Too much intelligence

15 11 2009

Category: Law, Media, Politics, Rowan Laxton

I wonder if Rowan Laxton will go the way of Craig Murray, former Ambassador to Uzbekistan who quit his post and gives vent to quite extreme views, quite forcefully expressed, on his blog. It suggests a man filled with rage, and hate, bitterness and bile. It’s impossible to read more than a few lines without recoiling from the vitriol.

More seriously, in a post I read he had decided to out someone as being an SIS (MI6) operative…

He had decided that it was OK for him to do so on the basis that the individual had decided to run for public office. It’s not a logic I follow.

It strikes me that Mr Murray is laying himself open to a variety of possible legal actions:

Official Secrets Act

I’m no expert on this piece of legislation (though like many millions of others I did sign it once) but…

Section 1 covers members of the security and intelligence services and ‘notified’ people.

Someone is ‘notified’ by getting written notice from a minister that their work is connected to security and intelligence and it is in the interests of national security that they are covered. Section 3 covers Crown Servants or government contractors.

Craig Murray obviously fell into one of those categories when he was a diplomat, but there are more requirements for an offence to be committed;

For those working with security and intelligence and notified people, any information he knows because of his job or the work he does is covered.

For Crown Servants and contractors the same is true, but for them simply disclosing something doesn’t fall foul of the act; the information disclosed must also be ‘damaging’.

Unfortunately – and I mean unfortunately, as there is potential for serious damage caused by maverick disclosure of information – from reading the Act it appears that the information must be gathered in connection with the job and it doesn’t appear that Mr Murray did get this information as a result of being a diplomat; it appears he was told it by his mates after he stopped being a diplomat.

Leaker

But his mates will have been covered by the Act. And it would be perfectly proper for the police to ask Mr Murray where he got the information from. Somebody has committed an offence against the Act by disclosing the information and he knows whom.

Conspiracy

Even if someone isn’t covered by the Official Secrets Act they can still be caught out for Conspiracy to breach it. I don’t know the circumstances of this leak so don’t know if it could apply, but the logic would go as follows: Person A is covered by the Act and gives person B some information knowing person B has a blog and is likely to post the information there, and person B also knows that person A is likely to be breaching the Act by giving them the information.

Privacy

The disclosure that someone has worked for the security services could have far reaching implications for them. He has a right for that information not to be divulged without very good reason. That right is enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights; the right to privacy. The landmark case in this area is the one brought by Max Mosley against the News of the World.

The right to privacy under Article 8 has to be balanced against the right to freedom of expression in Article 10. Neither trumps the other and each set of circumstances will require its own balancing act. Mr Murray seems to think there is a public interest that this information be released. It seems to me that there is a great deal more public interest is in protecting an individual’s privacy by keeping the fact he was connected to the intelligence services a secret.

Defamation

If the individual were not connected to the intelligence services he might think about libel, but for that to be an effective remedy then simply being considered connected to the intelligence services would have to be defamatory, which most people in a democracy ought not to agree with (that is to say; if most people did agree with that then there would be a serious political problem).

Overseas

In America the identity of ‘covert agents’ is protected by the National Security Act 1947. Under that legislation anyone revealing the identity of a covert agent (however they know or suspect it) is liable for up to 3 years in prison. Of course that’s not applicable in the UK but it gives an example of how these things are dealt with elsewhere.

The upshot is that, quite rightly, freedom of speech doesn’t mean being able to say whatever you like, about whoever you like, as recklessly as you like.

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