Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 April 2000

The names David James Watson and Richard Bartlitt will not mean a lot to readers of Tribune who are not subscribers to Free Press , the newsletter of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

If you take Free Press , however, you will know that they are two MI6 officers who are alleged to have had knowledge of an assassination attempt against Muammar al Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, in 1995.

Their names have been known to many British journalists for some time, and on 10 March they were published by the Portuguese satirical weekly Tal&Qual . Subsequently they have appeared on several websites, one of which is Yet not one national daily or Sunday has published them in Britain.

The Observer came close to doing so on 27 February but was legally prevented from going ahead by the terms of an injunction covering information originating from David Shayler, the dissident MI5 officer, who first broke the story about the attempted assassination.
After that, no one dared mention the names in print until Stephen Dorrill, the author of a new book on MI6, did so in the issue of Free Press published this week.

The main reason for this reticence is simple: editors are worried by how the secret state might hit them if they publish.

So far, the response of the authorities to publication of materials relating to Shayler’s allegations has been little short of draconian.

On March 6, a young student supporter of Shayler, Julie-ann Davis, was hauled out of a lecture theatre at Kingston university by the Special Branch, arrested and bailed – apparently in connection with the publication on the internet of an internal MI6 document giving details of the Gadhafi plot.

Subsequently, the Observer and the Guardian were served with a court order requiring them to hand over all materials relating to the Shayler case – a move provoked by the story that the Observer did run on February 27, without the names, written by Martin Bright after interviewing Shayler. The court order amounts to a trawl for information that might or might not be used in a legal action that might or might not take place. Yet if the two papers continue to defy it, journalists could be jailed.

All this is despite the fact that, so far, Shayler’s allegations have stood up well to scrutiny – which means that there is a prima facie case for taking them very seriously.

Getting involved in assassination attempts on foreign leaders is not the sort of thing that MI6 should be doing in any but the most exceptional circumstances – if at all. And there appears to be no reason that Gadhafi, however unpleasant a dictator, was in any sense a legitimate target in 1995. Shayler wants an official inquiry into the alleged plot; at very least, it is in the public interest that his claims are examined openly and in public.

Yet the security state is doing everything in its power to prevent discussion of Shayler’s allegations, even though there is no question that any MI6 operations, or officers’ lives, could be put at risk by such a process. Any damage that Shayler’s claims could possibly do – and there are grounds for thinking that they were never harmful to anything MI6’s reputation – was done a long time ago. To put it bluntly, if Libyan intelligence officers are unable to read Portuguese, they must at least be assumed capable of surfing the internet.

What is most worrying about this whole obscene spectacle is that it is a Labour government that is presiding over it.

Of course, historically, Labour is no stranger to the persecution of journalists and whistleblowers in the interests of the secret state. The last Labour government deported the journalist Mark Hosenball and the former CIA agent Phil Agee on the grounds that they were dangerous subversives. After that, it used the Official Secrets Act to prosecute two radical journalists involved in the Agee-Hosenball defence campaign, Crispin Aubrey and Duncan Campbell, and a former signals intelligence soldier they had interviewed, John Berry.

But I really thought Labour had learned its lesson from the 1970s. During the 1980s, Labour was sharply critical of the Tory Government’s prosecutions of Sarah Tisdall and Clive Ponting for leaking official secrets. Although it had little of substance to say on the biggest official secrecy fiasco of the decade, the Spycatcher affair – to which the Shayler case bears an increasingly sharp resemblance – it seemed inconceivable that a Labour government would ever allow the full force of the law to be used to defend the secret state from legitimate public scrutiny.

Even as recently as five years ago, Labour’s pursuit of the Tory government over its attempts to cover up the arms-to-Iraq scandal – led by Robin Cook – appeared to be a harbinger of a much healthier attitude to the misdemeanours of the secret state once Labour won power.

Today, Cook is reportedly outraged by the heavy-handedness of the reaction to the publication of the Gadhafi plot materials. If the reports are true, that is to his credit. But the government’s credibility among believers in freedom of expression and supporters of democratic accountability for the security and intelligence services will be shattered unless it stops the campaign to suppress discussion of Shayler’s allegations right now.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.