FOI and weapons of mass destruction

The controversy over the War in Iraq continued yesterday when Alastair Campbell’s claims about the case for war appeared to be undermined. The debate over the War in Iraq in the UK has centered on the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ and the extent to which this document was subject to political interference or was a set of objective facts about Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Alongside the succession of inquiries, journalist Chris Ames has used a series of FOI requests to try to shed some new light on the process around the writing of the dossier.

Ames did a number of interesting things. First, he obtained one very interesting early draft of the dossier, which had been annotated by an official with a good knowledge of 20th century history and, perhaps, a gift for dry and succinct statements of fact, as this extract shows:

‘There is evidence of some of [the document’s] claims are being questioned. The draft [begins] with the words: “Iraq presents a uniquely dangerous threat to the world. No other country has twice launched wars of aggression against neighbours.” In a margin someone has written: “Germany? US: Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico.” The next sentence reads: “In the 77 years since the Geneva Convention against chemical weapons was signed, Iraq is the only country to have broken it.” Here, the fastidious official has added: “Japan in China?”‘

He has also used FOI to get hold of some very interesting emails, notably between Tony Blair and his chief of staff. He also obtained emails between officials involved that appeared to show them trying to ‘tone down’ the dossier, describing claims about Saddam’s nuclear capability as ‘Frankenstein’ science and showing their failed attempts to moderate the document ‘We have suggested moderating the same language in much the same way on drafts from the dim and distant past without success’.

Whether this ‘proves’ that the case for war was manipulated is something the current (and fourth) inquiry into Iraq is looking into but the data serves to severely undermine some of the central official claims made about the path to war. Ames’ work is a clear example of the ‘jigsaw effect’, a patient piecing together of parts of the process behind the controversial decision to go to war.  But it also exposes the limitations of FOI in complex decision-making cases such as these. Four years is really too long to keep up with the details and it becomes yesterday’s news.

This won’t stop the revelations, however, and here’s an excellent example of a badly timed attempt to cheer up Donald Rumsfeld recently revealed by FOI.

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