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Britain prepares secrets case over Iraq memo By Sarah Lyall The New York Times

Published: July 12, 2006
LONDON The crime took place in the spring of 2004, prosecutors say, when a government civil servant slipped a secret and potentially embarrassing memo about Iraq to a Parliamentary researcher. The memo was an account of a meeting on April 16, 2004, between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush. 

The researcher gave it to his boss, Tony Clarke, then a Labour member of Parliament, who in turn handed it back to the government because he feared, he said, that disclosing it could compromise the soldiers’ lives. There the matter seemed closed. 

But a year later, the researcher, Leo O’Connor, and the civil servant, David Keogh, were charged with violating Britain’s far-reaching Official Secrets Act. And details of the still-undisclosed memo began to leak out, first in a Daily Mirror article reporting that during the Bush-Blair conversation the president, shockingly, had suggested that allied forces should bomb the Arab television network Al Jazeera. 

The memo is just one of a number of sensitive documents whose contents have been illegally disclosed in Britain since the Iraq conflict began. In each case the documents, leaked anonymously by government employees opposed to the war, have revealed details of the inner workings of the British and American decision to go to war; some have also raised questions about the legality of the conflict and about Blair’s leverage, or lack of it, with Bush. 

The leaks have not been confined to Iraq-related matters but have also touched on the government’s investigations into the bombings in London last summer, and into the subsequent shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian electrician who was killed in the subway by police officers who mistook him for a terrorist. Other leaks have included details about the government’s Social Security and immigration programs and about its proposals for mandatory identity cards. 

“The number of leaks has increased significantly ever since Blair went to war in Iraq,” said Nicholas Jones, the author of “Trading Information,” an account of government leaks. “At a time of stress, when the state is taking aggressive action, you tend to get an upsurge.” 

The disclosures have alarmed the Blair government, already weakened by Blair’s failing authority over his party and by an increasingly unpopular war. Officials are pushing for penalties for leakers and whistleblowers, including an increase in the maximum sentence for conviction under the Official Secrets Act to four years, from two. The last time the government brought a prosecution under the secrets act was in 2003, after an intelligence officer from the Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s eavesdropping agency, gave the Observer newspaper a British document revealing an American plan to increase eavesdropping on UN Security Council members before the war. 

In that case, facing a flood of negative publicity when the employee, Katharine Gun, 29, said she had acted as a matter of conscience, the government dropped the charges. But this time the authorities seem determined to go ahead. 

Keogh, 50 years old, is accused of violating Sections 2 and 3 of the Official Secrets Act, which prohibit government employees from disclosing damaging information about defense or international matters without prior approval. O’Connor, 43, is charged with violating Section 5, which prohibits anyone who receives such information from disclosing it. The two have pleaded not guilty and are due to appear in court on July 18. The trial is scheduled for October. 

According to people who have seen the memo, the conversation, at the White House, touched on Blair’s concerns about Falluja, then under sustained assault by U.S. forces. He and Bush also discussed troop levels and deployment, they said, as well as the exchange about Al Jazeera. At the time, the White House dismissed the reports about Bush and Al Jazeera as “outlandish.” A Downing Street spokesman said: “I’m not aware of any suggestion of bombing any Al Jazeera television station.” 

The document’s more sensitive material concerns troop movements, say people who have read it. “It was a conversation in the middle of military operation in Iraq, and it was quite clear that if it were to be placed in the public domain at the time, it could possibly have led to the loss of British lives,” said one. Neil Clark, O’Connor’s lawyer, said he had seen the memo but was “sworn to secrecy” about its contents. “If all of the information contained in the memo gets into the public domain, it could prove to be embarrassing,” he said. “Whether it’s embarrassing to the British government is another question.” 

But given the gravity of some of the other leaked memos, like the so-called Downing Street memo, which showed that the decision to go to war had already been made in July 2002 – while the U.S. was still publicly pushing for UN backing – it seems odd that the government is bringing the full weight of its power on Keogh and O’Connor. The fact that prosecutors say they have established what appears to be an clear paper trail from Keogh to O’Connor, acquaintances who had met at a Labour Party dining club in Northampshire, might mean they are hopeful of an easy chance to make an example of the two men. 

“We say that what he did was not illegal,” his lawyer, Clark, said. “I am surprised that he is being prosecuted.” 

Keogh’s lawyer, Stuart Jeffrey, plans to argue that the government memo should be presented as evidence in open court, a move that is sure to be opposed by the prosecution and might muddy the proceedings. 

“The prosecution has to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the disclosure they say occurred seriously damaged international relations or defense and national security,” Jeffrey said. “We’re saying, ‘What’s the damage?’ It’s not a situation where all of a sudden the administration in the United States has said, ‘If you can’t keep this under your hats, we’re not friends anymore.’”

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