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Thursday, April 26, 2007 

Lives are at risk.

In an age when we have vast amounts of information available at the click of a mouse, the reasons for denying the free flow of potentially sensitive or controversial data have become ever more questionable. Witness the way the government continues to try to cut the Freedom of Information Act it introduced down to size - first by being completely open about it, if arrogant and willfully ignorant, and then by subterfuge, hiding behind a useful idiot Tory MP's attempts to exempt parliament from the act.

The most continually repeated argument behind not releasing information of late though is also one of the most contemptible. Last year, when this blog along with others republished photographs of the News of the World "journalist" Mazher Mahmood after he tried to entrap George Galloway, one of his responses was that the images could lead to him being targeted because of the many "criminals" he had exposed; in essence, his life was at risk because a few websites had published public domain pictures of his ugly mug. As it happened, he was laughed out of court, with both him and his lawyers humiliated, but this seems to be one of the rare cases where the argument wasn't taken seriously.

Take the current trial involving the civil servant David Keogh and MP's researcher Leo O'Connor. The two men are accused of breaking the Official Secrets Act by leaking a memo detailing the discussions of George Bush and Tony Blair, in which it's widely assumed that Bush advocated bombing the headquarters of the television news network Al-Jazeera, due to its coverage of the American assault on the city of Fallujah. Blair is believed to have talked him out of it, although the response from the Americans when the existence of the memo was first discovered was that Bush had been "joking". Yesterday, "Sir" Nigel Sheinwald argued that the open publishing of the memo "could have put lives in danger", with "UK forces at risk". To say this is a despicable argument would be to give too much credit to it: it first assumes that UK forces are not at risk in the first place, when they most certainly are as a direct result of the foreign policy that Sheinwald has advised upon, and secondly it ignores the fact that if the contents of the memo are as they are believed, that the President of the United States was considering launching a military strike that would have broken the Geneva Convention, killed journalists doing their jobs, and put the lives of his own servicemen at risk through his own petulant dismay at a television station daring to report on the brutality of what was happening on the ground. If that's not playing fast and loose with the lives of potentially hundreds, if not thousands of people, then Sheinwald ought to inform us otherwise.

At least with the Al-Jazeera memo trial there are genuine questions over what can and cannot be leaked, especially over whether the public have a right to know about discussions at the very height of government over issues which are highly controversial. The same cannot be said for the MoD, which is appealing against an order for its staff directory of the defence export services organisation (DESO) to be released to the Grauniad. In a similar self-serving style to that taken by Sheinwald, David Wray, the MoD's director of information, an Orwellian job title if there ever was one, claimed that releasing the directory could lead to staff being harassed at home, all the way up to workers in Saudi Arabia possibly being the target of terrorist attacks, even though all those associated with the al-Yamanah arms deal are to be removed for the directory. This was despite the MoD admitting that 2,000 copies of the directory have been distributed, with 3 going to journalists, apparently ones that the MoD can trust not to turn over to the evil terrorists.

Peter Clarke too used "the lives are at risk" gambit in his speech on Tuesday, condemning leaks which may well have come from within his own organisation, as the Grauniad reports today. Clarke of course though doesn't actually care about what the very real consequences of such leaks are on those who are arrested and later released without charge, where their lives may be ruined or put at risk by such briefings, but rather on the sources of the intelligence in the first place, who are highly unlikely to be put at risk by such leaks. In some cases, as we know, the intelligence itself has come from those whose lives certainly are at risk, as it was tortured out of them.

As Craig Murray notes today, the sources of such leaks that are helpful towards the government or the police in their endless fight against terror are hardly ever prosecuted. He uses the example of this weekend's report in the Sunday Times, where if the journalist hasn't made it all up, there has been a potentially major breach of the Official Secrets Act, as JTAC reports are sometimes top secret and always classified.

There is a contradiction within the whole "lives at risk" argument that is a mile wide. No one wants anyone to die as a result of something as potentially inconsequential as the release of a directory of workers within the Ministry of Defence, yet when people do die as a result of the actions of the government or the police, dead men can tell no tales. Jean Charles de Menezes couldn't inform us that he didn't jump that barrier and that he wasn't wearing a heavy coat. The soldiers in Iraq that would have been threatened further by the release of the al-Jazeera memo or, if some right-wing commentators are to be believed, by the broadcasting of dramas such as the Mark of Cain, can tell us what they really feel about their mission on message boards like ARRSE, but their dead comrades killed purely because of Blair's "liberal interventionism" can't tell us what their feelings were about being in Iraq in the first place, or whether they were achieving anything other than simply becoming more hated by the day.

We do everything to protect ourselves from things that we don't want to hear, but to those who have to suffer the consequences either way, we have little to offer other than platitudes. But didn't you hear? If we were to be brutally honest, lives would be at risk.

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I don't think that Tory MP is a "useful idiot" over his FoIA Bill - he seems to know exactly what he's doing...

Well yes, but he's also more than helping the Labour hierarchy for reasons known only to himself.

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