Recently in FCO diplomatic expulsions Polonium 210 murder affair Category

The Information Commissioner has made a Decision, in favour of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, refusing disclosure of the just names and job titles of the Russian and UK diplomats expelled in July 2007, over the failure to extradite or prosecute Andrei Lugovoi, for alleged involvement in the radioactive Polonium 210 murder of British citizen Alexander Litvineko in London in November 2006.

See the Information Commissioners Office Decision Notice FS50179353 (.pdf)

These names and job titles are obviously known to all foreign governments with embassies in London or Moscow, and to the international press corps and other corporate or national intelligence agencies.

The Exemptions claimed were not, as you might expect, Section 24 National Security or Section 27 International Relations but Section 40 Personal Data

We think that it is wrong for senior diplomats, who, after all, publicly represent the people of the United Kingdom, to be hidden under such a veil of secrecy, when neither National Security, nor their own personal safety are at any risk whatsoever from an FOIA disclosure.

Just because it is a "longstanding diplomatic custom", not to name the individuals expelled in such Cold War games, that is an obsolete concept in this internet age.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office publishes an official list of accredited diplomats at foreign embassies and consulates in London, for protocol purposes.

Every other embassy and consulate in the world, also knows all the other accredited members of the Diplomatic Corp in the capital city to which they are posted, again, primarily for protocol and precedence reasons, to determine who gets invited to, and where they are seated at, official ceremonies and functions.

It seems that the FCO has cast aspersions on our FOIA request, with the insulting claim that:

12 The public authority recognised the fact that in certain circumstances there is a legitimate interest in knowing the identities of officials, for example, where senior civil servants are accountable for high profile projects. However in this case it said that any interest in the identities of the diplomats expelled as a result of the Litvinenko diplomatic dispute could be described as "curiosity" rather than " a legitimate interest that would further a common good". The public authority referred to a decision of the Information Tribunal when it had commented on the difference between what is in the public interest and what is of interest to the public.
That Information Tribunal decision was about prurient interest in medical records, home addresses etc. - which were not was requested in our FOIA request, which only asked for the names and former job titles of the expelled diplomats.

The FCO itself already publishes the London Diplomatic List, which names the possible Russian diplomats who were expelled.

See also the Spy Blog article London Diplomatic List - can you spot the expelled Russian diplomats ?

30. The complainant has suggested that the information he has requested is of an anodyne nature, i.e. the names and job titles of diplomats employed by the public authority in Moscow and their counterparts and that this is information that one might expect to be made readily available. However it is important to stress that what has actually been requested are the names and job titles of diplomats expelled as a result of a very high profile diplomatic dispute. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the subsequent diplomatic expulsions generated a significant amount of media interest and the Commissioner is of the opinion that were the identities of the diplomats to be revealed there would be a very real risk that they would be subject to undue press interest or pressure to the extent that disclosure could be considered unfair.

What has the amount of, or lack of "press interest" got to do with a Freedom of Information Act disclosure ??

31. The public authority has also suggested that they may be stigmatised at having been expelled. The public authority has not shown any evidence to justify its concern and the Commissioner makes no comment on this point one way or another. However he does feel that given that the diplomats involved were expelled as a result of a situation over which it appears they had no control, they should be protected as far as possible from any adverse consequences. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that their careers, given the sensitivity of their roles, could be disadvantaged in some way were their identities to be revealed.

If any of the expelled diplomats were actually intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover, then they should never be sent on such a mission again - their cover is blown to all the world's intelligence agencies etc.

The people who will be stigmatised, are all the people who have been working at the London and Moscow embassies, who have, for normal career progression or personal family reasons, left and gone back home or been posted elsewhere, at around the same time, but who have not been expelled.

Transparency and openness through the requested FOIA disclosure would prevent these people from being stigmatised as possible spies.

32. The complainant has argued that the identities of the expelled diplomats will be known to other governments with embassies in Moscow and London and to the foreign press corps. Therefore he has suggested that the public authority's decision to refuse his request is unjustified. The Commissioner sees no contradiction between the public authority's decision to withhold the names of the diplomats and the fact that this information may be known to diplomatic staff that would have an operational need to know this information. Equally, the fact that a relatively small group of journalists may have speculated on the identities of the diplomats concerned is not in itself a reason to order wider disclosure of the information.

How does this make any sense at all ? There is no "wider disclosure" which could possibly affect the expelled diplomats or spies - every intelligence agency, terrorist group, organised criminal gang etc. already knows their identities and probably lots of other details.

33. The complainant has highlighted the decision of the Information tribunal in Ministry of Defence v Information Commissioner and Mr R Evans [EA/2006/0027] (.pdf) in support of his position. In this case the Tribunal decided that the Ministry of Defence should release the details of staff at the Defence Export Services Organisation, including staff operating in sensitive areas overseas. The Commissioner believes that the circumstances in that case were quite different to the circumstances in this case. In that case the Tribunal's decision was influenced by the fact that staff details were already widely available. The Commissioner rejects the complainant's argument that the decision in the Ministry of Defence case somehow acts as a precedent which he is obliged to follow.

That Information Tribunal Decision even allows the disclosure of the names, job titles and office contact details etc. of dozens of Ministry of Defence staff working in Saudi Arabia, where the MoD claimed that they were at particular risk of terrorist attack.

The same cannot be said of the former diplomats who have been sent home from London and from Moscow, who do not face any such risk at all..

This decision by the Information Commissioner is wrong,

It just seems to support rule by "faceless bureaucrats" including Russian Federation ones, who should not be protected by the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000 exemptions at all.

We have until the 3rd of September to lodge any Appeal with the Information Tribunal.

We cannot afford to hire a barrister to represent us before the Information Tribunal, and so this capitulation to faceless bureaucracy by the information Commissioner will probably go unchallenged.

See the full text of the Decision below:

The Information Commissioner's Office is now working on a Decision Notice, regarding our complaint over a year ago, about the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's refusal to divulge just the names and job titles (no other details were requested at all), of the Russian and United Kingdom diplomats expelled as persona non grata, following the diplomatic incident over the failure to extradite or prosecute the suspect Andrei Lugovoi, in the radioactive Polonium 210 murder case of British citizen Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned in London in November 2006.

See the FCO diplomatic expulsions Polonium 210 murder affair blog category archive.

Letter from the ICO:

There are still lots of conspiracy theories and misinformation being bandied about regarding the extraordinary Polonium-210 radioactive poisoning murder of Alexander Litvinenko - just keep an eye on the moving east Revision History of the relevant Wikipedia page, and you will see for yourself.

The UK Government has done little to clarify the matter properly, and it has become part of the New Cold War with Russia.

Meanwhile, our little attempt to get a bit of information confirmed officially, which every other Government in the world, and many news agencies etc. already know, but which is being denied to the British public and media, is progressing very slowly.

The Information Commissioner's Office have now started to investigate the refusal of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to disclose the just the names and job titles of the four Russian Federation diplomats and the four United Kingdom diplomats who were expelled from London and, tit-for-tat, from Moscow last summer, following the failure of the UK authorities to extradite their prime murder suspect Andrei Lugovoi from Russia.

If any of these diplomats were actually intelligence agents working under diplomatic cover, that is not something which one would expect to be made public by their respective Governments. However, since there is no chance of any of them ever being posted to similar roles overseas, simply naming them cannot put their lives in any more danger than normal.

Just being a normal British, or indeed, Russian, diplomat in some parts of the world, can either enhance your personal safety, or it can make you into a target, regardless of whether you are an intelligence agent as well.

  • The original FOIA request was made in July 2007,
  • the FCO refused it and internally reviewed it and still refused it in August 2007,
  • the complaint to the ICO went in during August 2007.
  • the Information Commissioner's Office allocated a Case Number in October 2007,
  • and now the ICO have started to look at it in May 2008.

All these delays in the Freedom of Information system favour the secretive Central Government rather than the legal rights of members of the public.

Text of paper letter from the ICO:


The complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office about the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's refusal to divulge the names of the former Russian Federation and British diplomats who were expelled tit for tat, over the Polonium-210 radioactive murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the contamination of many locations in London last year, has been allocated a Case Number by the ICO.

Email complaint (and paper copy sent via postal mail) sent on 9th October 2007.
Case Number allocation acknowledgement email sent by ICO on 23rd October 2007

N.B.

Due to the volume of complaints we are receiving at present it may be several months before you hear from us.

See the FCO diplomatic expulsions polonium 210 murder affair archive for the detailed request.

Incredibly, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office have refused to disclose:

" the names and job titles of :

a) the Russian Federation Embassy or Consular staff in London or
elsewhere in the United Kingdom,

and

b) the United Kingdom Embassy or Consular staff in Moscow or
elsewhere in the Russian Federation,

who have been, or who are shortly being expelled, following the
diplomatic incident over the failure to extradite or prosecute the
suspect Andrei Lugovoi in the radioactive Polonium 210 murder case
of British citizen Alexander Litvinenko."

How, exactly are just the Names and the Job Tiles of British and Russian Diplomats to be considered as Personal Data ?

Every Embassy in London and in Moscow and therefore every important foreign Government, already knows these Names and (former) Job Titles, and so do lots of foreign journalists.

Why can't the FCO publish them themselves ?

I can confirm that the FCO does hold this information. However, we are withholding all the information you have requested under Section 40 (Personal Information) as the information is personal data relating to third parties, the disclosure of which would contravene one of the data protection principles. In such circumstances sections 40(2) and (3) of the Freedom of Information Act apply. In this case, our view is that disclosure would breach the first data protection principle. This states that personal data should be processed fairly and lawfully. It is the fairness aspect of this principle which, in our view, would be breached by disclosure. In such circumstances s.40 confers an absolute exemption on disclosure. There is, therefore, no public interest test to apply.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office website does not seem to provide details of any easy methods for the public to contact the FCO on anything except travel related matters.

There is a General telephone number,but no email, or postal address etc. or any email or postal mail contact details for the Foreign Office Ministers etc. They even seem to keep their Press Office details secret from the general public.

Hence we have reluctantly had to resort to a Freedom of Information Act request to try to elicit the names and job titles of the Russian and United Kingdom diplomats etc. who have been or who are in the process of being expelled as persona non grata, following the diplomatic incident over the failure to extradite or prosecute the suspect Andrei Lugovoi, in the radioactive Polonium 210 murder case of British citizen Alexander Litvinenko.

Every foreign government and intelligence agency will know who these people are, through their own normal diplomatic representatives in London and Moscow, so why shouldn't the UK general public know as well ?

About this blog

This United Kingdom based blog has been spawned from Spy Blog, and is meant to provide a place to track our Freedom of Information Act 2000 requests to United Kingdom Government and other Public Authorities.

If you have suggestions for other FOIA requests,  bearing in mind the large list of exemptions, then email them to us, or use the comments facility on this blog, and we will see  what we can do, without you yourself having to come under the direct scrutiny of  "Sir Humphrey Appleby" or his minions.

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