Lost Document Débâcle

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.

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