Secrecy gag prompted by fear of new Blair-Bush revelationsRichard Norton-Taylor and Michael White
Thursday November 24, 2005
Fears that fresh revelations about disputes between Tony Blair and George Bush on the Iraq conflict could damage Downing Street's intimate relationship with the White House prompted this week's unprecedented threat by the attorney general to use the Official Secrets Act against national newspapers.
Senior MPs, Whitehall officials and lawyers were agreed yesterday that Lord Goldsmith had "read the riot act" to the media because of political embarrassment caused by a sensitive leak of face-to-face exchanges between the prime minister and the US president in the White House in April 2004. He acted after the Daily Mirror said a memo recorded a threat by Mr Bush to take "military action" against the Arabic TV station al-Jazeera. Mr Blair replied that that would cause a big problem, reported the Mirror. David Keogh, a former Cabinet Office official, has been charged under the secrets act with sending the memo on the Blair-Bush conversation to Leo O 'Connor, researcher to the former Labour MP Tony Clarke. Mr Keogh and Mr O'Connor will appear before Bow Street magistrates next week.
The meeting between Mr Bush and Mr Blair took place at a time when Whitehall officials, intelligence officers, and British military commanders were expressing outrage at the scale of the US assault on the Iraqi city of Falluja, in which up to 1,000 civilians are feared to have died. Pictures of the attack shown on al-Jazeera had infuriated US generals. The government was also arguing with Washington about the number of extra British troops to be sent to Iraq at a time when it was feared they would be endangered by what a separately leaked Foreign Office memo called "heavy-handed" US military tactics.
There were UK anxieties that US bombing in civilian areas in Falluja would unite Sunnis and Shias against British forces. The criticism came not only from anti-war MPs, but from Mr Blair's most senior military, diplomatic, and intelligence advisers. When Mr Blair met Mr Bush in Washington, military advisers were urging the prime minister to send extra forces only on British terms. General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the army, said while British troops had to fight with the Americans, "that does not mean we must be able to fight as the Americans".
Andrew Nicol QC, a media law expert, said he was unaware of any case going to trial where a newspaper or journalist had been prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. He said Lord Goldsmith appeared to be trying to "put down a marker" to prevent further leaks or publication of further disclosures from the document already allegedly leaked.
Last night the former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle tabled a Commons motion saying Mr Blair should publish the record of his discussion with Mr Bush.
Downing Street stressed that the decision to take action was "entirely up to the attorney general" and was intended to "draw a line in the sand" on further leaks.