The Government has precious little credibility on matters of national security, official secrecy and the conduct of the occupation of Iraq. Little wonder, then, that so few are willing to give Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, the benefit of the doubt in his decision to prosecute two people under the Official Secrets Act or in his warning to newspapers not to publish further material. Little wonder either that so many assume the worst about Tony Blair's conversation with George Bush in the White House in April last year in which President Bush apparently wanted to bomb the Arab TV station al-Jazeera. As we report today, there is much speculation that the Prime Minister may have sought to restrain the behaviour of US troops in the battle of Fallujah that was then raging.
Other sensitive documents have been published that have been more embarrassing to the Prime Minister without disciplinary action being taken. The so-called Downing Street Memo of July 2002, which reported that in the United States "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of regime change in Iraq, was leaked earlier this year. It reinforced the perception that Mr Blair had committed this country to military action eight months before the invasion, and knew that the Americans were fixing the intelligence to support the policy. Presumably, the mole-hunt turned up insufficient evidence to bring charges. It remains curious, however, that the Attorney General should try so hard to suppress information that, so far, does not reflect badly on the Prime Minister.
The White House has restricted itself to describing the bombing claim as "outlandish". It is possible either that Mr Bush did not know where al-Jazeera was based (Qatar), or that he meant its offices in Baghdad, which had been hit by a US missile during the 2003 invasion. And the idea is not so outlandish if we recall the bombing of the Serbian state television building in Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict, which killed 17 civilians. Yesterday, Mr Blair and the Attorney General used the fact of a case to be heard at Bow Street magistrates' court this week as an excuse for refusing to comment.
There is, though, an important principle at stake. It is self-evident, even to a newspaper committed to freedom of information, that leaders must be able to speak privately with reasonable confidence that their words will not be reported at least until they have left office. If that is all that there is to it, how could it possibly be prejudicial to court proceedings for ministers to make this general argument as vigorously as they can?
There may indeed be other good grounds for seeking to prevent the publication of the full note of the conversation between Mr Blair and Mr Bush, although national security does not appear to be at issue. It is to be hoped that, when the case opens in court this week, the Government makes a better argument for secrecy than it usually does in such cases. In the most recent Official Secrets trial, that of Katharine Gun, the GCHQ worker who leaked a US request for help in spying on other members of the UN Security Council, the prosecution case collapsed days before it was due to reach court.
Meanwhile, the present episode highlights once again the confusion between ministerial and judicial roles in the office of the Attorney General. When Lord Goldsmith, with his record of lawyerly agility on the legality of the war, said yesterday that in gagging the press he was "acting in my independent role to protect the administration of justice", are we invited to forget that he is also a Government minister? And in saying that the Official Secrets Act "is not being used to save the embarrassment of a politician - that is completely not the case at all" - he should not be surprised if we express scepticism.