Britons still the last to know: We lag woefully behind on the public's right to information, argues Jeffrey Robinson

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The Independent Online
IN THE spring of 1969, the FBI issued a warrant for my arrest. It apparently intended to charge me with several felonies, including armed robbery, aggravated assault and interstate flight. It was three years before I discovered that I was a wanted man.

In 1972 I was living in France. I'd gone to the United States Consulate in Nice to renew my passport, filled out the forms and handed the vice-consul dollars 12. I was informed that I couldn't have a new passport because of the FBI warrant. He also refused to return my dollars 12.

All he was willing to reveal was the date of the warrant. I explained that in the spring of 1969 I was an officer in the US Air Force - with FBI security clearance. I argued that, had they really wanted me, they could have found me. He was unmoved. I then wondered if the warrant was in my name, spelt the way I spell it.

He hesitated. The FBI was looking for Robinson, J-e-f-f-e-r-y A-l-l-e-n not, Robinson, Jeffrey Alan. Its man was three years older than I, born in a different place and, as it turned out, black. In addition to standing by my air- tight alibi, I volunteered for line-ups.

A telex was whipped off to Washington. A few days later the State Department agreed to renew my passport. That, I thought, was the end of that. However, a few years later, coming into New York on a flight from Paris, I was stopped by US Immigration because of the outstanding warrant. I explained the mix-up. A fast check was done, and I was allowed to go about my business.

It happened twice more in the next 12 months. Having a criminal alter ego was turning into a long-term affliction. As is my right under the US Freedom of Information Act, I wrote to the FBI to see what information it held on me. My file arrived six months later, with the usual forms relating to military service, including the security check that the FBI ran when I enlisted. It also contained the State Department telex confirming that this Jeffrey Alan was not that Jeffery Allen.

Officially, I was innocent.

Without the FOIA to get me inside that file, I would have been unable to protect myself from the bureaucratic mix-up. Since then, I have extensively exercised my right of access to information, asking for and receiving classified documents from all sorts of government agencies, including the CIA.

Although I've done it in the name of book research, by law there is no requirement for anyone to explain to anyone else why he or she wants to see papers. Access to them is a right. If there are legitimate reasons to keep papers from public view, the burden is on the government to prove it.

On Friday, the House of Commons will give a second reading to the Right to Know Bill, sponsored by the Labour MP Mark Fisher, but with some prominent cross-party support.

Needless to say, relatively few people ever bother asking the CIA for files on the 1975 murder of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, as I did for my book on Sheikh Yamani, or about Britain's role in the Cold War, as I did for The End of the American Century. Files were released to me that are otherwise still locked away in the British Public Record Office. But contrary to the Government's objection a year ago, when a similar bill died at the starting gate, freedom of information does not give Saddam Hussein the right to see the minutes of every Cabinet meeting.

Yes, the Right to Know Bill will open intelligence service files, but not until real secrets have passed their sell- by date. It may be 10 years. It may be 30 years. But real secrets which are no longer secrets won't arbitrarily be locked away forever, as intelligence files are now. And secrets that aren't genuine secrets won't be locked away at all.

More importantly, the Bill will require credit agencies to tell you why you've been denied credit and require insurance companies to inform you what it is about your medical records that displeases them enough to deny you insurance. Someone I know in the US was once refused a mortgage because, according to a credit bureau report, he'd been a bankrupt in 1955. Here, you wouldn't even know what information was being held in your file. My friend demanded a copy of his file and threatened civil action if the bankruptcy reference was not removed. He was born in 1960.

Prior to the Bradford City Football Club fire in 1985, in which 50 people died, the city council had secretly complained about unacceptable fire hazards. Prior to the sinking of the Marchioness river boat in August 1989, the fact that the Bowbelle - the other boat in the accident - had been involved in three earlier accidents, was not publicly available information. Prior to the King's Cross fire in 1987, in which 31 people were killed, reports identifying many of the risks were considered classified information.

John Major says that he wants more open government and has assigned William Waldegrave the task of coming up with a Bill to ensure this.

But the Government's version would make disclosure voluntary, depending on the particular feelings of the minister involved. It's obvious what would happen to information that a minister found to be personally embarrassing.

The Right to Know Bill is expected to get at least as far as committee stage. After that, its fate is uncertain. Comparable Bills are now law in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Freedom of information also exists in France, Denmark, Holland, Norway and Greece. Sweden has had an FOIA on its statute books for 200 years. Bills are now being debated, and expected to become law, in Ireland and Malta.

Britain is now the only major English-speaking democracy not to recognise that this elementary democratic freedom - a citizen's right to know - is also an integral key to democracy's survival.

The author is an American writer living in Britain.