A friend of mine has been doing some digging into the background of the Official Secrets Act. The UK government helpfully lays out the legislation here. The Guardian has an overview of OSA and why this heavy-handed tactic is wrong.
“Mr Keogh, 49, a former communications officer at the Cabinet Office, is charged with making a “damaging disclosure of a document relating to international relations without lawful authority” (section 3). Mr O’Connor, 42, a former researcher for the former Labour MP for Northampton South, Tony Clarke, is charged with having received a document “through its disclosure without lawful authority by a Crown servant” (section 5).
The defendent cannot tell his lawyer anything about the document to assist in his own defense, meaning the strength and veracity of the case can never be truely tested; it’s contents cannot be mentioned in court, unless the room is cleared of public, media and, one assumes, defense lawyers. And if nobody is left in court, nobody can report on the case’s details.
The restrictions are indeed heavy,a logic of total secrecy:
“State prosecutor Rosemary Fernandes said that if information from the memo was likely to be disclosed in open court she would seek reporting restrictions (under Sections 11 and 14 of the Contempt of Court Act). The attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, has already warned newspapers they could be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act if they disclose further details about the memo.
Sensitivity surrounding the memo is such that Mr O’Connor’s defence lawyer is not allowed to see it. It also raises the question of whether the attorney-general will ask for the trial to held in camera, with the media and public excluded. “The document may not be damaging,” Mr Clark said, adding that it was “very disappointing” that his client had been charged. Mr O’Connor was “shocked”, he said.
It is extremely rare for anyone to be charged under section 5 of the Official Secrets Act, which covers the receipt of classified documents. It is believed to be the first time an attorney-general has threatened newspapers with prosecution under the act in this way.”
Two points. First, British law is generally stricter than the US about what gets reported during trials. However the US does have some special courts with onerous rules like these. Second, and most important, Blair is going to unprecedented lengths to stop the memo from becoming public. Thus, there must be something in it that is way more damaging to him and Bush than the al-Jazeera bombing threat, which is already public.
Blair Watch is doing a superb job here, and have played a major role in breaking this story. They confirm everything from multiple sources before printing it, back everything with cites and quotes, and provide exhaustive detail. Once again, bloggers are at the forefront, getting important news out, often ahead of major media.