UK: New Calls for More Liberal State Secrets Law


International Press Service
August 10, 1998

LONDON -- Government efforts at information-control after a spate of recent embarrassing disclosures by two former British spies have sparked renewed calls for modernizing Britain's Official Secrets Act.

Phillip Knightley, a well-known London-based writer and commentator on intelligence affairs, is among many who have called for the abolition of the Act, often cited by the British government to suppress information that it claims is not in public interest.

"We should look at what sort of security and intelligence services we need in the 21st century, set them up under full parliamentary control, abolish the Official Secrets Act -- other countries manage without one -- give any whistle-blower a public interest defence and bring in a freedom of information act as soon as possible," Knightley said.

Two such whistle-blowers have deeply worried the government in recent weeks after coming up with a series of leaks on the cloak-and-dagger operations of both MI5 -- the internal intelligence service -- and MI6, the spy wing responsible for overseas operations.

The most stunning of their disclosures -- leaked in the New York Times newspaper -- reveals that the MI6 apparently tried to assassinate the Libyan leader, Muammar Gadhafi, as recently as two years ago.

But the botched attempt led to the deaths of several bystanders instead, said former MI5 officer David Shayler, now being held in a Paris prison on Britain's request.

Shayler, whose extradition has been requested by London, claimed that the MI6 tried to kill Gadhafi in February 1996 by planting a bomb under his motorcade but that agents placed the bombs under the wrong car, killing several bystanders.

Shayler claimed the agent in charge had ties to a Libyan right-wing fundamentalist group and had been paid $160,000.

More disturbingly in terms of domestic security concerns, Shayler said a number of IRA terrorist bombings in the Northern Ireland conflict could have been avoided if the MI5 had been more efficient.

In tandem with Shayler, a former MI6 agent, Richard Tomlinson has been served an injunction, taken out by the British government, in New Zealand to prevent him from revealing information about his past career. The New Zealand-born Tomlinson has served a nine-month prison sentence in Britain previously for attempting to publish his memoirs -- an offence under the Official Secrets Act.

In the Tomlinson case, the injunction also seeks to cover Television New Zealand "and any other organ of the media." The British Foreign Office holds that Tomlinson's disclosures could cause "substantial harm to the operations of the Secret Intelligence Service and put lives and livelihoods at risk." Campaigners hold the Shayler and Tomlinson cases highlight the urgent need to introduce a Freedom of Information Bill in Britain.

But modernizing the Act is the more moderate of demands in a country which -- only a decade ago -- made a famously failed bid to slap an international ban on the publication of a book of memoirs, called Spycatcher, by former British intelligence officer Peter Wright. Although Britain has been seen to be slowly moving toward a more open society since the Spycatcher affair, it is only recently that the government even admitted to the existence of the MI5 and MI6. The Spycatcher court battle in the late 1980s, for instance, was seen by many as little less than bizarre as the government was trying to prevent disclosures about a department whose existence it did not officially acknowledge.

The Spycatcher case also invited stinging criticism of the British government by the European Court of Human Rights, and campaigners now argue the Court's recommendations must be taken on board. The European Court ruled that the British government had no right to slap an injunction on the publication of Spycatcher. "The government should now incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights in its domestic law," said Francis D'Souza, director of Article 19, a non-governmental organisation that campaigns against censorship. "Otherwise this case could be brought again and again in Britain," she added. "What we need in Britain, given that we don't have a written Constitution, is a very strong Freedom of Information Act to give us a degree of protection that we don't currently have."

The new Labor government in Britain is already committed to introducing a Freedom of Information Bill, but D'Souza argues that it must incorporate Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which deals with freedom of expression.

"The Official Secrets Act is far too broad and allows the government to crack down on publications that merely expose government wrong-doing or misdemeanor and this is not in the interest of the public," she said. Campaigners are also concerned that a provision allowing for public interest defence has been scrapped, further eroding the cause of freedom of information. "At the moment, no matter what the charge is, there is no way to argue that the information is i n public interest," D'Souza said.

Tomlinson, expressing his anger at the British injunction, said earlier this week: "I am absolutely astounded by the way Wellington seems to be acting complicitly with London. To me I have always assumed that New Zealand is a sovereign country, not a lackey of London..."

Similarly, British newspapers have pointed out that the only reason they could report Shayler's comments about Libya is that they have been denied by the government, which allows papers to print the original allegation.

The Labor government has come in for criticism from some of its own backbench Members of Parliament, who accuse it of hypocrisy, pointing out that many Labor MPs were active in the campaign against the Spycatcher ban.

"I think they (the government) are making the same mistake as over Peter Wright," said Tam Dalyell, civil rights campaigner and Labor MP. "There is a real problem developing between what Labor said in opposition and what we are doing now..." he added.

The writer Knightley said the government implements the Official Secrets Act with vigor, "not because it wants to, but because it is in thrall to the secret services. "But why should Labor, which promised open government when it came to power and which has at least two ministers who were spied upon by MI5 and MI6 when they were younger, kow-tow to MI5 and MI6, who owe Labor no real loyalty?"

The answer, he suggests, is that many leaders such as Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher "all fell under the spies' spell." "Do MI5 briefings (to the British Prime Minister) include a secret file or two on the PM's colleagues? How else to explain the ease with which the secret services appear to have won over (British Premier) Tony Blair's government?" he mused.