Making a mystery out of a mere bunch of moles

The Act must be enforced to the letter since to admit one exception would collapse the building
MAX SCHULTZ, a German living on a houseboat near Exeter, appeared in court yesterday charged under the Official Secrets Act with having tried to obtain information about the readiness of the British fleet for war. Counsel for the Crown said that a search of Schultz's houseboat had discovered documents revealing the movements of various warships, leave arrangements and dockyard work.

In his defence, Schultz said that he made no secret of his allegiance - he flew the German flag on his houseboat - and all the information found on his houseboat, far from being secret, had come from local newspapers. The jury took just four minutes to find Schultz guilty. The only emotion he showed before being taken down by prison officers was one of absolute amazement.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said later that this was another triumph for the security service MI5, while a Government spokeswoman said that the case showed the value of a comprehensive Official Secrets Act and the need to exempt the intelligence and security services from the provisions of any Freedom of Information Act.

Oh, all right. Schultz's case did not take place yesterday. It was back in 1911, was reported in The Times of 4 November that year, and Jack Straw was not around then. But it is a reasonable assumption - on the Government's present performance in the David Shayler and Richard Tomlinson spy cases - that the official attitude has not changed.

For like other Home Secretaries Jack Straw finds himself trapped by the culture of our security and intelligence services: one of secrecy, paranoia, chauvinism, subterfuge, hypocrisy, elitism and a patrician distain for democratic processes.

The British government set up an intelligence service in 1909 to counter a German spy menace that existed only in the imagination of the novelist William Tufnell Le Queux, the Ian Fleming of his day. But they were terribly embarrassed about doing so - spying was a dirty business more suited to foreigners than to Britons.

Since circumstances compelled Britain to tackle the foreigner on equal terms, our leaders argued, then at least let us do it in such a manner that if our spies are detected, we can swear that we have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with them.

So we ended up with a secret, non-existent, non-accountable intelligence service staffed by non-existent spies - who, since they were non-existent, paid no income tax - and a secret, non-existent, non-accountable security service to chase other country's spies and keep our own spies in line. Now all we needed was to keep the whole crazy mess from the punters. Answer: a new Official Secrets Act.

We already had one, passed in 1889, to stop the disclosure of sensitive information by government officials. There had been an attempt to amend it in 1908 to prevent publication in the press of sensitive naval and military information, but the outcry from newspapers was so loud that the government abandoned the idea.

The new proposals were so draconian - they included the "moral certainty" that someone could be a spy even if there was no evidence - that the government decided to hustle the Bill through the Commons so quickly that no MP would notice what it really was. It was introduced late on a Friday afternoon when most MPs had already headed off for the weekend. Of the 117 MPs present, only two Liberals showed the slightest misgivings about it, and they were convinced by the government's soothing words that the new law was not aimed at anyone in particular and that it would infringe no one's civil liberties.

This, of course, has turned out to be nonsense. Although amended several times since, the current Official Secrets Act is so harsh that, when two upright British citizens sprang the KGB spy George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs because they considered his 42-year sentence under the Act to be unjust, the jury refused to convict them.

Like all ludicrous prohibitions it has to be enforced to the letter, because to admit even to one exception would be to remove the keystone and the building would collapse. So while the Official Secrets Act remains in force, the government of the day will pursue the Peter Wrights, the Richard Tomlinsons and the David Shaylers to the ends of the earth, and it will also injunct, restrain, cajole and threaten newspapers, television stations and publishing houses that try to tell the British public what is being done it its name.

And it will do this not because it wants to but because it is in thrall to the secret services. But why should Labour, which promised open government when it came to power and which has at least two ministers who were spied upon by MI5 when they were younger, kow-tow to MI5 and MI6, who owe Labour no real loyalty?

Consider this. Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy, and Margaret Thatcher - hard-headed politicians every one of them - all fell under the spies' spell. Kennedy had hardly taken office when the director of the CIA came to him and gave him a file full of details of what had really being going on in the world in the previous 24 hours, including intimate details of the intimate personal life of most of the world leaders. Kennedy was hooked.

Among the first people to call on a newly elected British prime minister are the director-generals of MI5 and MI6. They give him a briefing on the threats, trouble spots and likely difficulties the new government might face. Does the MI5 briefing include a secret file or two on some of the PM's colleagues? How else to explain the ease with which the secret services appear to have won over Tony Blair's government?

This mess cannot be cured by tinkering with the fringes, opening the curtains an inch or two, trying a little public relations. We have to sweep away the whole cult of secrecy that began in 1909. We should look at what sort of security and intelligence services we need in the 21st century, set them up under full parliamentary control, abolish the Official Secrets Act - other countries manage without one - give any whistle-blower a public interest defence and bring in a freedom of information act as soon as possible.

Then we could cease being the most secretive of all the Western democracies and the laughing stock of the rest of the free world.

The writer is the author of `The Second Oldest Profession', a history of secret services