Are Britain's Covert Operatives Messing Up? Don't Even Ask

by Sarah Lyall
The New York Times
August 5, 1998

Did the British Government try to assassinate Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, in February 1996 by planting a bomb under his motorcade? And did the plan go awry because agents from M.I.6, the foreign intelligence service, put the bomb under the wrong car, killing several Libyan bystanders?

Britons may never know the answers, or even the credibility of the assertions, but for the last few days the nation has been consumed by the questions. Or at least sort of consumed, because news organizations are not really allowed to ask them.

A sweeping injunction has barred newspapers and television news programs from publishing the embarrassing allegations about the inner workings of Britain's security services, brought up by a disgruntled former officer. The media have been forced to discuss the allegations without actually saying what the allegations are.

"I've known these things for something like 16 months, and I am not allowed to publish any of it," said Jonathan Holborow, editor of The Mail on Sunday.

It was The Mail on Sunday that, a year ago, published an initial round of disclosures by the disgruntled agent, David Shayler, 32, who left his job at M.I.5, the domestic security agency, where he worked on the Libyan desk, in early 1997.

At the time he said he was frustrated at the organization's incompetence, mismanagement and lack of accountability. Among other things, he said M.I.5 had kept files on several members of the current Government, including Peter Mandelson, the Trade and Industry Secretary, when they were active in student movements in the 1970's. He also spoke of low morale and drunkenness in the agency.

Shocked at the airing of intimate details about M.I.5, an ultra-secret agency, the Government quickly obtained a far-reaching civil injunction barring the British news media from airing any more of Mr. Shayler's allegations.

Sensing that he faced arrest under Britain's draconian Official Secrets Act, Mr. Shayler fled the country and became a John le Carre-style fugitive from justice.

But last week the long arm of the Government caught up with him. The former agent, who was threatening to publish details of the supposed Qadaffi plot on the Internet, was arrested in a hotel room in Paris. He is now in a Parisian prison, fighting Britain's efforts to extradite him.

"He's a whistleblower," said Mr. Shayler's lawyer, John Wadham, the director of Liberty, a civil liberties group.

"In comparison with the States, we have no real system of political accountability or legal accountability," he said, since the spy services are not even accountable to Parliament. "Under the law here," he said, "if David disclosed the color of the carpets in the office where he worked, that would be a criminal offense."

The case is threatening to turn into a repeat of the infamous "Spycatcher" case of 1986, in which Peter Wright, a retired intelligence officer, published a book disclosing embarrassing secrets. The Government spent hundreds of thousands of pounds to insure that the book would never be published -- nor its allegations printed -- in Britain, but copies were smuggled in from the United States and sold to the curious and the daring by the side of the road.

Now, with the advent of the Internet, it is probably only a matter of time before Mr. Shayler's allegations are disseminated.

Even so, the Labor Government has taken the harshest possible stand against the news media. "The thinking behind the injunction is that because of the nature of his work, it's possible that national security can be damaged," said a spokeswoman for the Home Office who spoke on condition that her name not be used.

Strangely enough, the Government told the press earlier this week that it could report the allegation about the Qadaffi assassination plot in the vaguest possible terms because, the Home Office spokeswoman said, "it is untrue."

But it forbade reporting of related details, like the allegations that the agent in charge had ties to a shady right-wing fundamentalist group in Libya, and that he was paid $160,000.

Reporters are hamstrung in two ways, editors said. Because of the Official Secrets Act, it is virtually impossible to get anyone to tell them anything about the inner workings of M.I.5 or M.I.6, so they cannot check the veracity of Mr. Shayler's allegations. And because of the injunction, they cannot even publish information about his credibility, or lack of it, in any detail.

"If we do, we can be prosecuted," said John Witherow, the editor of The Sunday Times. "Or they can go for an injunction, which would force us to stop printing and scrap the newspapers which we've printed already."

In addition, the injunction requires that anything the papers print on the subject that comes directly from Mr. Shayler must be vetted by the Government, which then decides what the papers can print.

"As a journalist in a free democracy," said Mr. Holborow, of The Mail on Sunday, this censorship "makes me feel pretty sick."

"We haven't had this sort of thing since the war," he said.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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