq weapons dossier. At the heart of it was nervousness at the top of government about any mention of Israel's nuclear arsenal in an official paper accusing Iraq of flouting the UN's authority on weapons of mass destruction.
The dossier was made public this week, but the FCO succeeded before a tribunal in having the handwritten mention of Israel kept secret.
The FCO never argued that the information would damage national security. The Guardian has seen the full text and a witness statement from a senior FCO official, who argued behind closed doors that any public mention of the candid reference would seriously damage UK/Israeli relations. In the statement, he reveals that in the past five years there have been 10 substantial incidents and 20 more minor ones relating to Israeli concerns about attitudes to their government within Whitehall.
The Information Tribunal, which adjudicates on disputes involving the Freedom of Information Act, agreed to remove the single reference to Israel when it ordered the release of the draft of the Iraqi weapons dossier written by John Williams, the FCO's chief information officer at the time.
Along with unfavourable references to the US and Japan, the reference to Israel was written in the margin by someone commenting on the opening paragraph of the Williams draft. It was written against the claim that "no other country [apart from Iraq] has flouted the United Nations' authority so brazenly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction".
In statement to the tribunal, Neil Wigan, head of the FCO's Arab, Israel and North Africa Group, said he did not know who had referred to Israel in the margin. He went on: "I interpret this note to indicate that the person who wrote it believes that Israel has flouted the United Nations' authority in a manner similar to that of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein."
Its disclosure would seriously damage the UK's relations with Israel, Wigan said. The comparison with Saddam and the "implied accusation of a breach of the UN's authority by Israel are potentially very serious". It was "inevitable" that relations between the UK and Israel would suffer if the marginal note were allowed to enter the public domain, he added.
Wigan observed: "Unfortunately, there is perception already in Israel that parts of the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] are prejudiced against the country". The note on the Williams draft dossier "would therefore confirm this pre-existing suspicion and would increase the damage".
Writing in October last year, he noted that "criticism of Israel received a huge amount of media coverage". The margin comment mentioning Israel would thus be given a "high profile". Harming relations with Israel would undermine the FCO's ability to prevent and resolve conflict "through a strong international system". In addition, there was "an important national interest in relation to counter-terrorism", Wigan said.
The FCO insisted on the removal of the reference to Israel after it lost a long battle to suppress the draft dossier, which was drawn up in early September 2002. It originally argued that the name of the author needed to be protected. It then said the contents of the draft dossier should be suppressed to protect the need for officials to give frank advice. The Williams document was finally released by the FCO last week, three years after it was first requested by Chris Ames, an independent researcher, who pursued his campaign in the New Statesman magazine.
Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, said last year that it was in the public interest that the document should be released in its entirety. The FO appealed against his ruling and took it to the Information Tribunal.
The FCO had no objections to references to other countries in the margin of the Williams document. Alongside the claim that no other country apart from Iraq had twice launched wars of aggression against neighbours, the unknown FCO official writes: "Germany?" and " US: Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico". Against a reference to the use of chemical weapons, the official has written: "Japan in China?"
Claims in the Williams draft are similar to those in the final government Iraqi weapons dossier published in late September 2002. The Information Tribunal ordered the release of the draft, without reference to Israel, observing that it may have played a bigger role in influencing the final dossier than previously supposed. The government tried to distance itself from the Williams draft.
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