Foreign Office civil servant Derek Pasquill has begun the long trial process after being charged under the Official Secrets Act. He is accused of making six damaging disclosures of documents that came into his possession as a civil servant. These concerned government policy on two of the most pressing issues of the age: extraordinary rendition, and dialogue with radical Islamist groups in the Middle East such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The charges are said to refer to articles that appeared in the Observer and the New Statesman under my byline.
I have been connected with two previous secrets trials, the first involving the MI5 whistleblower David Shayler and the second that of the GCHQ translator Katharine Gun. Both represented outrageous abuses of state power in their way, but they differed in several important senses from the Pasquill case. In both previous trials, the alleged disclosures involved documents classified as “Top Secret” or above. In the Pasquill case nothing involved has a classification above “Confidential”. There is no suggestion that the disclosures involved put agents of the intelligence services at risk or jeopardised any ongoing operations.
But more importantly, Pasquill’s disclosures influenced a shift in government policy on the issue of dialogue with radical Islam after they were published in the Observer, the New Statesman and in a pamphlet by the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange.
As a result, ministers began asking questions about whether it had been wise to use the Islamist Muslim Council of Britain as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for dialogue with Britain’s Muslim communities.
Ruth Kelly is known to have read my Policy Exchange pamphlet over the summer of 2006 when she was Communities Secretary. It is known that it informed her decision to distance the government from the Muslim Council of Britain later that year.
The disclosures also informed the policy work carried out for the Conservative Party by Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, the former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee.
And yet, the government insists on pursuing Mr Pasquill through the courts.
There are many politicians on both sides of the political divide who are beginning to wake up to the reality of the situation first highlighted by the documents published in the Observer and the New Statesman.
There are no national security issues at stake here. Rather than seeking another sacrificial lamb on the altar of official secrecy, ministers should be looking for remedies for the issues raised by Mr Pasquill and developing procedures to allow future whistleblowers to raise their concerns.
Martin Bright is political editor of the New Statesman
For background to this case, read Martin’s previous article for Index, Secrets and Sources.