PM on the defensive over Official Secrets Act trial

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair complained of "conspiracy theories" yesterday as he was forced on the defensive over an Official Secrets Act trial starting this week.

David Keogh, a former Cabinet Office official, is charged with passing a transcript of an April 2004 meeting between the Prime Minister and President George Bush to Leo O'Connor, researcher for a former MP. The two men will appear at Bow Street magistrates court on Tuesday where at the beginning of what could become one of the most controversial trials since Labour took office.

The decision of the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, to approve the prosecution and warn the media against coverage of the leaked document has surprised many at Westminster. The affair has renewed accusations of "control freakery" by the Government. MPs said the decision to go to court and gag the media was "heavy handed" and a sign that Tony Blair was losing his grip on power. Some in Whitehall see it as a "warning shot" to journalists following a string of embarrassing leaks revealing the internal workings of Tony Blair's government.

The Daily Mirror reported last week that the leaked transcript showed Mr Blair had dissuaded Mr Bush from bombing the studios of al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite channel whose coverage of Iraq and al-Qa'ida has angered the White House.

The Prime Minister was diverted from his role at the Commonwealth summit in Malta yesterday when he was questioned about the trial. Mr Blair said it was sub judice, then paused and muttered the words "conspiracy theories". After another moment of silence he called for the next question.

Earlier Lord Goldsmith denied that he had intervened to save the Government from embarrassment, telling Radio 4's Today programme that he was acting in his legal capacity to prevent prejudice to this week's trial. He would not say whether national security was at issue.

An al-Jazeera executive, Wadah Khanfar, yesterday demanded disclosure of the document reported by the Daily Mirror, and said he would seek a meeting with Mr Blair. The White House described the report as "outlandish and inconceivable".