The British Government runs scared of Israel


On 18 February 2008, the British Government was forced to release a draft dossier on Iraq’s so-called “weapons of mass destruction” under the Freedom of Information Act.  But it succeeded in persuading a Freedom of Information Tribunal to allow a handwritten reference to Israel in the margin of the document to be suppressed.


The Foreign Office sought this redaction because the person who wrote “Israel” in the margin of the document was implying that Israel was on a par with Iraq in its pursuit of “weapons of mass destruction”.  Since the author must have been a high ranking official in the Foreign Office in order to have access to the draft dossier, the Foreign Office argued that UK relations with Israel would be damaged if the document was published intact and, as a consequence, the Israeli government became aware of the existence of such an outlandish opinion in the senior ranks of the Foreign Office.


A photocopy of the document is now available on the Foreign Office website [1].  At the time of its publication, it was known that a “minor redaction” had been made to the document, but the nature of the redaction was not known until it was revealed by The Guardian on 21 February 2008 [2].  At the same time, The Guardian published in full the Foreign Office statement to the Tribunal making the case for the redaction [3].


Freedom of Information request

The draft was written in early September 2002 by John Williams, a former Daily Mirror journalist, who was Director of Communications at the Foreign Office from 2000 to 2006.  A Freedom of Information request for its publication, which was made by Chris Ames on 9 February 2005, was turned down by the Foreign Office under Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that its publication would “inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation” (see Chris Ames’ website here [4]).  However, the Information Commissioner ordered its publication on 3 May 2007.


The Foreign Office appealed against this decision to an Information Tribunal seeking, in the first instance, to prevent publication altogether and in the second instance, if the Tribunal ruled in favour of publication (which it did), to have the handwritten reference to Israel suppressed under Section 27 of the Act.  This Section allows an exemption from publishing material that would do damage to the UK’s international relations.  On 22 January 2008, almost three years after the initial request, the Tribunal ordered publication but accepted the Foreign Office case that the reference to Israel be redacted.


The Tribunal’s published decision stated that “a minor redaction [is] to be made to the information to be disclosed” [5], but didn’t reveal the nature of the redaction nor the Foreign Office argument for requesting the redaction.  However, all this was revealed by The Guardian a few days after its publication.


The Foreign Office case for redaction

The case for the redaction of the reference to Israel was set out in a witness statement to the Tribunal by Neil Wigan.  At the time, he was the head of the Arab, Israel and North Africa Group in the Foreign Office and therefore responsible for UK relations with Israel.


Wigan wrote:


“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.” (paragraph 3)


He went on to point out the difficulties that this would pose for the UK’s relations with Israel:


“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.” (paragraph 5)


“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.” (paragraph 6)


Having worked the British Embassy in Tel Aviv prior to his present job, he had seen Israel get upset at a lot less:


“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.” (paragraph 7)


There’s nothing of consequence in the Williams document itself (and later drafts of the dossier were brought into the public domain by the Hutton inquiry), so it is almost certain that the Government’s resistance to its publication was driven solely by worries about Israel’s reaction to the handwritten reference in the margin of the document.


This whole incident demonstrates the extraordinarily craven attitude of the Government towards Israel.  If it is running scared of Israel learning about an unconsidered comment written more than 5 years ago in the margin of an unimportant document, it would be unwise to expect a major UK policy change that would really upset Israel, such as a decision to talk to Hamas or Hezbollah.


Did Israel deserve comparison with Iraq?

But did Israel deserve comparison with Iraq in its pursuit of “weapons of mass destruction” in defiance of the UN?


As far as nuclear weapons are concerned, Israel didn’t violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in developing nuclear weapons – since it refused to sign up to the Treaty in the first place.  Had Iraq followed Israel’s example, it too would have been free to develop nuclear weapons without breaching any international treaty obligations.  However, Iraq did sign up to the NPT (in 1968) and clearly breached its obligations under the Treaty by attempting to develop nuclear weapons in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Unlike Israel, it failed in its attempt – and it abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons in 1991 after its defeat in the first Gulf War.


In the 1980s, when the West supported Iraq in its aggression against Iran, the West turned a blind eye to Iraq’s development of non-conventional weapons and its widespread use of chemical weapons on the battlefield against Iran.  The moral outrage from the West about Iraq’s alleged possession of these weapons that was prevalent in the 1990s, and was worked up to fever pitch before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, was completely absent in those days, when Iran was on the receiving end of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”.


Security Council Resolution 487

Israel has flouted, and is flouting, one Security Council resolution about its nuclear programme.  This resolution was passed in reaction to the Israeli bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor on 7 June 1981.  In response, the Security Council unanimously passed resolution 487, which “strongly condemns the military attack by Israel in clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct” and said that “Iraq is entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it has suffered, responsibility for which has been acknowledged by Israel” [6].


Crucially, in paragraph 5, the Security Council called


“upon Israel urgently to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards”. 


None of Israel’s nuclear facilities were then under IAEA supervision.  Nothing has changed in the interim.  So, for nearly 27 years, Israel has flouted the authority of the United Nations as expressed in resolution 487.  Perhaps, the senior official in the Foreign Office had this in mind when he wrote “Israel” in the margin of the Williams document.


Of course, 487 was a Chapter VI resolution with no enforcement measures to attempt to compel Israel to do what it was told.  And, when Israel ignored the demand to put its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards, no pressure was put on Israel to comply: unlike Iraq no economic sanctions were applied and there were no threats of military action to enforce compliance.


Joining the NPT

Resolution 487 didn’t specifically demand that Israel sign up to the NPT.  To do so, Israel would have had to give up its nuclear weapons.


The NPT allows states that “manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967” to sign up to the Treaty as “nuclear-weapon” states and retain their nuclear weapons.  This is built into Article IX(3) of the Treaty itself [7].  Only, five states – the US, the UK, France, Russia and China – qualify for this extraordinary privilege.  All other states must join as “non-nuclear-weapon” states and undertake not to develop nuclear weapons – and place their nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards.  So, any state that possesses nuclear weapons, other than the privileged five, must give them up and join as “non-nuclear-weapon” states.


Neither Israel (nor India nor Pakistan) is going to do that, particularly since the penalty for staying outside the NPT, and remaining nuclear armed, isn’t onerous.  It is limited to being unable to trade in nuclear material and equipment, a restriction that the US is trying to have lifted in the case of India (see my article The US-India nuclear agreement: A triumph for India [8]).


Williams’ role played down

The Government has been at pains to play down the role of John Williams, and his draft, in the production of its dossier on Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” in September 2002.  It has been at pains to do so because Williams was a Foreign Office spin doctor and the Government’s story was that the published dossier was the work of John Scarlett, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the (unwarranted) implication being that, whereas a Government spin doctor might be expected to sex up a document in order to serve the Government’s purpose, as an intelligence professional, John Scarlett, would never do such a thing. 


The existence of the Williams draft became public knowledge through the Hutton inquiry but, unlike later drafts which were said to be the work of John Scarlett, it wasn’t published by the Hutton inquiry.  In view of this, it is difficult to believe that the Foreign Office would have resisted its publication so stubbornly for three years if it hadn’t been for the reference to Israel in the margin.


A Government dossier

A great deal of effort has been expended in trying to discover the dramatis personae involved in the drawing up of the dossier and the precise role played by each in the drafting process.  To me, none of this matters much.  The Government published the dossier – its title is Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government and it carried a foreword in the name of the Prime Minister.  So, the Government is responsible for every word in it, no matter who wrote it, be it the Prime Minister himself, or Alistair Campbell, or John Scarlett, or the humblest civil servant.


The dossier was the Government’s responsibility – and crucially it didn’t accurately reflect the intelligence about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” at the time it was published.  In other words, the Government deceived Parliament and the public.


That became clear a year later when the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published its report Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction – Intelligence and Assessments [9] on 11 September 2003.  Despite being a Committee appointed by the Prime Minister and reporting to the Prime Minister, the ISC was remarkably critical of Government’s dossier (see my article The Intelligence and Security Committee Report: Dossier not justified by intelligence [10])


It is very revealing about the gaps and uncertainties in the intelligence about Iraq’s proscribed weapons, and the degree to which these gaps and uncertainties were glossed over in the dossier to paint a much more coherent and threatening picture than was justified by intelligence.  Specifically, the report was critical of the way the dossier presented:





A dossier which out of care for the intelligence evidence contained these doubts would never have been published – because it would have greatly diminished the case for military action.


According to the Government, the dossier was compiled by the Chairman of the JIC, John Scarlett, and approved by the JIC, and they were free from political pressure in doing so.  Scarlett concurred with this proposition in evidence to the Hutton inquiry.  The only possible conclusion is that he, and the JIC he chaired, was grossly incompetent – since between them they made a pig’s ear of a straightforward job of taking JIC assessments and turning them into a document that the public could understand.  As a result, Parliament and the public were misinformed on very serious matters relating to peace and war.


For this service, the Government promoted Scarlett to be head of MI6.


On Saddam Hussein pretence

On 18 February 2008, The Guardian published an article by John Williams [11], in which he wrote about his part in drawing up the dossier.  He said that at the time he hadn’t questioned the Government’s case for invading Iraq.  One factor that convinced him was apparently the following:


“I still find it hard to understand why a dictator who had possessed and used illegal weapons should have continued pretending he still had them, up to the point when his deception cost him his job and his life.”


Did the man who was the Director of Communications at the Foreign Office from 2000 to 2006 not know that, far from pretending to have forbidden weaponry, for many years Iraq stated repeatedly (and truthfully) that it had none?


It appears that this profound ignorance existed in the highest echelons of the Foreign Office at the time when in March 2003 the UK joined the US in invading Iraq in order, we were told, to rid Iraq of its forbidden weaponry.  Listen to this:


“Even after reading all the evidence detailed by the Iraq Survey Group, it is still hard to believe that any regime could behave in so self-destructive a manner as to pretend that it had forbidden weaponry, when in fact it had not.” [12]


Those are the words of Jack Straw in a statement to the House of Commons on 12 October 2004 after the Iraq Study Group had reported the absence of forbidden weaponry in Iraq.  He was Foreign Secretary in March 2003.


Does the Foreign Office also believe the earth is flat?



David Morrison

4 March 2008

Labour & Trade Union Review