Secret papers on Iraq war decision must be released, ministers told
The Information Tribunal ruled that secret records of Cabinet discussions in March that year must be published and that the public had a right to know what the Cabinet of the then prime minister Tony Blair decided behind closed doors on the issue of the impending war.
But the decision looks certain to spark a fierce legal battle. Mr Brown's officials said last night they were considering the tribunal's ruling, and they have 28 days to decide whether to contest it in the High Court.
Anti-war campaigners have long believed that the minutes could contain crucial information showing that the military action to topple the dictator Saddam Hussein was illegal.
Critics of the war have alleged that Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general, had been pressured by Mr Blair's allies to say the invasion was legal, a claim he has repeatedly denied.
The tribunal's decision covers Cabinet meetings held on 13 and 17 March, 2003, the last before United States and British forces invaded Iraq.
At the first meeting, Lord Goldsmith presented his original legal advice that an invasion might be illegal without an explicit United Nations resolution backing it. At the second, he presented his final finding that an invasion would be lawful as Saddam had not co-operated fully with UN arms inspectors.
It was on the day of the second meeting that the late Robin Cook, then MP for Livingston, resigned as Leader of the House of Commons.
In its ruling, the tribunal said: "We have decided the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of the formal minutes of two Cabinet meetings at which ministers decided to commit forces to military action in Iraq did not… outweigh the public interest in disclosure."
The arguments in favour of keeping the formulation of government policy secret and preserving the principle of collective responsibility had been defeated in this "exceptional case", the tribunal said.
It said its decision had been "difficult" and carried by a majority, rather than unanimously.
The ruling opens up the prospect of one of the most controversial government decisions of recent years being laid bare.
The tribunal said: "The decision to commit the nation's armed forces to the invasion of another country is momentous in its own right, and… its seriousness is increased by the criticisms that have been made of the general decision-making processes in the Cabinet at the time."
Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, said: "I am pleased the tribunal has upheld my decision that the public interest in disclosing the official Cabinet minutes in this particular case outweighs the public interest in withholding the information. Disclosing the minutes will allow the public to more fully understand this particular decision."
Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, said: "This is a major step forward in explaining the supine attitude of members of the Cabinet towards military action and is clearly in the public interest.
"The government only have themselves to blame for this. By procrastinating over an inquiry into the political events before the Iraq war, they have left themselves wide open."
But Clare Short, the former international development secretary who resigned soon after the decision to go to war, said: "I think people will be disappointed about how little the minutes will say.
"For example, they never attribute different points to different people. They are always in very generalised terms."
Ms Short said there was "very little proper discussion", adding: "Cabinet meetings were limited and the minutes are very generalised and limited."
Asked why the government did not want the public to see the minutes, she said: "One, it will be revealed what a weak instrument the Cabinet was.
"But secondly, will it go further? For example, there are two civil servants, one for home affairs and one for foreign affairs, who take a complete note of everything that's said. Would the courts go on to demand that that was revealed? Or the Cabinet Secretary… takes a full, very complete manuscript note himself. Now if those came out, we would really be getting towards a record of what was said."
Key players at the eye of a desert storm
• THEN prime minister, Tony Blair was the driving force behind the war decision. Anti-war critics want to know the extent to which he pushed the Cabinet towards war and crucially, his approach to the legality of the invasion.
• GORDON Brown, then the chancellor, apparently joined Tony Blair in Cabinet in attacking the French for blocking a second UN resolution. Critics will want to know how far he backed Mr Blair over the invasion itself.
• CLARE Short, then the international development secretary, was opposed to the war. She has claimed the minutes will show how little real discussion there was of the war.
• LORD Goldsmith, then the attorney general, changed his legal opinion on the war between these two Cabinet meetings. His part in the Cabinet discussions is crucial to understanding what really happened.
In just days, illegal conflict became legal – question is, how?
THE ruling by the Information Tribunal marks the latest stage in what has been an extraordinarily long and drawn-out saga, as campaigners have tried to reveal the secret ministerial discussions behind Britain's involvement in the Iraq War.
The trail goes back to the key Cabinet meetings of 2003.
In March of that year, two weeks before the invasion, Attorney General Lord Goldsmith gave Tony Blair a detailed legal opinion that doubted the legality of invasion.
Then, six days later, on 13 March, Lord Goldsmith met Lord Falconer, then a junior minister, and Sally (now Lady) Morgan from Mr Blair's office.
On 17 March, he published a single-page parliamentary answer, asserting the war would be legal, based on UN resolutions.
In 2006, as the result of a freedom of information request, Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner for England and Wales, told the government to disclose details of the process by which Lord Goldsmith came to his revised conclusion.
But rather than requiring the publication of actual documents, Mr Thomas allowed ministers to publish a narrative account with material not based on documentary evidence.
Mr Thomas then ruled in February of last year that the Cabinet Office should also release minutes of the Cabinet meetings of 13 and 17 March 2003.
He said publication should be allowed because of the "gravity and controversial nature of the subject matter" and to give the public a right to know how the decision to go to war was reached.
The UK government appealed against the decision and this went to the Information Tribunal, which was set up to adjudicate in these matters. It decided yesterday to uphold Mr Thomas's original decision.
There may yet be another twist, however, as the government has an opportunity to appeal against this latest decision in the High Court.
It will then be up to judges whether the minutes are released to the public.