Letter: Declassification of secret documents

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Sir: While I was in New York recently, a New York Times editorial (20 April) complained about the slow pace of the "review and release of files on covert intelligence operations in the Cold War". President Clinton had apparently instructed the CIA six months previously to "move more swiftly to declassify millions of secret documents", yet the public/researchers still did not have all the papers at their disposal.

I have tried for three years to persuade the Home Office to release surveillance files on colonial anti-imperialistic activists in the UK in the 1930s. It is not even admitted that such files exist, yet it is very clear from existing Colonial Office files and from autobiographies that these men (there were - it seems - no women) were kept under constant watch and their offices were probably bugged. MI5 has categorically refused to release its documents.

The US has not collapsed because its internal surveillance files are routinely released under the Freedom of Information Act; neither has its security service/agents been "compromised". There have been no grave international incidents as a result of the release of secret documents. What were British secret services up to in the 1930s that the Government still fears to allow access to documents?

Marika Sherwood

Honorary Research Fellow

Institute of Commonwealth


London WC1