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Whistleblowers and the Official Secrets Act

John Simkin

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John Reid, the home secretary, is planning a new official secrets law to punish intelligence officers who blow the whistle on government policy by leaking secret information. He wants longer jail sentences and the removal of a key legal defence of “necessity” for whistleblowers.

The crackdown is aimed at preventing cases such as that of Katharine Gun, a former translator at GCHQ, who leaked a memo showing that in the months before the Iraq war in 2003 the Americans wanted GCHQ’s help in bugging the homes and offices of UN security council members. The government dropped its case against her after she threatened to use the necessity defence that she broke the law to prevent a greater “crime” in the form of an invasion of Iraq.

If her court case proceeded, her defence team would have been able to explore the legality of the invasion of Iraq in court. The government could not afford this to happen.

Tony Blair obviously fears other whistleblowers coming forward with stories concerning the illegal actions of our government. Breaking the 1989 Official Secrets Act currently is punished by a maximum of two years in prison. The government hopes that longer jail sentences will stop whistleblowers from protecting our democratic system.

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