All deals and no ideals

Not Lewinsky. Not Shayler. Who today will tell the truth - and take the consequences, asks Paul Vallely
THE RELATIONSHIP between the truth and the law has always been a complicated one. In Plato's dialogue, The Crito, which is set in the days after Socrates has been sentenced to death, the great philosopher is portrayed as a man who refuses the opportunity to escape the capital penalty. His argument went something like this. The law is sacred. It may have done him a wrong in this instance, but in the past it had done him "right" on countless occasions. He therefore owed the law his respect, and would submit to its verdict.

So Socrates died and the rest of us moved on. The modern paradigm is somewhat different. It is no less perverse, but the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme and it lacks the saving grace of nobility of purpose.

David Shayler, the man we are invited to call the "maverick" former MI5 officer, today languishes still in the Prison de la Sante in Paris, awaiting the outcome of an extradition process. It is not what he intended when he opened secret negotiations with the British government's lawyers. He wanted what Monica Lewinsky has got - immunity.

It would be easy to mock. Shayler has a touch of the buffoon about him. He did not even have the skills to make the grade in the Sunday Times newsroom and yet he thought he could succeed in the world of espionage. Once there he became conscious that he was a mediocrity in his second career, too, unlikely ever to rise above the level of higher executive officer with its unglamorous pounds 28,000-a-year salary. He decided to venture into the nether world of the spy-writer.

Many of his "revelations" are hardly surprising. There were the MI5 files on Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson, begun in their days as student activists. Then there was some vague stuff about an alleged MI6 plot to blow up the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi - of which we have since learnt more from Panorama on Friday evening. Still, whatever the truth of his public claims, he was clearly enough of a loose cannon for the secret services, or their political masters, to want to shut him up. Government lawyers entered into negotiations with Shayler's solicitor. They wanted his silence. In return he asked for some sort of immunity from prosecution for himself and his girlfriend if they returned to Britain.

All of which does not exactly raise his moral credibility. Let us suppose that his claim is true that MI6 hatched a plot to kill Gaddafi only two years ago - something he was asserting to the newspapers to which he tried to sell the story. And let us suppose that Shayler's motive was that of a Mr Valiant-for-Truth. In such circumstances he would doubtless try to use the same defence as the one used by Clive Ponting - the Ministry of Defence civil servant who leaked government documents after the Falklands War which showed that ministers were hiding from Parliament the truth about the sinking of the Argentine warship the Belgrano. Ponting was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act but was acquitted by a jury who accepted his defence of having acted in the public interest.

But if Shayler is in the Ponting category why does he seek immunity now - having already given an initial toot on his public-spirited whistle? If, on the other hand, his revelations are in fact wild embroideries on the truth, what is to be gained by entering into negotiations for immunity, unless perhaps to feed some fantasy of the Walter Mitty type? Either way there is something about Shayler's wheedling for immunity which belongs to a shabbier morality.

The high moral ground is littered with broken bones in contests between the duty of confidentiality and that to the public interest. The debate over the need to accept the consequences of a principled stand is an ancient one, though it received an interesting twist in the Sixties and Seventies during the Vietnam draft- dodging movement. In it the American philosopher Noam Chomsky engaged in a vehement debate with the celebrated conscientious objectors the Berrigan brothers, one of whom, the Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, went to prison for burning draft-cards with napalm.

It was not the draft-dodging that was in dispute; the debate centred around whether someone who had refused to fight should flee or give himself up to be jailed. One pole of the argument was that the moral authority of the campaign required that an objector had the obligation to give himself up to the authorities to take the consequences. The other felt morality was better served by objectors remaining at large and conducting a PR war through the media. But such conflicts presuppose something about accountability and commitment that is relinquished when requests for immunity are made.

This is the problem Bill Clinton's opponents cannot overcome. However dubious the President's own position may be, the case against him is inevitably weakened by Monica Lewinsky's admission that she is a liar.

Previously this was contested. When one of her former lovers claimed she was a sexual fantasist who habitually twisted facts to enhance her own self-image, she could deny it. When another said she had fantasised about having sex with Bill Clinton on the desk in the Oval Office even before she'd met him, she could dismiss it as a joke. She might even be able to think of a convincing explanation for having asked her friend Linda Tripp, on a tape heard by the Grand Jury, "he told me he's going to lie. I'm going to lie. Why can't you lie?" And then adding: "I would lie on the stand for my family. That is how I was raised. I was brought up with lies all the time. I have lied my entire life."

But in giving the "full and truthful testimony" on which her immunity depends she must, perforce, admit she was lying in the affidavit she signed during the Paula Jones sex harassment case against Clinton. Without immunity she would face an array of charges - including perjury, obstruction of justice and subornation of perjury. She may, in the words of her lawyer William Ginsburg, have been "caught in the web of a complicated government conflict, orchestrated and engineered by people with a political and personal agenda". But she was either lying then or she is lying now. And jesting Pilate's question "What is truth?" has been given a further twist by the process of intensive weeks-long coaching in truth-telling which Lewinsky was given by the state prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

There is, of course, nothing singular in all this. It belongs to the world of plea-bargaining which, as they say in the United States, is a way of delivering "at least some justice". It is not confined to America. As any practising lawyer will privately reveal, plea-bargaining also goes on in the UK on a fairly significant scale. This being the land of the unwritten constitution it is, naturally, done unofficially.

Where the lawyers do not collude the police do, through the system of informers by which individual officers overlook the minor crimes of those underworld figures who are prepared to shop the perpetrators of more major villainies. This routinely involves the police in the kind of negotiation with the jury that Kenneth Starr must undertake with Monica Lewinsky. This villain has lied in the past, the police tell the jury, but you can believe him now because we say so. Often, of course, they do.

The trouble with the shady world of informing is that it can tempt police officers into tweaking things with their colleagues, losing files and much else to protect their contacts. The slippage can be such that, as in one case in New York recently, law enforcers were apparently prepared to overlook even murder by minor mobsters in the hunt for some Mr Big. Morality, after all, only serves the ideal of personal integrity, and the law must concern itself with public order. The confusion of the two is what makes Bill Clinton's Zippergate predicament so unpredictable.

But there is, equally, no legal basis for deal-making by individuals such as the Treasury Solicitor, Roland Phillips, the government officer who was engaged in negotiations with David Shayler's lawyer. It is just that Official Secrets convictions are notoriously difficult to obtain so the Government decided it might be easier to rein Shayler in by controlling the copyright on his writing. The negotiations foundered because Shayler's lawyer insisted that MI5 should be able to withhold permission for Shayler's prose only if it "discloses the operations, sources, methods of the security or intelligence agencies and such disclosure would result in actual damage to national security or the disclosure reveals the identities of staff of the security and intelligence agencies". And Shayler himself gave some indication of his intentions by threatening to post more stuff on the Internet and giving an interview on the Gaddafi plot story to the Sunday Times, whose executives he is still so evidently eager to impress.

In the end politics must look to the future, while justice concerns itself with the past and morality turns to some inner horizon with which our world has grown unfamiliar. Plato, in his account of the last days of Socrates, offered one other explanation for the great man's equanimity in the face of the law's verdict. He was, he said, too old to do anything as undignified as running away. What price dignity now?