Secrets and sources
For four months at the end of 2005, I was given access to an extraordinary series of Foreign Office documents concerning the government’s strategy to tackle the threat of radical Islam at home and abroad. Literally dozens of emails, position papers and policy discussions came my way. It became clear that someone within Whitehall was […]
21 May 07

For four months at the end of 2005, I was given access to an extraordinary series of Foreign Office documents concerning the government’s strategy to tackle the threat of radical Islam at home and abroad. Literally dozens of emails, position papers and policy discussions came my way. It became clear that someone within Whitehall was deeply disturbed about the direction of British foreign policy, especially the strategy of engagement with groups and individuals on the Islamist extreme right. At one point I was receiving so many documents that I barely had time to read their contents, let alone judge whether there was a story in them.

But stories there were. The documents showed that senior figures in the Foreign Office believed that Britain’s policy in Iraq had led to an increase in radicalism among young Muslims, something the prime minister was denying at the time. I published the story in the Observer, where I was working as home affairs editor. But that was just the beginning.

The leaks provided me with a further news story for the Observer about plans to infiltrate extremist groups, and with features for the New Statesman on CIA rendition flights, diplomatic engagement with Egypt’s banned opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the panic that had engulfed the Foreign Office as a result of the disclosures. The documents also formed the basis of a Channel 4 documentary on the government’s troubled relationship with radical Islam and an accompanying pamphlet, When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries, for the think tank Policy Exchange. The leaks were a journalistic goldmine. The revelations about the compact between the Foreign Office and radical Islam also went some way towards changing government policy towards the self-appointed representatives of Britain’s Muslim community, such as the Muslim Council of Britain.

It is difficult to imagine a series of documents that could have been more in the public interest to disclose. Decisions being made in the Foreign Office, with a direct effect on the British people, were taking place with little or no consultation. In particular, the Foreign Office had embarked on a detailed strategy of engagement with Islamists at home and abroad without reference to Parliament or even, it seemed, the prime minister himself.

owever, at the end of January 2006 my source was arrested under suspicion of breaching the Official Secrets Act. I have not heard from him since. The latest news is that he has been bailed until June, while investigations continue. By then, his life will have been held in suspension for 18 months: this at a time when Labour politicians complain that the ‘loans for peerages’ investigation has dragged on for a mere 12 months with no charges being brought.

If, and when, the case comes to trial it will provide a fascinating test of the secrecy laws. The documents, many of which have been collected in the Policy

Exchange pamphlet, are also available online. They provide a unique insight into government thinking on Islam between 2001 and 2006, a period that encompasses the suicide attacks on New York and the bombing of London. Reading through them again, it is difficult to imagine how national security can have been seriously compromised by the disclosures, which contributed considerably to the national debate on one of the most important issues of our time. Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly is known to have been influenced by the disclosures in making her decision to seek new grassroots Muslim partners in the battle for hearts and minds. The Policy Exchange pamphlet has also helped inform the Conservative policy group on national and international security headed by Pauline Neville-Jones, a former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee who also served as political director in the Foreign Office. It would be a delicious spectacle to see Kelly and Neville-Jones called as witnesses for the defence in any

trial that results from the Foreign Office leaks.

However, it is not difficult to see what motivated the arrest. The leaks were proving intensely embarrassing and coincided with a crackdown across Whitehall against unauthorised disclosures. This had been sparked by a separate leak of a memo said to outline plans by President George W Bush to bomb the Arabic television station Al Jazeera in April 2004. Following the publication of the claims in the Mirror, Cabinet Office civil servant David Keogh and parliamentary researcher Leo O’Connor were charged under the Official Secrets Act.

In opposition, the Labour Party had fought the introduction of the 1989 Official Secrets Act, arguing that a ‘public interest’ defence should be inserted

into the legislation to give protection to genuine whistleblowers. During the parliamentary debate, Shadow Home Affairs spokesman Roy Hattersley said that the definition of harm to national security ‘is so wide and so weak that it is difficult to imagine any revelation which is followed by a prosecution not

resulting in a conviction’. Frank Dobson, who went on to serve in Tony Blair’s first cabinet, added: ‘Surely we as a Parliament have not sunk so low

that we want to introduce new laws to protect official wrongdoing.’

Once in power, the Labour Party had no such qualms. The Blair government has wielded the big stick of the Official Secrets Act with alarming regularity since it came to power. In August 1997, just months after winning an election on a promise of new openness and transparency in government, the new government faced a serious predicament in the person of David Shayler, an MI5 officer whose revelations about the intelligence service were published in the Mail on Sunday.

These included details of files kept on senior Labour politicians such as Jack Straw, Peter Mandelson and Harriet Harman. More seriously, Shayler later claimed that officers from Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, had participated in a plot to assassinate Colonel Qaddafi of Libya.

Despite the fact that Shayler’s claims referred to a period before Labour came to power, the new government pursued him relentlessly, requesting his

extradition from France, where he had set up home after leaving the security service. This pursuit extended to journalists who wrote about Shayler, and in

2000 I found myself in court after publishing an article in the Observer about the Libya plot, in which I said the newspaper had been given the names of the spies allegedly involved in the plot, but had been prevented from publishing them for legal reasons. (The officers’ names, David Watson and Richard Bartlett, have since entered the public domain, but they have never been prosecuted for their

alleged crimes.)

The Observer successfully fought an order to hand over all documents relating to my dealings with David Shayler and established an important precedent in media law that has made it more difficult to seize journalistic material. But it did not help David Shayler, who returned to Britain in 2000 to face trial. He was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in November 2002 for breaching the

Official Secrets Act, after more than five years of fighting for his claims to be investigated by the government.

David Shayler did not succeed in his own case, but his lawyers did establish an important precedent for future whistleblowers. In 2002, the House of Lords had decided that Shayler’s lawyers could not use a public interest defence. It also decided that the 1989 OSA was compatible with human rights legislation.

However, it did establish that in certain cases a ‘defence of necessity’ could be used if a whistleblower had acted because there was an imminent threat

to human life.

Less than six months later an opportunity arose to test the legislation. In March

2003 as the military preparations for war in Iraq gathered pace, a young woman in her late 20s walked into her boss’s office at GCHQ, the government’s secret eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham, and admitted to leaking a document of the highest possible classification of secrecy. Katharine Gun, a junior Mandarin Chinese translator, knew her career was at an end and that she could face a long prison sentence. But she believed the contents of an email she had received in the course of her work could stop the war. She believed her action could save lives.

The email, dated 31 January 2003, was from Frank Koza, head of regional targets at the National Security Agency in the United States, and asked for British help in spying on the United Nations, which was immersed in an intense debate about whether to authorise an attack on Iraq. Britain was arguing for a second UN resolution to specifically sanction the invasion, without which many thought the war would be illegal.

Key to any vote were the so called ‘swing’ nations, Chile, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Guinea and Angola, temporary members of the Security Council,

whose votes were essential in gaining legal cover for the war. Koza was demanding a ‘surge’ in spying activities to give the US an ‘edge’ in the negotiations.

He was desperate to know the voting intentions of the ‘swing six’, but also hinted that private information about individual diplomats should be amassed in case blackmail was necessary.

I ran the story about the leaked email in the Observer on 4 March 2003, three weeks before the outbreak of war. It had taken nearly a month from leaking the document to its appearance in the press and Gun was in a state of almost unbearable tension. She immediately owned up to being the source of the leak and was arrested by the police for a suspected breach of the Official Secrets Act. Gun believed that when the UN discovered what was going on, they

would never allow the war to go ahead. What she didn’t realise at the time Katharine Gun after charges against her were dropped, London February 2004

was that George W Bush had already decided on regime change in Baghdad, with or without the United Nations.

However, when the case finally came to trial in February 2004, the prosecution failed to present any evidence and the case was dropped before it had begun. At the time, speculation suggested that the government had decided to drop the case because it would have led to the publication of the attorney general’s legal advice on the legality of the war, which was initially equivocal. But the Crown Prosecution Service always said that the reason was far more banal: that it had become clear that it would be impossible to fight Gun’s defence that she had acted

to save lives.

Although it is impossible to know precisely why the government dropped the Gun case, it is probably fair to say that the ‘defence of necessity’, established by David Shayler, helped save Katharine Gun from prison. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the government has indicated its intention to close down the defence in future cases. Last July, The Times reported the intention of the new Home Secretary, John Reid, to remove the necessity defence and suggested that he would present the necessary legislation in last autumn’s Queen’s Speech. This did not materialise, due to a lack of parliamentary time. But the Home Office has confirmed that it is keeping the OSA under review and will revisit the defence of

necessity as soon as it can.

Campaigners still believe an amendment to the 1989 Act is imminent. Julie-Ann Davies, who was arrested in connection with the Shayler case in 2000, has

spent the past seven years researching Britain’s secrecy laws and is currently studying for a PhD at Glasgow University. She said: ‘I have no doubt the government intends to act. Whenever a window of public interest opens up, they close it.’ Former senior BBC journalist Nick Jones is now chair of Reform the Official Secrets Act (Rosa), which campaigns for a public interest defence for whistleblowers in national security cases. He said the Al Jazeera trial marked an intensification in the drive for government secrecy: ‘There does seem to be a new push, triggered by the war on terror, to restrain journalists who want to write in this area. Meanwhile, all talk of protecting whistleblowers has disappeared in a puff of


The paradox is that in the present circumstances the more serious the disclosure, the more chance of running a successful defence. My source, for example, who could only be accused of leaking ‘confidential’ rather than ‘secret’ documents, would not have recourse to the necessity defence. He would have to fall back on a defence that said he had acted in the public interest, something of which Labour seems to have lost sight after ten long years in government.

Martin Bright is political editor of the New Statesman

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