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Blair’s slow, embarrassing death by a thousand leaks

Simon Jenkins

So George Bush wants to bomb Al-Jazeera. So Tony Blair hates the Welsh. So John Prescott can’t pronounce Kosovo. So Cherie Blair thinks the Queen’s Flight not good enough for her. So the British Army finds the Americans heavy-handed in Iraq. On it goes, the babbling gossip of the air, the small talk of the great, the tittle-tattle of top people. Fascinating.
But stop right there, Jenkins. Not a word more. Tony Blair’s personal Tulkinghorn, Lord Goldsmith is watching, leathery writ in scrawny hand. The attorney-general has threatened all who traffic in such material with the Official Secrets Act. He has warned newspapers not to repeat any Blair-Bush intimacies on the subject of bombing Al-Jazeera. He is dragging David Keogh, a former civil servant, and Leo O’Connor, a former political aide, before the Bow Street magistrates for allegedly leaking a memo to the Daily Mirror. As Tulkinghorn would intone, “The reputation of one of England’s noblest families is at stake.” The name of the Blairs must be protected at all costs.

Goldsmith risks going down in history as the most miserable holder of his Janus-faced office. He is supposedly an “independent law officer” and adviser to the government (as over Iraq). Yet he also enjoys the patronage of the prime minister as his private legal counsel (as over Iraq). The conflict of interest is glaring.

We know from past leaks that Goldsmith’s advice on invading Iraq was so unpalatable to Blair that he had to change it. His independence was utterly compromised. Now Downing Street claims that Goldsmith’s decision to prosecute over a leaked memo about bombing Al-Jazeera in April last year was a spontaneous act of legal combustion. We are told that Goldsmith thought that old carthorse, the Official Secrets Act, needed a fresh trot round the paddock. This had nothing to do with the smoke coming from Downing Street’s ears.

That Blair and Bush should have discussed bombing the Al-Jazeera building in Qatar is hardly surprising. They agreed to bomb the headquarters of Serbian television during the Kosovo war. In 2001 they sent a cruise missile to flatten Al-Jazeera’s offices in Kabul, whose co-ordinates they knew, after the station had filmed the casualties of cluster bombs. When Al-Jazeera showed footage of captured US servicemen in Iraq in 2003, the Pentagon bizarrely cited the Geneva convention. There followed a direct hit on the Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad, killing its correspondent. The station was later banned from operating in Iraq because of its “bias”. No charge of bias was laid against any western news media.

Al-Jazeera, with a hotline to Al-Qaeda, was plainly a pain in the neck and an obsession to Blair and Bush. So what was more natural than that the two men should discuss eliminating it? The official line is that the (carefully minuted) discussion was actually a joke. If so it was a joke by Blackadder out of Dr Goebbels. Given the previous treatment of Al-Jazeera, we can take this with a pinch of salt.

What is heartening is that Blair appears to have opposed the attack, albeit for motives that were pragmatic rather than principled. He rightly thought that obliterating the Qatar offices might be counterproductive. The Qataris might object to being bombed by their closest Gulf ally. Bush eventually agreed. According to the memo, Blair took the same view, supported by the British Army, of the heavy-handed American siege of Falluja. Here he was less influential, although his view was vindicated by events. Britons will surely welcome this evidence of Blair’s much-vaunted “cojones” on display in Washington.

So why invoke the Official Secrets Act to ban such material? Here the plot thickens. Blair is desperate not to have any split with Washington on public view. He senses that a dam may be about to burst, revealing Anglo-American splits over Iraq just when Bush’s policy there is facing domestic opposition. So far discipline has held on this front. Britain’s military and diplomatic elite may excoriate Pentagon policy in Iraq and excoriate Blair for failing to use leverage over it. But the public line has held that there is “not a rice paper” between the two leaders.

This explains the remarkable difference in the vetting of Sir Christopher Meyer’s book, DC Confidential, from that of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, his diplomatic colleague. The first was passed by Whitehall for publication unaltered. It revealed copious embassy confidences and depicted Blair as Bush’s poodle, trotting in the president’s train. But it offered no evidence of a split between the two men, just mutual admiration.

Greenstock’s book was a different matter. It is a high-minded case history of diplomacy in action, devoid of Meyer’s dinner table gossip. But its account of dealings between British and American policy makers, notably during Paul Bremer’s disastrous rule in Baghdad, drew blood. Dealings were not always amicable. The book was far too “relevant to current diplomacy” and thus potentially harmful to Anglo-American relations. While Meyer was cert-18 for gossip it was barely PG for political sensation. Greenstock was the reverse. His book was ruled “too good to pass”. So large were the required cuts that he decided to withdraw and await another day.

We assume from this and from Downing Street’s use of the Official Secrets Act against the Mirror memo that it knows of more high explosive lurking in the bomb bays of Fleet Street. Retired generals, SAS soldiers, Downing Street aides, diplomats and spies are queueing up, eager for profit or revenge. Blair will pay dearly for his lavish entourage of cronies and his contempt for discreet civil servants.

I believe that governments are entitled to keep their secrets, at least for a while. Secrecy and trust among colleagues are crucial to the circulating blood of power. Total transparency threatens that circulation and the open debate that should go with it. Any organisation depends on confidence among participants. Leaks gradually confine plain speaking to ever tighter circles of personal cronies. This applies even to democratic government. There is a public interest in privacy.

Yet this public interest cannot be defined or policed except by government itself and that policing will always tend to exaggeration. Confidences well kept are a sign of sound leadership. When discipline crumbles it is a sign of decay. The leak of Gordon Brown’s rejection of Lord Turner’s pensions review last week was far more devastating to government authority than any gossip out of Washington. But I doubt if any Treasury or No 10 aide will be appearing at Bow Street.

The job of the press is to test this discipline, not respect it. Disclosure of the processes of government is its “public interest”. As secrecy aids the blood flow of those in power, so combating it aids those seeking to improve the flow of public debate. Presented with a scoop, the reporter does not stop and ask whether it might embarrass a prime minister. Embarrassment starts from the moment the reporter knows it, for his task is to pass what he knows into the public domain.

Sometimes revealed material is mere gossip of “interest to the public”. Sometimes it meets the higher test of public concern, of helping people to understand what rulers are doing in their name. Far more material is now vulnerable to freedom of information, itself policed by government. Much is revealed to such investigative surrogates as the Hutton inquiry or the High Court, as in the Railtrack case. Nothing that officials write down can any longer be regarded as truly private.

But that is government’s business. Secrets that government cannot keep, it cannot expect others to keep for it.

The Official Secrets Act is a reasonable tool of internal Whitehall discipline. But it cannot be an appropriate punishment for members of the public or reporters, once a secret is out. This week the act is being used by the attorney-general to avenge and protect an embarrassed prime minister. There can be no public interest in that. The Iraq war merits intense scrutiny. If it is indeed the subject of levity or humour, surely we can be let in on the joke.

The true measure of this war is that its participants no longer trust each other to keep its conduct secret. They are tumbling their stories into the public domain. Since publicity is the one accountability that modern government seems to fear. Long may they tumble.