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Posted July 29-31, 1998

British Secrets which Must Remain, uh, Secret

Reproduced from The Independent, London, July 25, 1998; and see July 31, 1998 below.


DESPITE Labour's election pledges on freedom of information, many official documents are being kept secret beyond the statutory 30-year time limit.

Government departments are still refusing to release files on subjects as diverse as U2 spy flights, radiation experiments on monkeys during the ColdWar, and IRA operations during the First World War.

Last week the Government was fiercely criticised by its own back-benchers for delays in introducing a Freedom of Information Bill - a central plank in Labour's 1997 election manifesto.

Almost 80 MPs signed a motion calling for legislation to be introduced by the autumn. Labour's Derek Foster, a former shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: "We expected it in the first Queen's Speech. If it doesn't get in the second one, it begins to look as if the Government has a lack of commitment to this Act."

Pressure groups are also concerned that lobbying by government departments and industry has weakened the terms of the Bill. The National ConsumerCouncil, for example, feels that commercial-confidentiality clauses will represent "a threat to the Freedom of Information Act because they protectutilities and other companies from proper public scrutiny".


For the past six years, while researching British involvement in the ColdWar, I have been repeatedly hindered by the number of files withheld - despite the fact that the events in question all took place more than 35years ago.

Hopes rose in 1992 with the "Waldegrave initiative".

The then Conservative minister responsible for public records invited historians to request the release of specific documents.

He also ordered officials tohasten the release of many files withheld for more than 30 years.

I began a correspondence with his department, with mixed results. All files were reviewed, some released but others continued to be held. The more potentially interesting a file was, the more likely it was to be withheld.

When Labour came to power I wrote to the new minister responsible, David Clark. In the light of his government's commitment to freedom of information, I asked him to release files his predecessor had withheld. His officials have been efficient and responded promptly, and indeed, Mr Clark has allowed some new files to be released.

However, 12 files on British involvement in the U2 spy-flight operations over the Soviet Union from 1956 are still withheld. It has been known for some years that British pilots flew several of these missions and that the British were closely involved in U2 operations. But the Labour government, like the Tories before them, feels the details should remain secret.


By contrast, the CIA has released most of its files relating to the U2 missions, which ended when pilot Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR in 1960. The CIA has even released high-level photographs taken by the U2 on these missions.

Mr Clark did release one U2 file dealing with events prior to 1956. Some other interesting files have also been made available. The Ministry of Defence released files on "Operation JiuJitsu", a series of spy-flight missions flown by RAF crews over the Soviet Union using US Air Force jets in1952 and 1954. The documents reveal the personal involvement of Winston Churchill, then prime minister, in authorising flights. A note dated 24 February 1952, on Downing Street-headed paper and signed and with a handwritten "Most Secret" by him says: "Operation JiuJitsu will be done by us if the Americans cannot be persuaded to do it. I am to be informed at least a week before it happens." The first mission was flown on the night of 19 April 1952 and involved three aircraft.

It has been widely accepted that many files dealing with the Royal Family will continue to be retained for 100 years. Two years ago, for the first time, secret service files on the royals were released but these went up only to 1909. In the past year some MI5 files were released from the First World War. Senior MI5 sources were unhappy about the release because of the cost and that they felt that tricks of their trade still in use might be exposed.

Earlier this year, a further two years'-worth of files from the Foreign Office's secret Cold War propaganda unit, the Information Research Department, were released at the Public Records Office. However, although these files are nearly 50 years old, between 5 and 10 per cent of the material remains withheld.

Last week, files were opened on the Special Operations Executive (SOE) from the Second World War. These included plans to assassinate Hitler. However, a file marked "SOE Organisation 1946-51" is retained, although the organisation was supposedly disbanded in 1946.


The Clinton administration is committed to releasing all public documents more than 20 years old unless there are compelling reasons to withhold them.

The Blair government's commitment to freedom of information is looking rather shaky.

Last week it emerged that the privatised utilities had won their battle to limit the Freedom of Information Act.

Whitehall officials have agreed that BT and the regional electricity companies would not fall within the Act's remit. This will save the utilities revealing how they arrive at prices.

This contrasts sharply with US practice, where utility companies must disclose every document that has a bearing on their pricing practices.

The National Consumer Council has protested to Whitehall that broad commercial-confidentiality clauses undermine the Act.

Citing examples such as the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, the BSE crisis and escalating utility prices, the NCC chairman, David Hatch, says public safety and consumer interest have taken a back seat to commercial concerns for too long:

"A Freedom of Information Act is most welcome and urgently needed - we don't want to see it neutered by over-generous exemptions. If private firmsare providing public services - as they do in essential areas such as gas,water and electricity - there should be no hiding place from publicaccountability."

Maurice Frankel of the Freedom of Information Campaign said that the Government's commitment now appeared shaky."That's rather depressing for something that has been Labour Party policy for 25 years."

Paul Lashmar is author of Spy Flights of the Cold War, published by Sutton.


London, July 31, 1998


Delays in information bill now feared

By Daisy Sampson

JACK STRAW has been put in charge of the Freedom of Information Bill, leading to fears that the Government may water down its manifesto commitment.

The move to put responsibility of the Bill into the hands of the Home Secretary follows the sacking earlier this week of its chief advocate, David Clark. He had drafted the Bill while Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and had campaigned vigorously for strong legislation in Cabinet battles with Mr Straw. The news that the responsibility had passed to Mr Straw outraged campaigners last night who said he had adopted a very "defensive" position.

The announcement, on the last day of the parliamentary term, was released in the form of a written answer from the Prime Minister to a Labour backbencher, Jean Corston. Mr Clark said yesterday: "There is a manifesto commitment to this. I left an agreed timetable for the draft Bill to be ready. I would expect that timetable to be adhered to."

Immediately before his sacking from the Cabinet Office, Mr Clark announced that the Bill was on course and should be published in draft form by the end of September.

It was then due to be submitted to the Public Administration Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny. The committee's chairman, Rhodri Morgan, said he was surprised by yesterday's developments.

He said: "This does not entirely chime with the assurances that I had been given since the reshuffle, at the top level. But I hope that the change of department does not signify a change of policy.

The work had already been done so the only issue is whether Tony Blair has got cold feet over including the Bill in the next Queen's speech." Mr Morgan said he had been given "cast iron assurances" that the draft Bill would be published in the Autumn and he was expecting to complete his evidence-taking sessions on it by the end of the year.

"It is very important that the Bill itself is included in the Queen's Speech because no government anywhere in the world ever introduces a Freedom of Information Bill once it reaches a half-way stage in the Parliament after the Civil Servants have got you in their grip," he said.

The Bill will give the public the right to demand Government information unless it falls under one of a number of exemptions, which include commercial sensitivity and national security. It is known that both Peter Mandelson, the new Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and Mr Straw have reservations about the proposed Bill and have made their views known to the Prime Minister.

Mr Straw has been critical of the role and power of a proposed freedom of information ombudsman, who could oblige ministers to reveal information. Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said he was very concerned for the future of the Bill last night. "It's gone from a minister who was very enthusiastic to a department that is very unenthusiastic - the Home Office has been very defensive on this issue," he said.

Mr Frankel warned that the change of personnel working on the legislation would slow down the introduction of the Bill. "If the intention is to dovetail (the legislation) with data protection they should have made this change after the election, it is not an effective time to do it for that reason." But a Home Office spokeswoman said that they were committed to the Bill.   

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