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U.K. Leak Case Postponed to October
No response to Freedom of Information request
William Pollard (will789)     Print Article 
Published 2006-04-26 17:49 (KST)   
David Keogh and Leo O'Conner pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to charges of making damaging disclosures contrary to the U.K. Official Secrets Act. As reported by The Associated Press for Fox News, the leaked memo is alleged to include "references to U.S. President George W. Bush talking of bombing Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera." White House spokesman Scott McClellan has described these claims as "outlandish and inconceivable." Response to a request for the memo to be published under the U.K. Freedom of Information Act has been delayed.

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The main trial is expected to start on Oct. 9 and last up to three weeks. There will also be a hearing in July. The prosecution will request that the trial be heard in secret but the defense will argue against this.

The two men charged are civil servant David Keogh and Leo O'Connor, who worked as a researcher for Tony Clarke when he was a Member of Parliament. The memo was reported by the Daily Mirror in November 2005.

On a blog for the Freedom of Information Act, Steve Wood reported a further delay to his request for an internal review by the Cabinet Office not to release the memo. A previous letter had indicated a reply would arrive by the end of March, but the latest date is the end of April, after the court hearing relating to the Official Secrets Act. In an earlier letter Wood argued against the view that "Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice- (a) relations between the United Kingdom and any other State" because on balance this was outweighed by the public interest.
"The public has a right to know about the level of involvement of the UK government in any potential action that would have been in breach of the Geneva Convention and would have involved civilian deaths if the Al Jazeera offices had been hit by a bomb or a missile. The public interest is further enhanced by the fact that many U,K. nationals work for Al Jazeera."
There is a second argument that the assumed content is already public.
"The content of the memo has been confirmed by a respected source, a member of Parliament, Peter Kilfolye. It should be noted that guidance from the Department of Constitutional Affairs on the application of exemption S27 states: 'Individual requests for information must be considered on their merits but you should take account of what is already in the public domain when assessing prejudice to international relations. The fact that similar or related information is already in the public domain may reduce or negate any potential prejudice'."
Wood sees it as a weakness in the Freedom of Information Act that there is no stated timescale on which the Cabinet Office is expected to reply. "Authorities should set their own target times for dealing with complaints; these should be reasonable, and subject to regular review." If a reply is expected in May, it could well not have arrived in advance of the trial in October.

Al Jazeera also made requests to see the memo under the Freedom of Information Act. They are concerned to understand previous incidents involving U.S. operations. As reported on their Web site:

  • In April 2003, Tariq Ayoub, an Al Jazeera journalist, was killed when the channel's Baghdad office was struck during a US bombing campaign. Nabil Khoury, a U.S. State Department spokesman in Doha, said the strike was a mistake.

  • In November 2002, Al Jazeera's office in Kabul, Afghanistan, was destroyed by a U.S. missile. None of the crew was at the office at the time. U.S. officials said they believed the target was a terrorist site and did not know it was Al Jazeera's office.

    As well as making a request to the U.K., Wood has also made a request under the Freedom of Information Act in the U.S. A letter of Jan. 28 offers no timescale for a response, but there is a case number - 200505449.

    The idea of a Freedom of Information Act is better established in the United States than in the United Kingdom. There is a written constitution and there is no Official Secrets Act as such. There are government efforts to counteract leaks of information, but press comment shows the strength of support for freedom of information.

    A recent editorial in the Washington Post noted the prosecution of two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the FBI's attempt to seize control of the papers of the late columnist Jack Anderson. "The government did not charge them under a normal spying law. Instead, it invoked a World War I-era statute that prohibits people who receive secret information from disclosing it further." The Post concludes that prosecutors have abandoned the discretion that has "prevented this law from morphing into an American version of Britain's Official Secrets Act" but there is still a belief that "the courts would not tolerate a reading of it that ran smack into the First Amendment."

    In the United Kingdom, there is a longstanding culture of state secrecy, but several cases where a jury has not been convinced to convict under the Official Secrets Act. The BBC News Web site recalls that in 1985, Clive Ponting was found innocent by a jury after being charged with leaking a document about the sinking of the Belgrano.
  • ©2006 OhmyNews
    Other articles by reporter William Pollard

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