/ 29 March 2012

Battle to keep Blair, Bush transcripts secret

The foreign office is fighting to overturn an order to disclose the transcript of what has been described as a key conversation between Tony Blair and George Bush, days before the invasion of Iraq.

It is appealing against an order by Christopher Graham, the information commissioner, to disclose records of the conversation between the two leaders in March 2003.

The appeal is being heard by the information tribunal which adjudicates on disputes over disclosure orders.

“Accountability for the decision to take military action against another country is paramount,” Graham said in his ruling against the foreign office last September. He ordered that part of the record of the conversation between Blair and Bush relating to the invasion “from the UK perspective” be disclosed. The part recording Bush’s views should remain secret, he ruled.

In a further claim at the tribunal, which opened on Wednesday, Stephen Plowden, a consultant and writer who made the initial freedom of information request, is demanding disclosure of the entire record of the conversation.

It is believed that the telephone conversation between Blair and Bush relates specifically to UN resolutions on Iraq and a television interview given by Jacques Chirac, then French president, on March 10 2003.

Backing invasion
At the time, Blair repeatedly blamed the French president for the failure to get a second UN Security Council resolution backing an invasion of Iraq.

Jack Straw, foreign secretary at the time, claimed in evidence to the Chilcot inquiry that Chirac made it clear France would not back a fresh UN resolution “whatever the circumstances”. Straw added: “I don’t think there was any ambiguity.”

The issue is important since the Blair government claimed Chirac’s television interview killed off all hope of a diplomatic solution. Straw claimed: “This was the great Chiracian pronouncement. Whatever the circumstances, he says, la France will veto.”

Straw’s claims were contradicted by Sir John Holmes, then UK ambassador to France. He told Chilcot that Chirac’s worlds were “clearly ambiguous”.

One interpretation, Holmes said, was that Chirac was simply warning that France would veto a fresh UN resolution at that time since UN weapons inspectors had not been given a proper chance to do their job.

Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, Chirac’s chief foreign policy adviser and later French ambassador to Britain, has also said that Chirac’s comments were misinterpreted by Blair. He said France opposed a second UN resolution at the time because it could have triggered a war. That would have amounted to “unacceptable automaticity”.

‘Exceptional sensitivity’
Angus Lapsley, an official responsible for US-UK relations, told the information tribunal on Wednesday that the contents of conversations between a British prime minister and US president were of “exceptional sensitivity”.

Questioned by Robin Hopkins, counsel for the information commissioner, Lapsley said release of the information would lead to “quite serious harm” and could affect US attitudes towards sharing information with the UK.

The information commissioner has described the material he says should be disclosed as records of a “key conversation between Mr Blair and President Bush with regard to a foreign policy decision of almost unparalleled magnitude”.

James Eadie QC, for the foreign office, told the tribunal that in law claims that parliament was misled were inadmissible as evidence.

The hearing under the tribunal judge, Professor John Angel, sitting with two lay assessors, continues. —