So another intelligence official has mislaid some highly classified documents — this time by leaving them lying on a commuter train departing Waterloo station. And while the Cabinet office (his soon to be former employer?) is desperately trying to downplay the sensitivity of these documents, let’s not be fooled. “Top Secret – Strap – Can/Aus/UK/US Eyes Only” is very high level classification indeed.
In this case, it appears that the official may not even have had permission to remove these documents in the first place. Cabinet Minister, Ed Miliband, is quoted in the Daily Mail today as saying that there had been ‘a clear breach’ of rules forbidding the removal of documents without authorisation. Then, having removed these documents illegally, the intelligence official appears to have taken them out of the security briefcase and read them in public, before leaving them on the train.
One can only speculate whether he was drunk, simply careless, or whether this was a timid attempt to blow the whistle and draw the BBC’s attention to yet further proof that the “war on terror” is overhyped.
The security breach is not unusual. Over the years, drunken spies have mislaid countless documents in pubs and on the journey home. In 2000 an MI6 officer even left a laptop in a Vauxhall bar. However, the secret information usually has a degree of low-level protection – the computer is encrypted or the documents are locked in a security briefcase, not left lying around in an orange folder.
When I was working for the spooks, the drinking culture was endemic. Senior managers set the pace, with some going to the pub most days for lunch – one pub was famously called Base Camp Two – sinking a few pints, and then dozing the afternoon away. Of course, the younger officers followed suit, regularly meeting after work for a drink and a moan. Often, they would have security briefcases with them to take away the next day for work, and it was a miracle that more documents were not lost.
There is speculation in the media that the man will be disciplined. He has already been suspended. But the media appears to be missing a trick: this is also a breach of the Official Secrets Act 1989. In this case, Section 1(1) will apply:
“A person who is or has been—
(a) a member of the security and intelligence services; or
(b) a person notified that he is subject to the provisions of this subsection,
is guilty of an offence if without lawful authority he discloses any information, document or other article relating to security or intelligence which is or has been in his possession by virtue of his position as a member of any of those services or in the course of his work while the notification is or was in force.”
So, if this official was drunk and careless with the nation’s secrets, he deserves to face the music. The documents were seen by a member of public and by BBC staff, so the “clear bright line” against disclosure that is always argued in whistleblower trials had already been breached.
If this was a covert attempt a getting the information to the media, as happened, then this person is a whistleblower and deserves protection. The law makes no distinction based on intent, as the public interest defence was removed from the OSA in 1989 (despite the fact that Blair, Straw and most of the Labour government past and present voted against this measure).
However, such an action is clearly morally different from drunken carelessness, and if that was indeed his intent, he would have done better to have had the courage of his convictions and gone directly to the media. He would still not have had any defence under the OSA for his principled stance, but the impact and potential for change would have been greater. Better to be hung for a sheep than a lamb.