» Thursday, February 26, 2004

Clare Short/Katharine Gun

Asked if the Prime Minister was content to allow someone whom he regarded as ‘reckless’ and ‘irresponsible’ to continue as a Privy Counsellor, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the Prime Minister had expressed his view of Clare Short’s behaviour this morning. His words spoke for themselves. The overriding point in this whole matter was not to put the operation of the security services at risk in any way. Asked if it was appropriate for a Privy Counsellor to put the operation of the security services in peril as she had done, the PMOS said that it was not appropriate behaviour for anyone to do such a thing. Asked to explain what Ms Short had done to put the security services at risk, the PMOS pointed out that the very act of levelling allegations meant that questions about the operation of the security services were inevitably brought into the public domain, thereby making it very difficult to address them.

Asked to explain the security implications in admitting whether or not the UK had been eavesdropping on Kofi Annan in the light of the fact that the Government had been perfectly happy to use intelligence to produce a dossier on Iraq, the PMOS pointed to the contrast between the dossier, which had been a response to a demand for public information and had been prepared in a very carefully controlled way so as not to reveal anything which might put the security services at risk, and remarks which, whether intentional or not, had served the purpose of undermining confidence in the securities services.

Asked if it was legal under international law to bug the offices of a friendly organisation, the PMOS pointed to the Prime Minister’s words this morning on this matter when he had reiterated the point that our security services abided by both domestic and international law. Asked why he was refusing to go one step further and admit that it was illegal to eavesdrop on diplomats working at the UN in New York, the PMOS said that we never commented on the actions of the intelligence agencies. If we did, the door would never close, for the reasons the Prime Minister had set out this morning.

Asked if the Prime Minister had spoken to Clare Short today, the PMOS said no. Asked if he had any plans to do so, the PMOS said no. Questioned as to whether Downing Street had been in contact with Kofi Annan today, the PMOS said that it wasn’t our policy to provide a running commentary on any discussions with the UN.

Asked if the Official Secrets Act (OSA) was being reviewed in the light of collapse of the Katharine Gun case yesterday, the PMOS said that given the disappointing outcome of the case, it was only common sense to review the working of the OSA and the way it related to other laws to see whether any changes needed to be made. That process was already under way. Asked who was undertaking that work, the PMOS said that it was being done internally by the appropriate people in the normal way, as you would expect following yesterday’s outcome. Asked why the Government was disappointed with the outcome of the case when we had been saying from the outset that the due process of law must take its course, as indeed had happened yesterday, the PMOS said that we would have preferred the case to have been duly prosecuted. However, we obviously respected the due process of law and accepted it.

Asked if all Cabinet Ministers were signatories to the OSA, the PMOS said that the OSA covered Civil Servants and Ministers as a matter of course, which both groups should be aware of. Asked if Ministers had to sign the OSA before taking office, the PMOS said that Ministers, like Civil Servants, were duty bound by it as a matter of course. Asked if Ministers remained bound by it once they left office, the PMOS said yes, as he understood it.

Asked if it would be normal for Cabinet Ministers to see raw transcripts of their conversations, the PMOS said that he had no intention of commenting on who had access to intelligence material. Asked if transcripts would be made for conversations between the Prime Minister and Kofi Annan for example, the PMOS said that these were processological questions on which had no intention of commenting.

Briefing took place at 15:45 | Search for related news


  1. Can anyone else explain what, "the very act of levelling allegations [about spying] meant that questions about the operation of the security services were inevitably brought into the public domain, thereby making it very difficult to address them." means? It’s got me baffled. How are allegations supposed to be addressed if nobody knows about them?

    Comment by Chris Lightfoot — 26 Feb 2004 on 6:04 pm | Link
  2. It struck me as another way in which Tony is trying to evade talking about the intelligence services. I can understand why, naturally, though I’m not sure why a simple yes/no would "risk lives" as he was trying to imply.

    Maybe I’m being cynical, but it strikes me that, perhaps, he doesn’t want to answer the question as to whether or not we did bug the UN SecGen. Unless the answer is "no, of course we didn’t, look I can prove it", I’m not sure I’d want to either. Of course, proving a negative is never a good situation to be in…

    Comment by Owen Blacker — 26 Feb 2004 on 7:04 pm | Link
  3. Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t want to answer the question. It’s just that the PMOS’s statement is so nonsensical: we deplore this information becoming public, because that makes them harder to address. Huh?

    Comment by Chris Lightfoot — 26 Feb 2004 on 7:25 pm | Link
  4. What it means is this. When Clare Short made a statement about possible activities of the intelligence agencies, there was inevitably a great deal of comment about their possible activities. However, the Government never comments on any of the detailed activities of the intelligence agencies in any way – either to confirm or deny.

    The reason Downing Street are incredibly angry about Clare Short is that, by making a comment about intelligence agency work, the Government can never deny the allegation completely simply because it is about intelligence agency work.

    Why does the Government not comment on the activities of the intelligence agencies? Simple – if it denied this one, then more people would start making speculative allegations about their work, and the Government would be asked to deny them on the basis of the precedent. Refusal to deny would be taken as confirmation, and pretty soon, in a ’20 questions’ style, the whole activities of the intelligence agencies would be in public – to the erosion of our national security and permanent detriment of the country.

    Comment by David Boothroyd — 29 Feb 2004 on 7:29 pm | Link
  5. Standard procedure, we don’t comment, like all previous governments.

    State tradition is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

    They say, Gun signed up to the OSA and so therefore has to eat it, but the UK signed up to the UN charter much earlier, and shouldn’t breach that.

    If there was a committee, system, or organization that was empowered to censure the "security" services inasmuch as to judge the difference between spying for the purpose of protecting the country from war, and spying for the purpose of propelling the country into war, then breaking the OSA might be considered naughty.

    But there is no body to which state crimes can be reported and dealt with in this country, so going public is the only alternative.

    Comment by Julian Todd — 1 Mar 2004 on 8:12 am | Link
  6. But my understanding is that the OSA is an Act of Parliament, and therefore the law of the land. As such it applies to everyone regardless, "as other household statutes". (Unless you know different.)

    When you work close to government, you get to sign a chitty just to draw your attention to the provisions of the Act; when you leave the work, you sign again to confirm that you have been reminded about the Act. That way, there’s no opportunity for claiming ignorance should you breach the Act, whether deliberately or inadvertently.

    So the stuff about who signed what and when is largely irrelevant. Both Ms Short and Ms Gun are bound by the Act as law in perpetuity. Any decision to prosecute them under the Act is based only on a) whether they actually breached it in fact and b) whether there’s a net benefit in so doing.

    Comment by Gerald Wilson — 1 Mar 2004 on 6:40 pm | Link
  7. It is speculated that the Katharine Gun case was dropped because of the evidence which her defence would call for – viz the advice of the Attorney General on the legality of operations in Iraq- which would embarrass HMG .

    I cannot see how any judge could rule that this was germane to the case. Making war or peace is a Crown prerogative, no more subject to Parliament in itself than it was in the days of Good Queen Anne.

    Ms Gun accepted the terms of the Official Secrets Act when she took HMG’s money and has no more right to her employer’s correspondence than anyone else, except as it relates directly to her terms of employment.

    The claimed "illegality" would presumably be a breach of the UN Charter, in which case any legal fisticuffs would be between the UN & HMG . As far as I know the UN has no power to make British domestic law, to which Ms Gun is subject.

    Interestingly, a parliamentary committee ruled that the Kosovo war was "illegal" in terms of international law but also a "Good Thing" as per "1066 and All That". Bring on Gilbert & Sullivan!

    Comment by Edward Spalton — 1 Mar 2004 on 6:42 pm | Link
  8. Of course Clare Short’s disclosure was a bad thing for our agents. They used to have an aura of mystique as they seduced glamorous women. Now when 007 says "my name is Bond, James Bond," the women just shrug and say, "So you’re one of those guys that bug Kofi Annan?"

    Comment by Neil Moore-Smith — 1 Mar 2004 on 7:19 pm | Link
  9. I reckon Tony can’t wait to retire. The amount of speculation and conspiracy that goes on about stuff like this is amazing. Where does the idea about the Attorney General’s advice being bogus come from? No one seems to know. It seems to be just a baseless hypothesis that someone dreamed up, and which people are now assuming to be true because it fits with all their other ideas.

    Comment by Art Markham — 1 Mar 2004 on 8:26 pm | Link
  10. No … hold on … sorry … this just doesn’t add up. Ms. Gun is subject to the Official Secrets Act (we all are, as someone said). And she revealed what was supposed to be an Official Secret. It wuz an’ open an’ shut case M’lud. But, when it came to it, it was decided not to prosecute her – even though it was an o-and-s case. Why?

    Possible Reason 1:
    She was not guilty of anything. This could only be due to the fact that she did not reveal an Official Secret. The only way this situation could be true, is if the information she gave had been faked. The revelation of a lie, or a fake, cannot be considered to be ‘giving away a secret’. It could be considered to be ‘muddying the waters’ … but that is about all. A secret can either be ‘a secret’ – or not exist. (The +content+ of the secret +itself+ could, of course, be true or false e.g. "45 minute claims" … but either a secret exists … or it doesn’t. Either a table or a chair exists – or it doesn’t).

    In this case, if there was no secret to give away, then she could not have given it away. Therefore she could not have breached the OSA. Therefore she wuz innocent, an’ walked … free as a bird, yer Honour.

    But then, if there was no secret to give away, why was she sacked from GCHQ? Why was she summonsed, in the first place? How can giving away a completely non-existent piece of information put a person in the position of being summonsed under the OSA? Is ‘muddying the waters a little’ a part of the OSA? If so, which Section?

    The only sensible answer is Possible Reason 2:
    It’s all true. Absolutely true. She revealed a secret that – during a trial – would have undoubtedly revealed even more jealously guarded information. And therefore the only two questions that remain are:
    (a) Whether or not this additional information would have embarrassed and already-seriously-embarrassed HMG, and
    (b) Having been requested to spy on the UN Secretary General, did we actually do it?
    And, as everyone appreciates, these are extremely serious questions and need to be answered. Now. (Not in 50 years time).

    The only other possible answer to the original question is Possible Reason 3:
    We are all either utterly stupid or stark, staring, bonkers.
    It has often been said: In any war, the first casualty is always the truth.

    Comment by Veronica Chapman — 1 Mar 2004 on 11:58 pm | Link
  11. Hear, hear.

    Comment by K Curtis — 2 Mar 2004 on 1:25 am | Link
  12. The Official Secrets Act does apply to everybody for the most part, but there are parts of it that apply only to certain people. The "signing the Official Secrets Act" thing is one of the means by which you become one of these people.

    Comment by Owen Dunn — 2 Mar 2004 on 10:59 am | Link
  13. Hello, did I complete this correctly?

    Comment by Shirley — 8 Aug 2004 on 12:02 pm | Link
  14. I think you did, Shirley!

    Comment by PapaLazzzaru — 8 Aug 2004 on 3:39 pm | Link

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