Commissioner orders extracts from note of Blair/Bush telephone discussion to be disclosed

The Information Commissioner has ordered the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to disclose extracts from a note of a telephone conversation between Tony Blair and George Bush on 12 March 2003, shortly before the decision to go to war against Iraq (Decision Notice FS50341647). The Commissioner found that the exemptions for international relations (sections 27(1)(a) and 27(2)) and ministerial communications (s.35(1)(b)) applied to the information. In respect of information supplied by President Bush to Prime Minister Blair, he found the public interest in withholding the information outweighed the public interest in disclosure. However, for information that wasn’t obtained from the US, which concerned the Iraq issue only from the UK perspective, the public interest favoured disclosure.

83. After careful consideration, and in circumstances where the respective public interest considerations are very finely balanced, the Commissioner is of the view that the public interest in maintaining the section 27 exemption to protect the confidentiality of the information provided by the US (in the form of information provided to Mr Blair by President Bush), outweighs, by a significant, but by no means overwhelming margin, the public interest arguments in favour of disclosure of this information, persuasive and weighty though they are.

84. The Commissioner emphasises that his decision with regard to the information contained in the document consisting of information obtained from a State (US) other than the United Kingdom, has been made because the Commissioner believes that the short-term and specific public interest benefits of releasing this particular information (important though they are) would be outweighed by the risk posed to the long-term integrity and maintenance of the relationship between the UK and the US, particularly that between Prime Minister and President.

85. However, the strength of the public interest attached to this specific information is such that the Commissioner considers that the public interest balance (assessed under either section 27 or section 35(1)(b) must be determined differently with regard to the information contained in the document which is not information obtained from the US (i.e. information which does not disclose the confidences given by President Bush, or reveal, directly or otherwise, the confidential information provided to the UK in the telephone discussion.) Once that information (the majority of the information contained in the document) is protected via appropriate redactions, the public interest arguments for disclosure of the remaining information at least equalise (and in the Commissioner’s view appreciably exceed) the public interest arguments in favour of maintaining the section 27 or section 35(1)(b) exemptions.

86. The Commissioner considers that such was the gravity and controversy of the decision by Prime Minister Blair to commit the country to the military action taken in Iraq, then any information which might provide the public with an insight or awareness of the Prime Minister’s thinking during the critical period when the decision was finalised, and its implications for the UK carries with it a powerful and compelling public interest in disclosure. It is for this reason that the Commissioner has decided to order partial disclosure of the information in this case, such disclosure being limited to select extracts of the information which concern the Iraq issue only from the UK perspective, and which do not reveal any confidences or information given by the US, nor prejudice UK relations with either the US, the UN or any other countries.

The original request for information in this case was for records of governmental discussions which took place between the UK, France and the US following the television interview of President Chirac on 10 March 2003. The FCO initially withheld all of the requested information, but disclosed 5 of the 6 documents, including a note of a discussion between Prime Minister Blair and President Chirac, during the course of the Commissioner’s investigation, accepting that the balance of public interest had shifted in favour of disclosure following evidence heard by the Iraq Inquiry. The disclosed documents were placed in the public domain on the Iraq Inquiry website.

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