Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Revealing classified documents is, of course, a crime. Unless you happen to be President

Share

One of the best moments in one of my favourite shows is when Bernard Woolley, Jim Hacker's principal private secretary in Yes, Prime Minister, muses on the eternal problem of government leaks.

"That's another of those irregular verbs, isn't it," he says to the PM. "I give confidential briefings, you leak, he is being prosecuted under Section 2a of the Official Secrets Act." The United States doesn't have an Official Secrets Act, of course. But in every other respect Bernard's joke is playing out in Washington in deadly earnest.

The Bush administration's obsession with preventing leaks, and generally running a tight ship, long predates 9/11. Witness such avatars of openness as Dick Cheney, and his successful fight to keep the doings of the special energy committee, chaired by the Vice-President, out of the public domain. But the terrorist attacks have turned obsession into paranoia, and provide the classic wartime pretext - loose talk cost lives - for today's clampdown.

Over at the CIA, the director, Porter Goss, has taken the virtually unprecedented step of publicly sacking Mary McCarthy, a senior official, for the unauthorised disclosure of classified information - though it remains a mystery precisely what. Or take the pair of lobbyists for the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby who received some inside info from a friend at the Pentagon, which they then passed on, surprise, surprise, to the Israeli Embassy.

The Pentagon official has been jailed for 12 years, while the lobbyists are being prosecuted - not for passing secrets to a foreign power, ie Israel, but for passing them to reporters. If the government wins, in theory, any officials and journalists who enjoy a good gossip could be committing a crime.

But it gets creepier still. The National Archives, the equivalent of our Public Records Office, have secretly reclassified more than 50,000 documents at the behest of the Bush administration - some of them previously available to historians for a generation. And spookiest of all, the FBI wants the return of all classified documents in the files of the famous muckraking journalist Jack Anderson, who died last December.

True, there's some history here. The FBI was a constant target of Anderson, prompting its legendary director J Edgar Hoover to describe the reporter as "lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures". His children say they will go to prison if necessary rather than hand over their father's papers, most of which go back at least 20 years.

But shouldn't death get the government, as well as the taxman, off your back? In a sense you can't blame the administration. The past six months have seen a couple of blockbuster leaks: the New York Times scoop about the warrantless domestic wire-tapping by the ultra-secret National Security Agency; and the secret camps for terrorist suspects in Eastern Europe operated by the CIA, revealed by the Washington Post.

Ms McCarthy, the government suggested, was the source of the latter. Her lawyer flatly denies this. So what did she divulge, and to whom? It really doesn't matter. She violated the US equivalent of the Official Secrets Act, and paid the price. Which brings us back to Bernard's irregular verb.

Ever since the invasion of Iraq was a gleam in Dubya's eye, his administration has been leaking like crazy - mostly deliberate lies, as in the claims about Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction put about by "senior US officials", that decorated the front pages daily before invasion.

But these are of the variety passed out at one of Bernard's "confidential briefings". These leaks don't count. Nor, apparently, does the fact that after it became obvious that Iraq had no WMD, Bush himself authorised the passing of classified pre-war US intelligence to reporters about the great threat posed by Saddam. There was much tut-tutting, but general agreement that if Bush can't authorise such disclosures (which could get any other official sent to prison), then who can? Meanwhile, a long, hot summer looms, of reporters hauled before grand juries as prosecutors try to force them to divulge sources for the CIA camps and wiretapping revelations.

But take heart; some "confidential briefings" can backfire. The illegal disclosure of the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, in which the White House was involved, has already brought down Lewis Libby, Cheney's once-mighty chief of staff. On Wednesday Karl Rove, Bush's closest aide, was back before the Plame grand jury for the fifth time, amid renewed speculation that he may yet be indicted along with Libby.

If so, it would prove that there is some justice. It would also underline the immortal observation of the devious Sir Humphrey in Yes, Prime Minister: "The ship of state, Bernard, is the only ship that leaks from the top."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz