November 29, 2010 — The Guardian
The British government failed to prevent publication of Spycatcher, by former MI5 officer Peter Wright, using the Official Secrets Act. The US embassy cables released by Wikileaks is another nail in the coffin for the Act.
It will still be used to control individuals, but these leaks expose the Act’s weaknesses.
It might be thought the deluge of classified US state department information placed on the worldwide web is yet another – possibly fatal – nail in the coffin of the Official Secrets Act (OSA), as well as that uniquely British institution the Defence Advisory Committee, which operates a system of voluntary self-censorship in cooperation with the media.
The US diplomatic cables passed to Wikileaks contain information which threatened British national security, according to the Foreign Office. Air vice-marshal Andrew Vallance, secretary of the DA Committee (which has no status in law) urged editors to consider the UK’s national security before republishing information placed on the internet and seek his advice. The OSA has been used for much less than any alleged breach of Britain’s national security. Governments have reached for it to prosecute people whose disclosure of information has simply caused them embarrassment, and the US state department leaks have certainly embarrassed the British and American governments.
The OSA has been applied inconsistently: it has been used as a political weapon. No secrets prosecution can go ahead without the attorney general’s say-so. But what the dumping of tens of thousands of classified diplomatic cables have demonstrated so dramatically is the sheer impossibility of one government preventing the disclosure of information around the world. If the Guardian had not published the cables, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde or El Pais would have gone ahead anyway.
The OSA could be much more tightly drawn as an espionage act, to catch genuine spies whose activities are damaging. But governments seem to want to keep it as it is – as a convenient tool, a threat, something in the cupboard to warn off potential British whistleblowers.