The FO's case to the information tribunal
I, Neil Wigan, of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London SW1A 2AH, the United Kingdom, make this statement in support of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Appellant in these proceedings.
1. I am currently the head of the Arab, Israel and North Africa Group at the FCO. I am responsible for bilateral relationships with countries in the above regions, including Israel. I have held this post since February 2006. Prior to holding this post I was head of the Political Section in the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, a post which I held from August 2002 until January 2006.
The disputed information
2. I was shown a copy of the document which is the subject of this information request for the first time on Monday 15 October 2007. I have considered the marginal, handwritten notes on the document and have read those of them which are legible to me. I am not aware who wrote the notes.
3. On page 3 of the document, I refer to the marginal references in the first paragraph to Israel. The reference to Israel is linked (by a hyphen) to a sentence which reads: "No other country has flouted the United Nations' authority so brazenly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction". I interpret this note to indicate that the person who wrote it believes that Israel has flouted the United Nations authority in a manner similar to that of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.
4. I have read the remaining marginal notes in the document and those do not appear to me to relate to Israel. As such my concerns in relation to the marginal notes on the document are limited to those adjacent to the first paragraph on page 3 referred to above.
5. I believe that if these comments were released into the public domain, this would seriously damage our bilateral relations with Israel. In my view, Israel will, in seeing these comments believe that the FCO has firstly, compared the Israeli regime to that of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and secondly, suggested that Israel has flouted the authority of the United Nations in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Although the author of the marginal notes is unknown, I believe that the Israeli government would consider it likely that they would have been written by a senior figure. The assumption could, and I believe would, easily be made that these marginal notes represent the views of the FCO in relation to Israel.
6. Both the comparison with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and an implied accusation of a breach of the UN's authority by Israel are potentially very serious. In my view it is inevitable that the relations between the UK and Israel would suffer if the reference in page 3 of the Williams draft were allowed to enter the public domain.
7. I am confident of this because of my extensive experience working in that region.
During the last five years or so working in both the British Embassy in Tel Aviv and as Head of the Arab, Israel and North Africa Group at the FCO here in London, I gained much experience of handling difficult bilateral issues concerning Israel, anticipating potential issues, and trying to minimise the damage from them.
I have seen that far more minor matters than this have been of great concern to the Israeli authorities. Unfortunately there is a perception already in Israel that parts of the FCO are prejudiced against the country. These notes would therefore confirm this pre-existing suspicion and would increase the damage.
During the last five years there were approximately 10 substantial incidents and 20 more minor ones relating to Israeli concerns over perceived attitudes about their regime within the British government.
8. I am certain that the release of this information would be given a large amount of attention in the media in the UK. Any news in relation to Israel is high profile at present, and in particular, and (sic) criticism of Israel receives a huge amount of media coverage. This would give the comments high profile. Not only that but in my view the Israeli government would also raise this with the foreign secretary and would brief the United Kingdom, Israeli and international media about the existence of the comments and Israeli concerns in relation to them.
9. That would be particularly damaging at this time. The region of Israel and Palestine is currently experiencing a time of extreme regional fragility and relations are particularly delicate.
Furthermore, in November this year there is a major conference taking place which will lead to a key period of diplomatic relations between those nations and the UK. The conference is a US sponsored conference on the Middle East peace process. The FCO will play an important role in supporting that conference and will be closely involved in events following the conference. Ensuring its success is a key priority for this department.
10. For the reasons given above I believe that our bilateral relations would be affected very seriously by the disclosure of this report. This would not be in the public interest test for the following reasons.
11. Harming our bilateral relations with Israel would in turn affect the UK's ability to pursue a wide range of international objectives as set out in a white paper entitled Active Diplomacy for a Changing World: the UK's International Priorities launched in 2006.
That white paper analyses the changes we are likely to see in the world over the next decade and the UK's role in the international system and identifies the international priorities for the UK over that period.
Of those international priorities my concern is that harming relations with Israel would undermine the FCO's ability to pursue "strategic priority three" the objective of which is preventing and resolving conflict through a strong international system.
12. Resolving conflict includes resolving both the Israeli/Palestine conflict as well as the Arab/Israeli conflict in the Middle East.
Both the prime minister and the foreign secretary have indicated that it is a priority for the UK to achieve a peaceful solution to conflict in that region, not only because of British interests in those countries (more than 10 British nationals have been killed in Israel and Palestine since 2000 and in the summer of 2006, around 2,500 British nationals were evacuated from Lebanon because of the Israeli/Lebanon conflict), but in our broader regional interest. There is also an important national interest in relation to counter-terrorism.
13. In his most recent statement to the House of Commons on Iraq [made on [ ] the prime minister referred to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and said that he had come back from the region convinced of the need to address the conflict as a priority.
14. The bilateral relationship between the UK and Israel is a key part of our ability to advance peace in relation to the Israel/Palestine and Arab/Israeli conflict. Good relations with Israel are essential in this regard; without active and constructive engagement and by (sic) Israel conflict resolution is impossible.
15. In my view it is almost certain that the release of this information would prejudice relations between the UK and Israel and that the public interest favours protecting it for the reasons given above.
Statement of Truth
I believe the facts stated in this witness statement to be true to the best of my knowledge and belief.http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/feb/21/
israelandthepalestinians.iraq1Freedom of information
The Guardian, Thursday February 21 2008
The line between freedom of information and censorship is a narrow one. This week the information tribunal ordered the publication of an early draft of what would become the dodgy dossier making the case for war. That was openness. But one word was suppressed - the word "Israel". That, on the arguments advanced for its suppression, was craven and in any other context would resemble an act of censorship. We can only guess as to the reasons why the tribunal decided the word should be suppressed. It deliberated in secret and delivered a confidential judgment in respect of the excision. This was the opposite of openness.
The word "Israel" was written in the margins of the draft document by an unknown - but presumably senior - hand. It referred to a sentence which said of Saddam's Iraq: "No other country has flouted the UN's authority so brazenly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction." The implied meaning of the margin note was well articulated by a senior Foreign Office official, Neil Wigan, in trying to argue for its suppression - that "the person who wrote it believes that Israel has flouted the UN authority similar to that of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein".
It may well be embarrassing to have it revealed to the world that well-placed figures in Whitehall held such views in 2002, but it is a large step from that to ordering such a serious an act of concealment. The Foreign Office succeeded by exploiting one of the numerous loopholes that riddle the Freedom of Information Act....http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/feb/21/
freedomofinformation.israelandthepalestiniansClosed hearing and a secret ruling: how the word Israel was deleted
· Freedom of information law tested over Iraq papers
· Censorship often hides obscure, harmless facts
The Guardian, Thursday February 21 2008
The battle over the Iraq dossier draft has followed a familiar pattern of Whitehall attempts to block freedom of information requests.
When a researcher first applied to the Foreign Office for the release of the draft dossier, it turned the request down. The ministry then failed to conduct the required internal appeal against its decision.
Its next move was to try to persuade the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, that the document - including the word "Israel" - was exempt under section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act, concerning free and frank discussion.
That failed and Thomas ordered disclosure of the entire document, Israel and all. So the Foreign Office appealed to an information tribunal.
This time it claimed the word Israel breached section 27, covering international relations.
Chris Ryan, who chaired the tribunal, is a solicitor, a former partner at Norton Rose, specialising in intellectual property. In his public judgment, no reasons were given for the deletion of the word Israel. Instead, he said his ruling on section 27 itself was a secret....http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/feb/21
/freedomofinformationHow Labour used the law to keep criticism of Israel secret
Concern over nuclear arsenal removed from Iraq dossier
Richard Norton-TaylorThe Guardian, Thursday February 21 2008
The full extent of government anxiety about the state of British-Israel relations can be exposed for the first time today in a secret document seen by the Guardian.
The document reveals how the Foreign Office successfully fought to keep secret any mention of Israel contained on the first draft of the controversial, now discredited Iraq weapons dossier. At the heart of it was nervousness at the top of government about any mention of Israel's nuclear arsenal in an official paper accusing Iraq of flouting the UN's authority on weapons of mass destruction.
The dossier was made public this week, but the Foreign Office succeeded before a tribunal in having the handwritten mention of Israel kept secret....http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/feb/21