When Lord Goldsmith, the British attorney general, pounced on the Daily Mirror tabloid newspaper last week, threatening it and the rest of the media with the nation’s Official Secrets Act, he was accused of imposing censorship to save prime minister Tony Blair, and his master George W Bush, from embarrassment. This was likely the intention, but the result could become not a savior, but the ultimate confirmation of Bush’s bomb-crazed reckless folly.
The case, opening today (Nov 29) in Bow Street magistrates’ court opposite the Opera House in London’s Covent Garden, has the promise of extravagant theater. Such could be its revelations, that the authorities might wish to scuttle it entirely — or at least hope that trumped-up secrecy requirements render it incomprehensible. Whatever happens however, the case is dynamite of an unwelcome kind for Bush.
The reason is that it is not really about national security, but about Bush’s reported remark to Blair in a Washington meeting 18 months ago, that he would like to bomb or otherwise incinerate the worldwide Arab television network Al Jazeera, for its effrontery in broadcasting news reflecting poorly on the USA. The only consolation, the Mirror reported, was that Blair managed to talk him out of it.
The paper broke the news on its front page under the headline Bush Plot to Bomb His Ally — for Al Jazeera’s headquarters are in the Middle-East nation of Qatar, not only a US and British friend, but recently host to the US regional military command. As we would expect, the mainstream media have done little to check the truth of this, preferring the defensive explanation that the remark, if it was made, was a joke. (If so, why elevate its importance with the Official Secrets Act?)
It has already been observed that, "Needless secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making. The perception of excessive secrecy has become a corrosive influence in the decline of public confidence in government. Moreover, the climate of public opinion has changed: people expect much greater openness and accountability from government than they used to." Exactly, and a sentiment expressed by the new Labor government in 1997 in an official paper discussing the merits of a Freedom of Information Act.
However, the Bow Street proceedings are going ahead. Technically, the two men charged under the act, Leo O’Connor, 42, the former political researcher for the British ex-Member of Parliament Tony Clarke, and civil servant David Keogh, 49, a former cabinet official, are accused of improperly taking a British government document marked Top Secret, and making a "damaging" disclosure of its contents, the reported Bush remark about his designs on Al Jazeera. The second of those two articles of the Official Secrets Act, under which they are being prosecuted, is the one Lord Goldsmith used to silence the media.
The secret five-page memo surfaced one Friday afternoon in early June last year in the pigeon-hole of MP Clarke’s constituency office. It was instantly obvious this was not campaign literature but a reported private conversation between the two leaders when the US army was engaged in a ferocious, and much criticized, assault on the city of Falluja in Iraq. The Bush remark was contained in only 10 lines but other parts of the memo, written by a Blair aide, made it clear that the British premier was not pleased with US military actions there. Clarke, who had voted against the war, made haste to inform Blair’s office of his find. Next day officers of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch interviewed him and O’Connor. Soon they talked to Keogh, who lived nearby.
But what the world wants to know now is not whether Keogh and O’Connor misused official paper but whether its allegation about Bush was correct, and whether the US president risked appalling repercussions from such a provocative attack. "An act that would have led to countless retaliatory attacks on Western states," as the Mirror leader described it. The secrecy imposed by Lord Goldsmith’s legal threat makes these questions more urgent, not less likely.
The case has even turned some of the war’s proponents into doubters. Witness the pre-court performance of Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, known in the satirical magazine Private Eye as Boris the Menace, a voluble conservative Member of Parliament, editor of the right-wing Spectator magazine. Johnson, who supported the Iraq invasion, is so incensed about the now enforced secrecy on the Al Jazeera memo that he has made a valiant offer. But first he airs the lamentations he and his fellows feel so keenly these days.
"I would love to think," he writes, "that Dubya was just having one of his little frat-house wisecracks, when he talked of destroying the satellite TV station. Maybe he was only horsing around. Maybe it was a flippant one-liner, of the kind that he delivers before making one of his dramatic exits into the broom-closet. Perhaps it was a kind of Henry II moment: you know, who will rid me of this turbulent TV station? Maybe he had a burst of spacy Reagan-esque surrealism, like the time the old boy forgot that the mikes were switched on, and startled a [radio audience] with the announcement that he was going to start bombing Russia in five minutes."
Boris asks: "Who knows? But if his remarks were just an innocent piece of cretinism, then why in the name of holy thunder has the British state decreed that anyone printing those remarks will be sent to prison? If there is an ounce of truth in the notion that George Bush seriously proposed the destruction of Al Jazeera, and was only dissuaded by the prime minister, then we need to know, and we need to know urgently."
Then, the Boris everyone loves to laugh at, got serious with an extraordinary pledge: "If someone passes me the document within the next few days I will be very happy to publish it in The Spectator, and risk a jail sentence. The public need to judge for themselves. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If we suppress the truth, we forget what we are fighting for, and in an important respect we become as sick and as bad as our enemies." In this, Johnson showed more courage than any editor of any British national publication in publicly defying the censorial actions of the bossy Blair.
There is one more likely outcome in this outrageous affair. It is that the Blair government, in trying to banish from public consumption the ill-timed and appallingly judged remark of the world’s most powerful commander-in-chief, will prolong its life — or even give it a new one.
Older commenators are recalling the absurdities of Britain’s Spycatcher scandal of 20 years ago. In that case, a British ex-spy from MI5 called Peter Wright sought to publish a book in which he revealed embarrassing secrets of his former employers, who in turned sought urgently to prevent exactly that. To silence two newspapers that were revealing some of Wright’s spicier stories, the attorney general invoked the Official Secrets Act. He spent much time, energy — and public money — in vain. The book was not only published but became a best-seller because of the publicity. Finally, the British government lost its case before the European Court of Human Rights.
Going back to the 1980s, official British brandishing of its oppressive Official Secrets Act has almost always ended in humiliation for its champions. The present case of Bush and the Arab TV Bombing seems likely to add to these fiascoes.
CHRISTOPHER REED is a journalist living in Japan. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.