Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Request for internal review: Freedom of Information Act request

The response below is my request for internal review related to my request for the "al-Jazeera memo"


Dear Mr Balmer,

This letter is in response to the communication received by myself from Nikil Rahti on the 22nd December relating to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 request I made for: “Any memos or notes that record President Bush's discussions with the Prime Minister about the bombing of the al-Jazeera television station in Qatar”.

I request an internal review of the non-disclosure decision relating to the information you state you hold. From this I conclude that you hold a memo or note that records President Bush's discussions with the Prime Minister about the bombing of the al-Jazeera television station in Qatar.

My request for internal review is based on the following arguments:

· Whilst you cite the reasons for using the exemption S27 1(a) “Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice- (a) relations between the United Kingdom and any other State”, the reasons you state are generalised and are class based as opposed to being specifically related to the information I have requested (that you have indicated you hold). The nature of the prejudice that may occur from the release of this information is not clearly defined or explicitly explained.

· The balancing of the public interest weighting is not discussed and explained in enough detail to justify non disclosure, I challenge that the public interest is weighted in favour of disclosure for the following reasons:

o The public has a right to know about the level of involvement of the UK Government in any potential action that would have been in breach of the Geneva Convention and would have involved civilian deaths if the Al-Jazeera offices had been hit by a bomb or a missile. The public interest is further enhanced by the fact that many UK Nationals work for Al-Jazeera. Article 48 of the Geneva Convetion states: “In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives”. The fact that any potential military action against al-Jazeera would have broken International law makes the grounds for the public interest overriding the considerations you set out in your response.

o Guidance note 3 from the Information Commissioner sets out the public interest in “bringing to light information affecting public safety”, I would argue that public safety includes the safety of any journalists working at Al-Jazeera and the potential threat any bombing or missile attack poses to them. The note also states that the public interest should be considered in relation to: “furthering the understanding of and participation in the public debate of issues of the day.”

o Part of the document I request has in part been discussed in the media and possible content alluded to and therefore information is already in the public domain. The content of the memo has been confirmed by a respected source, a Member of Parliament, Peter Kilfolye. It should be noted that guidance from the Department of Constitutional Affairs on the application of exemption S27 states: “Individual requests for information must be considered on their merits but you should take account of what is already in the public domain when assessing prejudice to international relations. The fact that similar or related information is already in the public domain may reduce or negate any potential prejudice” (See DCA website)

o The call to publish in the public interest the documents I have requested has been backed by at least 75 MPs in two Early Day Motions to date, an indication of strong public interest in the issue.

o The response given does not mention or supply evidence that the other State involved in the document (the USA) has been consulted about release and has indicated they do not want the information released.

o There is a public interest in resolving conflicting information available in the public domain: by stating you hold “information relevant” to my request there appears to be a direct conflict between the statement made by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons (Written Answers House of Commons Hansard 12th January 2006 & 28th November 2005: “Adam Price, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, PC: To ask the Prime Minister what information he received on action that the United States Administration proposed to take against the Al-Jazeera television channel. “Tony Blair (Prime Minister) Hansard source: None.) and

o A statement from the US White House calling such claims “outlandish” is also confusing and conflicts with the evidence of the Cabinet Office holding relevant information on the subject.

o If the memo is the record of a joke then the publication of the memo recording that fact will enable the public to understand the context of the reported information in the media.

· The Cabinet Office response to my request makes no attempt to indicate whether the memo could be released in part through the process of redaction to restrict the viewing of any other surrounding information that was not the subject of my request.

I request that any subsequent refusal to disclosure made after the internal review addresses each of the points made above.

I request that you acknowledge this request for internal review within one day of receipt, you supply me with full details as to what your procedures are for internal review under the Freedom of Information 2000 and an estimated date by which I may expect a decision to be communicated to me. At present I expect a decision within 15 days as listed in the complaints procedure on the Cabinet Office website.

Yours sincerely

Steve Wood


Read the response I received to my original request

last week's background: Al-Jazeera Request | Press Gazette story Newsnight | Downing St denies

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