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Britain Refuses To Publish Cabinet Record Of Iraq War Decision

Jack Straw has been accused of covering up how the cabinet agreed to join the U.S.-led invasion.
(RFE/RL) -- The British government says it has vetoed publication of minutes from ministerial discussions about the legality of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw used the justification of "exceptional circumstances" to prevent publication of the cabinet records under the Freedom of Information Act.

In doing so, Straw overthrew a ruling by the British Information Tribunal, which had ordered the government to make available the records in the public interest.

Some lawmakers greeted his announcement with cries of "shame!"

Straw told the House of Commons that his decision to use the veto was motivated by his desire to avoid weakening the cabinet style of government, which he described as an integral part of British democracy.

"In short, the damage that disclosure of the minutes in this instance would do would far outweigh any corresponding public interest in their disclosure," Straw said.

He said that a key feature of the cabinet style of government is that it provides a space for thought and debate in private, and that advantage of candor would be lost if ministers knew their deliberations could be made public at any time.

Normally in Britain, cabinet papers are kept closed for 30 years.

At issue are the minutes of two cabinet meetings, on March 13, 2003, and March 17, 2003. At the first meeting, then-Attorney General Peter Goldsmith allegedly expressed doubts about invading Iraq without a separate United Nations resolution authorizing it.

But by the second meeting, only days later, Goldsmith unequivocally said the invasion was justified by international law under existing UN resolutions.

Critics of the government say he must have come under pressure to change his legal opinion between the two meetings -- something that he denies.

British troops did take part in the invasion of Iraq, and London has remained Washington's major ally in pursuing the conflict in that country. The decision was not a popular one among the British public, and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had to contend with big street demonstrations.

Among reactions to Straw's speech is one from the head of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Kate Hudson. She was quoted by AFP as calling Straw's veto "disgraceful," describing it as an attempt to suppress public debate on the biggest political scandal in decades.

She said the picture of the attorney general changing his mind on whether the war could be justified "must be exposed in all its detail."

Britain's Freedom of Information Act is relatively new, and in his speech, Straw praised its effectiveness in bringing openness to government in Britain.

"The act came into force on January 1, 2005, and from then until September 2008, in approximately 78,000 cases, where the requested information has been held by government departments, it has been released in full," he said.

However, the government is empowered under the act to exercise a right of veto in undefined "exceptional circumstances." Straw used this power for the first time in blocking the Iraq-related material.

with agency reports