Official Secrecy

Andrew Boyle

  • The Frontiers of Secrecy by David Leigh
    Junction, 291 pp, £9.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 86245 002 0

Tudor times apart, together with the brief dictatorship of Cromwell, the British interest in secret intelligence has been a comparatively recent development. And, to be entirely objective, the British have not proved all that good at it. A certain uneasiness overtook the Foreign Office during and after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 when it was discovered that Continental nations were building ‘large and influential intelligence organisations within their military establishments’, to quote F. H. Hinsley, the sole historian to have been allowed free access to the files of SIS. ‘Great Britain had to follow suit.’ It did so lamely and rather unsurely through newly-formed and somewhat despised intelligence branches inside the War Office and the Admiralty. Only service drop-outs, or, alternatively, rare intellectuals seemingly unfitted for military and naval command, tended to drift into these branches, such was the prevailing suspicion against any activity as ungentlemanly as spying. A Secret Service Bureau was set up in 1909 to act as a screen between the service departments and the handful of British agents on foreign soil. What the latter brought in was virtually non-existent, and there is a plaintive note in a War Office comment (admittedly bearing the date 1907) which said: ‘The only consolation … is that every foreign government implicitly believes that we already have a thoroughly organised and efficient European Secret Service.’

Because, in 1916, the home or counterespionage section came under the Directorate of Military Intelligence at the War Office, along with the foreign or active espionage section, these took respectively the titles of MI5 and Mli(c). However, disgruntlement at the ineffectiveness of both branches led the Admiralty and War Office to establish espionage systems of their own while the war was still raging. Not until 1921, after difficult deliberations, did the Secret Intelligence Service emerge with exclusive responsibility for spying. Yet once again there had to be compromise in the interests of co-operation: on an inter-service basis, the Army, Navy and Air Force housed an intelligence section inside SIS on the understanding that each, in turn, would provide its chief, the legendary ‘C’. Moreover, Whitehall’s non-military departments, including the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and the India Office, were put on the list as customers for relevant secret information. For administrative purposes, MI6, as Mli(c) had since been renamed, became ‘the funny end’ of the Foreign Office, receiving its wherewithal from that department’s secret vote, while MI5 remained under the Home Office. At the same time, SIS assumed control of the embryonic but vitally important Government Code and Cypher School, the arm which alone would fully justify itself as a war-winning weapon in World War Two.

This curious historical background undoubtedly accounts for the almost impregnable opposition in Whitehall to any relaxation of the existing secrecy code, so far as Parliament and the ordinary citizen are concerned today. The Civil Service, embracing several more ministries than existed when SIS was born, has as big a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and in preventing the implementation of any serious Freedom of Information measures, as the service departments and the secret community themselves. We are dealing with an inbred type of paternalism which insists that ‘nanny knows best.’

I felt it essential to set down this short analysis of the undemocratic, virtually oligarchic cast of mind in Whitehall because, while it is implied throughout his absorbing and well-researched book, David Leigh has refrained from going into the historical origins of Whitehall’s almost pathological obsession with secrecy. A young investigative journalist, with a healthy distaste for oligarchy in a country which boasts too much about its imagined heritage of freedom, Leigh is aware that

many British institutions are secretive about their activities to a greater or less extent. State in dustries, government agencies, Whitehall ministries, the Cabinet, 10 Downing Street, the Monarch, Parliament and its committees, the courts, the police and the law officers – all these bodies are secretive, and, frequently, the more powerful they are then the more secretive. But the sum of secrecy in Britain is also greater than that of its parts. Because we live in a society whose basic political culture has never been radically up-ended by revolution or war, these secretive components are heaped one on top of the other. They are not like the rings of a tree by which one can simply perceive its age; the whole structure is more like a huge mountain, covered with abandoned monuments, paths that seem to lead to the summit of political power but suddenly twist downhill, and trackless woods.

His aim in writing the book was the difficult one of trying to pick a ‘way through the secrecy of particular institutions, and the myths that surround them’. Unquestionably, the thoroughness with which he has discharged this polemical task will be denounced by upholders of the status quo as being in deplorably bad taste. It is all the better for that. As the author demonstrates, leaks are often the surest means of forcing into the open bureaucrats or even ministers who have something to hide. Privilege and secrecy run a two-legged race behind closed doors, often in the teeth of the public interest, and Leigh is as little edified by this unedifying process as I am.

Establishment convention, a method of imposing confidentiality without invoking the law, lies at the heart of it. The author puts a deft finger on the nerve-centre of the problem when he declares that ‘a decently functioning democracy would hold these three ideas in balance – secrecy, privacy, publicity. Instead secrecy in Britain has flourished like ivy, with laws, codes and conventions, while the other two doctrines remain stunted. This is why the frontiers of secrecy in Britain, although they are, at the beginning of the 1980s, constantly shifting, are drawn in the wrong places.’ He goes far towards proving his case by examining the ways in which official information can be controlled, the press manipulated and squared, the lips of ministers and senior civil servants sealed (within limits), the workings of the prison system and the jury system kept from the light of common day, and national security in its varied applications most rigidly safeguarded. Personal experience obliges me to agree with him that ‘the love of indirection, the cosiness of a tight personal élite, and the sheer self-importance of government servants, find their clearest expression in the intelligence community.’

In the course of my lengthy researches into the weirdly mixed social and political environment which led Anthony Blunt, among others, to play the traitor, I stumbled on evidence which the custodians of the intelligence community would have done much to suppress. That they failed in the end to intimidate either my publisher or myself was probably due to their knowledge of the extent of my knowledge. I have it on excellent authority that, some eighteen months before publication, after I had called on a former senior intelligence man, this gentleman rang up a colleague, who was still in office at that time, and said: ‘What should we do? That fellow Boyle has just been to see me, and he’s found out nearly everything.’ No attempts were made subsequently to investigate several other gentlemen, most of them ex-members of MI6, who had greatly assisted me in my inquiries. For it was an open secret, part of the incessant pattern of rivalry and wrangling between MI5 and MI6, that many officials of the latter service decided and keenly resented the kid-glove handling of Blunt by security. I did not have to play one off against the other. This happened of its own accord, without any prompting from me: I merely obtained confirmation of what I had uncovered elsewhere. Of course, none of my explosive information would have benefited myself, the public or the cause of the truth if Anthony Blunt had brazened it out by seeking a timely injunction to stop the book or by suing me for libel. As I should have been unable to call as witnesses in my defence those helpful gentleman who had once worked for MI6, since, legally, they did not exist, I must admit that Blunt seemed well placed to win any legal action he might have taken.

Not long after the Prime Minister called his bluff, exposing him as a self-confessed traitor, I was sitting at the same luncheon table as an eminent law officer with every reason to know far more than I did of the lively deliberations which had preceded Mrs Margaret Thatcher’s decision to speak out. I asked him a hypothetical question, though it was one that had until recently struck me personally as a very real and frightening question: ‘What would have been done had Blunt thrown caution to the winds and taken me to court?’ The reply was mildly disarming: Blunt would probably have been advised to desist, in case the majesty of the law was brought into disrepute. I did not tell my informant that, as a legal ignoramus, I had often wondered of late whether this or any British government would ever have allowed someone like Blunt, enjoying as I knew he did a grant of absolute Immunity from prosecution, to stand up in court and arrogantly assert that black was white. Nor did I elaborate on my consistent determination not to tempt Blunt too far, giving him the code-name ‘Maurice’ throughout the damaging passages of the book and thereby forcing him, should he wish to be daring or vindictive, to get up and point an accusing finger at himself in public. Such ruses of self-preservation become obligatory in the twilit world inhabited by moles, secret mole-hunters and secrecy-obsessed bureaucrats.

David Leigh has written an illuminating chapter on national security – ‘Last Refuge of the Patriot’. He insists that ‘the anxieties about MI6 are identical to those about MI5 – that in its airless self-recruiting way, it mimics in exaggerated form both the incompetence and the sociological tunnel vision of the most autocratic official departments of State – the Foreign Office and the Home Office.’ He recalls in passing that both services have been penetrated in their time by Soviet agents. Of the immunity promise to Blunt in 1964, he states correctly: ‘The episode shows how the “need to know” principle continued to be manipulated so as to leave an internal security service great freedom of manoeuvre, especially over skeletons in its own cupboard. The caretaker Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, never got to hear what happened and Sir Harold Wilson, when he came to power, was told nothing of this fail accompli for three years, and then in so veiled a way that his memory had to be jogged in the eventual scandal of 1979.’ At a time when dissatisfaction with an outmoded Official Secrets Act is largely responsible for the repeated leaking of inside information to the media by disenchanted officials in ministries and nationalised industries, the necessity for replacing that Act can hardly be overstated. Yet neither of the ruling parties has so far shown much enthusiasm for emulating the Americans, the Swedes or, more recently, the Canadians by introducing legislative proposals worthy of a self-respecting democracy.

Between the extreme position adopted by such former security chiefs as Sir Martin Furnival-Jones, immortalised in the words ‘if it is in an official file it is an official secret,’ and the anarchistic line favoured by the far Left, which implies that Britain has little worth spying for any more, there is plenty of room for overdue reforms. David Leigh’s contention that ‘in 14 years, the British political process [has] gone round in circles and generated exactly nothing’ cannot be disputed. Paternalism remains the dominant attitude of mind in Whitehall and among the majority of our party rulers, regardless of their political labels. A bold new law offering public access to official information will be unthinkable in theory and unworkable in practice so long as the spirit of paternalism reigns. The author maintains that a public access law should say: ‘a. every document possessed by every public body is public property; b. there are some exceptions to this; and c. there is a machinery for enforcement. We can perhaps add d.: some of the exceptions are so important their disclosure must actually be made illegal.’

Inevitably, there will be fierce debate over the number and nature of the exceptions. Not everyone can be expected to endorse David Leigh’s guding principle: ‘Don’t trust the government an inch.’ For if at the top the spirit of paternalism is deeply ingrained, so is the spirit of obsequious acceptance below. Legislation to unfetter official information will only be a beginning: ‘We shall also need a reformed Espionage Act, a Bill of Rights enshrining free expression: a contempt law so narrowly drawn that it does no more than penalise those who vilify the defendants in a criminal trial; a law of libel that allows the press to speak more openly: and a code of privacy that gives the weak some redress and the mighty no protection. Then we will have really moved the frontiers of secrecy.’ This is a tall order. Whitehall will instinctively seek to impede it, supposing one or other of the ruling parties were to shoulder such a large burden of freedoms, and I doubt whether I shall live to see the whole programme carried through. But the campaign must proceed. Our title-deeds as citizens of a genuine democracy depend on the ultimate triumph of the campaign to limit unjustified secrecy.