Posted on June 16th, 2010 No comments
The merits or otherwise of torture is not really a topic I thought I would be discussing in detail on this blog, but the fact that I am just goes to show the true wonder of FoI.
Now some say that torture is a pointless exercise and I have to confess that if you strapped me to a chair and came at my sweetbreads with a set of jump leads I’d tell you everything including next week’s Lottery numbers.
So the practical usefulness of torture has often been debated alongside the moral argument as to whether it is something civilised society can ever justify.
Enter stage left a FoI question to the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) asking them for information about a plot to hijack planes and fly them into Canary Wharf.
The question followed a statement from President George W. Bush in September 2006 when he said that ‘questioning’ of terrorist suspects in secret detention facilities had averted an assault on Canary Wharf.
As somebody who thinks torture is a bad thing but also has friends and a relative working in Canary Wharf this causes me something of a moral dilemma.
What is needed is a little of the smoke to be blown away to see if there is any truth behind the alleged plot to fly a plane into the capital’s iconic business tower block.
The question to the MPS asked ‘how a plot… was foiled using information from the programme to detain suspected terrorists in undisclosed locations outside the US’.
Initially the MPS refused to confirm or deny it held such information relying on a total of six exemptions. Eventually this seemed to boil down to just three; S.23 (Security Bodies), S.24 (National Security) and S.27 (International Relations).
The Commissioner rejected the NCND position of the MPS and said it should state if it had the information or not. The MPS took this decision to the Tribunal.
At the Tribunal evidence was produced for the first time by an officer referred to as Det Chief Supt W who convinced the panel that if the MPS held the information it would have come through one of the intelligence agencies listed in S.23.
My reading of the decision and it appears something of a technical victory for the MPS is that the appeal was allowed on the basis that the question asked about “information from the programme to detain suspected terrorists….” This information must have come from a security body and so to confirm or deny would be a breach of S.23.
However, the way I read the decision leaves the door open for a simpler question just asking if the MPS holds such information, but doesn’t inquire as to where the information originated. I’d be interested in your thoughts.
Two other points worth mentioning from this decision are the stick the Commissioner takes for taking so long to reach an initial decision on the appeal. The Tribunal does not say exactly how long this was but states: “the requestor might be forgiven for having forgotten that he had made the request”.
Secondly the Tribunal makes an interesting comment on the general topic of this case and its wider significance saying: “We have remarked already on the wide ambit of s.23. It is not hard to understand why it is broadly drafted.
“In this particular case, however, we are concerned as to its effect. The interrogation of detainees in offshore facilities, the methods allegedly used, the use of information thereby obtained and the possible collaboration of the U.K. government in these activities are still matters of vigorous and anxious debate in this country.
“Whether the CIA passed to UK intelligence the information referred to by President Bush may be a question of considerable importance in such a debate. In the rather unusual circumstances of this case (where a head of state has publicly announced the source of terrorist intelligence), it is hard to see that any significant damage could be caused by confirmation or denial.
“The extreme rarity of such announcements might be seen as a robust defence to the dangers of creating precedents.”
The Tribunal was also critical of the MPS for not bringing forward the crucial evidence of how the link was made to the security services until the Tribunal stage. Had it been done earlier it would possibly have saved everybody time and money.
The Tribunal’s ruling can be seen [here].
Posted on June 2nd, 2009 No comments
The Freedom of Information Act has a provision in it to allow public authorities to ‘Neither Confirm Or Deny” (NCOD) it holds the information the applicant asks for.
This is because in some cases merely stating that an authority holds information relevant to a request will disclose too much information even if the data itself can be withheld using one or more of the exemptions.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) give guidance on the subject (link) in which it provides two examples. Firstly an applicant wanting to know if particular surveillance information was held and, secondly a request to know if troops on active service are equipped with a specific type of weapon.
Some recent examples of the so-called NCOD have been ruled on by the Information Commissioner and they may help FoI officers establish when this can be used.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) [Ref: 50188323] – In this case the applicant asked for any information the FO held on the identification of a voice that is heard – presumed to be the killer – in the video in which British hostage Kenneth Bigley is beheaded. The FCO argued that if it did confirm or deny (whichever was appropriate), it would effectively confirm that the Government has (or has not) managed to identify those responsible for Mr Bigley’s death, thereby confirming to those responsible that they may, or may not, be under suspicion. The ICO upheld the FCO’s decision to NCOD the information under S.23 (Security Forces) and S.24 (National Security) of the Act.
Cabinet Office [Ref: 50137790]
- The applicant asked for information held that related to a raid on a property in Forest Gate, East London, where two suspected terror suspects were arrested – one was shot but survived – and were later cleared of any involvement with terrorism. The Cabinet Office gave the applicant some information, directed him to a number of websites that also held some information but then refused to confirm or deny if it held any more claiming S.23 (Security Forces) and S.24 (National Security). The applicant said it was ‘absurd and an abuse of the Act’ for the Cabinet Office to refuse to confirm or deny that it held the information when it was obvious that it did, since the raid had been in the public eye and the Prime Minister would not have been able to respond to questions about it had the Cabinet Office held no information. The Commissioner agreed with the applicant and said because it was clear the Cabinet Office held information relating to the matter it should have said as much and then if it didn’t feel able to disclose it should have then applied exemptions to it. The ICO also said that it was not good practice to disclose some information and then NCOD if any other information exists. The Cabinet Office has now been ordered to state if it does hold any more information, and if it does to either disclose it or apply any exemptions it feels are relevant.
Sussex Police [Ref: 50205686]
- This was an application made on behalf of AsboData, a commercial company that aims to sell information packs to prospective homeowners. Some of the information it intends to sell is gleaned from public authorities using Freedom of Information Act inquiries. In this case it had asked the police for reports of anti-social behaviour in a particular street in the village of Plumpton Green. The police force refused to confirm or deny if it held such information saying that as there were just 15 homes in the street, the area was too small, and to confirm or deny it had such information would be a breach of S.40 (Personal Information). The ICO did not agree and seemed to suggest that 15 homes was not a group small enough to lead to personal data being disclosed. The ICO ordered the police to confirm if such information was held and if so to either disclose it or place the relevant exemptions on it. The decision has now been appealed by Sussex Police to the Information Tribunal.
Posted on April 22nd, 2009 No comments
The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has received a dressing down over the way it dealt with a Freedom of Information request relating to files it holds on John Lennon.
A recent decision notice (link) from the Information Commissioner raps the MPS for failing to deal with the request properly and not coming up with any justification for the exemptions it claimed related to the material.
The saga began in September 2006 when a woman asked for all the information from the John Lennon files which were held by Special Branch. The former Beatle, who was shot by a crazed fan in New York 25 years ago, was known to have been on the radar of the security services in the 1960s because of his left-wing views.
MPS decision makers refused to confirm or deny if it held the information claiming it would be covered by S.23 (information to security bodies), S.24 (national security), S.31 (law enforcement), S.38 (health and safety) and S.40 (personal information).
In a damning verdict of the way the MPS processed the request the Information Commissioner has now ordered the force to state if it holds the information.
The Information Commissioner says: “In the absence of any explanation from the public authority, either at the refusal notice or internal review stage, or in its correspondence with the Commissioner, as to its reasoning for why these exemptions are engaged or, in relation to why the public interest favours the maintenance of these exemptions….. the Commissioner concludes that these exemptions are not engaged.
“The Commissioner also finds that the public authority failed to comply with procedural requirements……… through its inadequate handling of the request. The public authority is required……. to provide a confirmation or denial of whether it holds information falling within the scope of the request.”
The decision notice makes clear that just because the material in question is held by a security force does not necessarily mean that it is covered by S.23 or S.24. The MPS had four opportunities to explain why the information was covered by the exemptions but did not appear to make an attempt to provide a reasoning for its decision, the Information Commissioner said.
Click here for YouTube footage of the news reports from the day Lennon was shot.