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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing