Britons Convicted of Violating Official Secrets Act

by Kevin Jon Heller

In a shameful day for British criminal justice, David Keogh and Leo O’Connor have been convicted of violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act for leaking a confidential memorandum between Bush and Blair that quotes a threat by Bush to bomb Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar:

The memo was a note of a meeting between US President George Bush and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the White House on 16 April 2004.

The pair had discussed the situation in Iraq – among other things – and an official minute of the meeting was sent by a secure fax to Whitehall from the British Embassy in Washington DC.

It was written by Tony Blair’s then secretary for foreign affairs, Matthew Rycroft, who marked it as “secret”.

David Keogh was a civil servant working in the secret Pindar complex underneath the Ministry of Defence.

He was asked to photocopy and distribute the memo to a select group of mandarins but when he read it he felt morally obliged to get it into the public domain.

Keogh said he ultimately wanted the memo to be able to be used by Senator John Kerry, who was running against George Bush in the US presidential elections at the time.

So he handed it to his friend Leo O’Connor, who was a researcher working for the Labour MP for Northampton South, Tony Clarke.

Mr Clarke had voted against the war in Iraq but when he became aware of the memo he immediately notified the police who later charged Keogh and O’Connor for breaking the Official Secrets Act.

The convictions, which could result in up to two years imprisonment, have renewed calls to amend the Official Secrets Act to permit a “public interest” defense. Because Keogh and O’Connor could not argue that leaking the memo was in the public interest, they were forced to claim that the leak did not actually damage Britain’s national security:

Peter Kilfoyle, another Labour MP who opposed the Iraq war, has been pressing for months for the memo to be published.

The MP for Liverpool Walton reiterated that demand and told the BBC: “I don’t think this is anything to do with national security. It’s all to do with protecting the name of President Bush and possibly Prime Minister Blair.”

Campaigners believe the Keogh case proves the need for a public interest defence to be enshrined in the Official Secrets Act.

In 2002, in the wake of the David Shayler case, the House of Lords appeared to accept that there could be a “defence of necessity by duress of circumstances” available to those who had a valid public interest in disclosing secret material.

But the defence has never been used and Keogh’s solicitor, Stuart Jeffrey, told the BBC News Website: “We were advised that a public interest defence was not available which is why our defence was based on the question of damage.

“We have argued there was no damage to Britain’s interests. The memo was embarrassing, rather than damaging.”

Reading the BBC’s article on the convictions is a surreal experience. The article, of course, never mentions what “secret” information the memo contained — if it did, the BBC would quickly find itself the next defendant awaiting trial in the dock.

http://opiniojuris.org/2007/05/10/britons-convicted-of-violating-official-secrets-act/

2 Responses

  1. The trial was held “in camera”, so nobody asides from the jury, prosecution, defence and judge know what was in it (and the roughly 100 civil servants who saw the memo of course).

  2. He was asked to photocopy and distribute the memo to a select group of mandarins but when he read it he felt morally obliged to get it into the public domain.

    Keogh said he ultimately wanted the memo to be able to be used by Senator John Kerry, who was running against George Bush in the US presidential elections at the time.

    Anyone care to explain to me how this was a “public interest” even if they amended the law?

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