Conversation days before Iraq invasion believed to relate to whether France would veto UN resolution
Richard Norton-Taylor for the Guardian, 28 March 2012
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 the call relates specifically to United Nations resolutions on Iraq and a TV interview given by Jacques Chirac, then French president, on 10 March 2003. 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 into the Iraq war 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 because the Blair government claimed Chirac's 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 words were "clearly ambiguous". One interpretation, Holmes said, was that Chirac was simply warning that France would veto a fresh UN resolution at that time as 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 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, which would have amounted to "unacceptable automaticity".
Angus Lapsley, an FCO official responsible for US-UK relations, told the information tribunal on Wednesday that the contents of conversations between a British prime minister and American president were of "exceptional sensitivity". Questioned by Robin Hopkins, counsel for the information commissioner, Lapsley said the 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 FCO, said that claims that parliament was misled were inadmissible as evidence in law.The hearing under the tribunal judge, Professor John Angel, sitting with two lay assessors, continues.
Link to the article