Robin Hopkins alerted readers recently to the FTT’s decision on a set of requests made by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition (“APPGER”) to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office: APPGER v Information Commissioner and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office EA/2011/0049-0051.
The Tribunal describes APPGER as concerned in this case to get to the truth of the UK’s involvement (if any) in extraordinary rendition, which is the extra-judicial transfer (usually across state boundaries or between authorities within them) of a detained person for the purpose of interrogation (often in circumstances where they face a real risk of torture). APPGER’s requests were considered together and related to various individuals and concerns:
- Mr Bisher al-Rawi and Mr Jamil el-Banna were detained under the Terrorism Act at Gatwick Airport in November 2002 but, having been held and questioned for a few days, were released and flew to the Gambia. There were some communications between the UK and US authorities about the men. They were arrested by the Gambian authorities on arrival in the Gambia, transferred into US custody, flown to Afghanistan and then detained in Guantanemo Bay from 2003 until 2007. Some of APPGER’s requests were an attempt to find out more about the UK’s involvement in the rendition of these men.
- Mr Binyam Mohammed was seized in Pakistan in 2002, rendered to Morocco, transported to Afghanistan and then transferred to Guantanemo Bay where he was held from 2004 until his charge in 2008. The US Government did not challenge his account of brutal treatment. Some of the APPGER requests relate to the FCO’s knowledge of the treatment of Mr Mohammed.
- On 4 February 2009, the Divisional Court concluded that it was not in the public interest to disclose information in passages redacted from a judgment relating to Mr Mohammed because of the continuing threat by the US Government in a letter dated 21 August 2008 that disclosure was likely to result in serious damage to US national security and could harm existing intelligence-sharing arrangements between the US and UK Governments. The media published allegations that the letter had been solicited by the FCO from the US State Department. Some of APPGER’s requests were for information relevant to these allegations.
The FCO had provided some information in response to APPGER’s requests. In relation to other information, it confirmed that it held information falling within the scope of the requests but relied on exemptions in sections 23(1), 27(1)(a), 31(1)(a), 31(1)(b), 32(1), 35(1)(a), 35(1)(b), 40(2) and 42(1) FOIA. In relation to parts of the requests, the FCO claimed that the duty to confirm or deny whether it held the information did not apply by virtue of section 23(5) and 24(2) FOIA.
Turning to the exemptions:
Section 23 – absolute exemption for information directly or indirectly supplied by the security services or relating to the security services
The Tribunal considered the test for information falling within the scope of section 23(1). This provides for an absolute exemption for information which was directly or indirectly supplied to the public authority by a specified body (e.g. the security services) or if it relates to any of those specified bodies. Looking at the question of supply, the Tribunal found that it is a question of fact on the balance of probabilities whether information had been directly or indirectly supplied by the security services to the FCO and it was not a requirement that the security services had intended to supply the information to the FCO. As for information relating to the security services, the Tribunal found that it had to apply a broad but purposive approach and decide whether as a matter of fact on the balance of probabilities the content of the information was ‘something to do with’ the security services (subject to a remoteness test). The Tribunal found that the FCO was entitled to rely on section 23(1) in this case and it commented that the FCO could have claimed the exemption for even more information than it had done.
APPGER then submitted that this interpretation of section 23(1) resulted in a breach of the right to receive information in Article 10 ECHR. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the arguments that have been run in the domestic courts (see posts here, here and here). On the current authorities, there would be no breach of Article 10 ECHR even though section 23(1) FOIA is an absolute exemption. However, APPGER asked the Tribunal to stay its decision on this issue, given that issue will be considered by the Supreme Court again in the Kennedy v Charity Commission appeal. The Tribunal refused to stay the issue in this case; it found that it was bound by the Court of Appeal decision in Kennedy (applying the Supreme Court decision in Sugar) and that APPGER could preserve its position by appealing to the Upper Tribunal. It commented that in any event, the absolute exemption in section 23(1) FOIA was justified under Article 10(2).
The Tribunal commented on the Information Commissioner’s approach to this issue, given that he had not seen the disputed information whereas the Tribunal had spent two days establishing the facts. The Tribunal commented that it should not instruct the Commissioner how, in general, he should conduct his investigations but it noted that it had some reservations and it recommended that the Commissioner’s office should take note of how the Tribunal had had to establish the facts in this appeal.
Sections 23 and 24 – the duty to confirm or deny
The FCO had refused to confirm or deny whether it held some of the information requested. It followed its usual approach of relying on both section 23(5) and also on section 24(2) FOIA. Section 23(5) is an absolute exemption which applies where complying with the duty to confirm or deny that information is held would involve the disclosure of information which was directly or indirectly supplied to the FCO (in this case) by the security services or information which relates to the security services. Section 24(2) is a qualified exemption where information did not fall within section 23(1) and where an exemption from the duty to confirm or deny was required for the purposes of safeguarding national security.
The FCO recognised that it could not rely on this exemption if it had already been officially confirmed in the public domain that the security services were involved in relation to a particular request. APPGER challenged the FCO’s reliance on section 23(5) FOIA in this case. The Tribunal considered what information had been officially confirmed in the public domain and found that the public information relied on was generally broader or different to the scope of the request or said nothing about what had been held by FCO as at the date of the request.
APPGER also challenged the FCO’s dual reliance on section 23(5) and section 24(2). APPGER argued that the FCO had to decide which of these applied, given that section 24(2) only applied if the information in question was not exempt by virtue of section 23(1). The Tribunal rejected this argument and found that the FCO was entitled to refer to both sections when refusing to confirm or deny whether it held information. The provisions were not mutually exclusive.
Section 27 – engagement of the qualified exemption for international relations
The FCO relied on the exemption in section 27(1) for information if its disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice relations between the UK and any other State. The Tribunal adopted the approach in Hogan and Oxford City Council v Information Commissioner  1 Info LR 588, EA/2005/0026, EA/2005/0030, Gilby v Information Commissioner and FCO EA/2007/0071 and APPGER v IC and MoD  UKUT 153 (AAC). The exemption will be engaged if there is a real and significant risk (even if it is less than a probability) that disclose would prejudice relations with another State, in the sense of impairing relations or their promotion or protection. Appropriate weight needs to be attached to evidence from the executive about the prejudice likely to be caused. The Foreign Secretary has unrestricted access to full and open advice from his experienced advisors and is accordingly better informed and has far more relevant experience than any judge for this purpose. In this case, the Tribunal had heard evidence from a member of the Diplomatic Service who was a Senior Civil Servant and there was no evidence to seriously contradict his view about the prejudice which would (in some cases) or would be likely to (in other case) prejudice international relations (notwithstanding the clear and strong public interest in issues around extraordinary rendition).
Section 35 – engagement of the qualified exemption for the formulation and development of Government policy etc.
The Tribunal then considered the qualified exemption where information held by a Government department relates to the formulation or development of Government policy, Ministerial communications, the provision of advice by Law Officers or the operation of any Ministerial private office. The Tribunal considered the appropriate weight to be given to each of these four categories of information.
Section 42 – engagement of the qualified exemption for legal professional privileged information
The Tribunal found that the FCO had properly applied this exemption and it commented that the FCO could in fact have claimed that more information was subject to legal professional privilege.
The balance of the public interest
The Tribunal considered the balance of the public interest in relation to the information which engaged one or more of the qualified exemptions. It did not have to apply any public interest test to the information which engaged the absolute exemptions in section 23(1) or section 23(5).
The Tribunal found that there was a very strong public interest in transparency and accountability around the application of the Government’s public policy opposing extraordinary rendition. This interest was heightened where Ministers have had to correct earlier statements made to Parliament about the application of the policy and where there were claims that US extraordinary rendition had helped to foil terrorist plots in the UK. There was a particularly weighty public interest in knowing whether the Government has been involved, and if so the extent of that involvement, in the detention of British nationals and residents, their rendition to Guantanamo Bay and the attempts by the Government to secure their release. There was a strong public interest in knowing whether there was any impropriety by the UK Government in relation to the letter of 21 August 2008 to the Divisional Court.
On the other hand, there was a very strong public interest in the maintenance of the ‘control principle’ governing the use of secret intelligence information supplied to the UK through security and diplomatic channels, so as not to prejudice the supply of intelligence forming part of a ‘mosaic’ enabling a picture of potential terrorist activity, or threats to national security or UK interests abroad to be built up and countered. There was an even weightier public interest where the US was involved, as the UK’s most important bilateral ally and provider of much security information. There was a public interest in protecting from disclosure deliberations within Government on the formulation and development of policy. The strength of that interest depended on whether there was a need to maintain a safe space for such deliberations. There was a weightier public interest for protecting Ministerial communications in relation to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, given the sensitivity of the matter in diplomatic relations with the US. There was a strong public interest in maintaining the expectations of confidence for diplomatic exchanges. There was an inherently strong public interest in maintaining legal professional privilege including Law Officers advice, which was particularly weighty when litigation was continuing on closely related matters.
In relation to the requests involving international relations, the Tribunal found that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in disclosure. The public interest went to the willingness of the US to share with the UK all types of secret intelligence material. The reasonableness of the US attitudes was not part of the balancing exercise; it was the fact of the existence of those attitudes which mattered. The Tribunal had considered in closed session whether there was any evidence of impropriety by the FCO in relation to the letter of 21 August 2008 to the Divisional Court and found that there was no such evidence. In relation to other information, the Tribunal satisfied that there was nothing which would add to the public knowledge of the mistreatment of Mr Mohamed. If there had been new information, this would have weighed significantly in striking the balance, but there was not.
In relation to the requests involving legal professional privilege or Law Officers advice, the Tribunal found that the balance of the public interest was in favour of maintaining the exemptions in sections 42 and section 35(1)(c). At the time of the requests, civil claims were being pursued against the Government by a number of former detainees. It would undermine the relationship between lawyer and client if privileged material was released in this case. Counsel for the Government are when necessary provided with access to highly confidential information in order to provide the most comprehensive advice. The advice requested in this case could not reasonably be regarded as old or no longer live.
In relation to the requests involving the formulation and development of Government policy, the Tribunal found that the balance of the public interest was in favour of maintaining the exemption. It took into account that the policy regarding the release and return of detainees in Guantanamo Bay was very much live at the time of the requests, that policy continued to develop and the disputed information included drafts which were not necessarily the Government’s final position. There was a very strong public interest in the Government having a safe space to develop this policy.
The Tribunal upheld the Commissioner’s decisions, except where the Commissioner conceded to points raised by the FCO in a cross-appeal and except in relation to four documents where no exemption applied.
Finally, this post could not omit mentioning that11KBW’s chief Panopticonner Robin Hopkins represented the Information Commissioner, Joanne Clement (11KBW) acted pro bono to represent APPGER, and Karen Steyn (also of 11KBW) and Julian Blake represented the FCO.
Rachel Kamm, 11KBW