The risk of a terrorist attack was wrongly used by the Scottish Executive as an excuse to keep information about radioactive contamination of drinking water secret.
The Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, has found the Executive guilty of breaching freedom of information legislation by failing to provide documents from a file entitled "Release of Radionuclides in Drinking Water Systems".
The Sunday Herald originally requested the documents in December 2005, and appealed to Dunion after they were withheld by the Executive. The verdict of his investigation, received on Friday, is a damning indictment of the official secrecy that persists in the Scottish civil service.
"A notable feature of this case is that the Executive has suggested that release of this information may have dire consequences," Dunion said.
"It has said that release could constitute an offence under anti-terrorism laws, that it might harm national security and it could even be misused in a way which could be lethal to the public."
Such claims, however, turned out to be completely unfounded, Dunion concluded. "After considering the nature and content of the information being withheld I found that not only are these highly worrying claims overstated, in fact it is not possible to find any justification for them at all."
The Executive argued that releasing the documents would breach section 79 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 because it "might prejudice the security of any nuclear site or of any nuclear material". But it failed to produce any evidence to back up its case.
According to Dunion, the six withheld documents are about "the financing and administrative arrangements involved in setting up a joint research project". They consist of "innocuous exchanges" with the UK government, he said.
Dunion pointed out that the government's Health Protection Agency had already published detailed guidance (pdf) on how to respond to an attempt to poison drinking water with up to 23 different radionuclides. Authorities have been advised to draw up contingency plans, including possible treatments and alternative sources of supply.
"If this kind of information is readily available, it is inconceivable that disclosure of the information withheld by the Executive in this case could have the effect upon national security and public safety which it alleges," Dunion said.
The Executive also argued that the documents should remain secret as their release could damage relations with the UK government, or inhibit the formulation of Scottish administrative policy. But both these arguments were dismissed by Dunion.
He concluded that the Executive had incorrectly applied three sections of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, and was in breach of part one of the Act. He has ordered the withheld documents to be released within 45 days.
A spokesperson for the Scottish Executive said: "We have just received the decision from the Information Commissioner on this case, which dates back to previous administration, and are considering its terms. It would be premature to comment at this stage."
The report of Kevin Dunion's decision can be downloaded here (200KB Word)