Attorney General threatens prosecution under Official Secrets Act
The Attorney General last night threatened newspapers with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act if they published the contents of a document recording a conversation between the Prime Minister and President Bush during which the latter suggested attacking the headquarters of the Arab satellite television channel al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, an ally.
It is the first time that the Blair government has threatened the media in this way. While it has obtained injunctions in respect of other matters, the government has never previously prosecuted editors for publishing the contents of leaked documents, including highly sensitive ones concerning the invasion of Iraq.
The Daily Mirror yesterday reported the story under a front-page headline of “Bush plot to bomb his ally”. Editor Richard Wallace said: “We made No 10 fully aware of the intention to publish and were given ‘no comment’ officially or unofficially. Suddenly 24 hours later we are threatened under section 5 [of the Act]”.
Section 5 of the Official Secrets Act 1989 provides, broadly, that it is an offence for a person to disclose information protected by the Act if it has, inter alia, been disclosed to them by a Crown servant or government contractor without lawful authority, and the disclosure is damaging to the security services or the interests of the UK.
According to the Mirror, the five page transcript arrived at the constituency office of former Labour MP Tony Clarke in May last year. Last week, Leo O’Connor, a former researcher for Mr Clarke, and David Keogh, a former Foreign Office official seconded to the Cabinet Office, were charged under the Act. Mr Keogh, 49, is accused of sending the document to Mr O’Connor, 42, between April 16 and May 28 2004. The pair are due to appear at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court next week.