Official Secrets: Priti Patel’s Early War on Whistleblowers

by | Aug 9, 2019


As British ambassador to the US Kim Darroch tended his wounds of humiliation last month, following the leak of a cache of diplomatic cables and documents, including emails describing President Trump as ‘inept’ and ‘uniquely dysfunctional,’ an outraged UK government descended into panic over how to handle such an apparently sensitive and damaging betrayal of confidential information. A police investigation was launched to find the leaker.

Is this dubious leak now being used to mount an attack on whistleblowers – with the help of Boris Johnson’s new Home Secretary, Priti Patel?

A leak useful for mobilising outrage

The leak, which led to Trump’s refusal to work with Darroch, and consequently Darroch’s resignation, is a useful type of leak for a government set on tightening the Official Secrets Act (OSA). After all, it has not exposed evidence of any government crime, so cannot really be applauded as a courageous stand against abuse of power as in the case for example of the leaks released by Chelsea Manning and published by Wikileaks, exposing US war crimes.

The Darroch leak was clearly one of a political nature. In this way, the artificial hype being whipped-up around it actually downplays the essential and heroic role of the whistleblower. Certainly from a purely political perspective, it could be argued that it does not serve public interest to know that a British diplomat might have a very low opinion of the US president (a fairly common view point held by many diplomats globally), which could serve certain political aims, or be motivated by spite. But that’s hardly a matter of national security.

It is for this reason that a chance leak such as this could be extremely useful for individuals and institutions with an axe to grind against whistleblowers. It could also be used to mobilise public outrage against a foreign leader, unpopular with many, who thinks he can dictate to Britain what to do with our ambassadors. Spin doctors in Westminster will make the seemingly impassioned argument that this leak somehow damages the special relationship between Britain and the US. With enough arm-twisting, some of us might even be tempted to give our consent to new authoritarian laws that punish and silence those who leak information.

In this case, the Metropolitan Police took things a few dangerous steps further. On July 12th, Assistant Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, Neil Basu, made this statement:

Given the widely reported consequences of that leak, I am satisfied that there has been damage caused to UK international relations, and there would be clear public interest in bringing the person or people responsible to justice.

Now the police are weighing in on something as politically subjective as “international relations.” What’s much worse though is when Basu announced that the Met would also consider it a crime for anyone, including members of the press or media, to publish these leaked cables. He stated:

The publication of leaked communications, knowing the damage they have caused or are likely to cause, may also be a criminal matter.

I would advise all owners, editors and publishers of social and mainstream media not to publish leaked government documents that may already be in their possession, or which may be offered to them, and to turn them over to the police or give them back to their rightful owner, Her Majesty’s government.

The public backlash was swift however, as many public figures rebuked the Met’s shot across the press bow.

The following day Basu was then forced to walk-back the Met’s threat to the press, issuing a type of retraction some 24 hours after.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn added:

Freedom of the press is vital, of course. There are rules around that and there are considerable protections for journalists who do reveal things and that, of course, is the right thing to do.

From this exchange we learned that there was much more going on behind the scenes with this story than previously thought.

The ground was now set for a disturbing authoritarian legislative drive, quietly unleashed through the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), which included the soon-to-be-Home Secretary, Priti Patel; it submitted recommendations to the government at the end of July following its own inquiry, described as “An urgent look at tackling a culture of leaks”

The unauthorised disclosure of material sent by Sir Kim Darroch makes one thing very clear: those who leak are reckless and dangerous. In this case they have caused the resignation of a dedicated and skilled public servant, undermined the influence of the United Kingdom around the world and, potentially, caused a damaging rift with our most important ally.

The leak of Sir Kim’s communications is an egregious act by the leaker and the Committee urges the Government to use all its resources to identify and apprehend the leaker and apply the toughest of sanctions at its disposal. The Committee believes however that the sanctions available under the Official Secrets Act are not necessarily sufficient for penalising breaches of the gravity of this most recent leak. In any event, it is evident that those penalties did not act as a sufficient deterrent.

The wording focuses on the specifics of the Darroch case and forces us to narrow our view of leaks (and those who leak) to that of self-serving individuals undeserving of any public support or legal protections. Meanwhile, as we focus on the mischief-makers who leak, this same report proceeds to attack whistleblowers and truth tellers who make personal sacrifices to stop state-sponsored abuse:

… integrity must be preserved when dealing with leaks by an unambiguous response that conveys clearly that any leak will not be tolerated.

What the FAC and Patel are attempting to do here is to somehow justify harsher sanctions and extend prison sentences under the Official Secrets Act – all on the basis of a murky Darroch case. It would be very easy to translate this as political opportunism by an increasingly authoritarian government and political class.

Should we consent to risk harsher penalties for those who expose state-sponsored crime and corruption, at their own personal risk, based on leaks we might not care for or disapprove of?

Throughout the report there is no distinction between leaks or references to whistleblowing for matters of public interest. The term ‘whistleblower’ is used once in the report but is given no time, importance or explanation. It is left hanging like some abstract ideal used only to highlight the ill-intent of the Darroch leak.

Yet, while the committee calls on the government to review and ‘strengthen’ the Official Secrets Act to impose harsher sentences, it makes no reference to the fact this has been ongoing for the last few years and the Law Commission is due to publish its final recommendations this year. Its 2017 initial recommendations led to an outcry from politicians and journalists, who condemned its authoritarian suggestions for increasing prison sentences from 2 to 14 years. Using the Darroch case as a platform, the FAC, with Patel now at the helm of the Home Office, has laid the groundwork so that the Law Commission’s full frontal attack on whistle blowers – should its 2017 recommendations remain in place- might be more palatable.

The inquiry appears to have been planned prior to Darroch’s resignation given that the first witness session was held within hours of his decision to resign, the day after Trump’s tweet. It was then wrapped up inside of two weeks. Was the hurry through panic or opportunism?

The advice given by the expert witnesses in the rushed inquiry actually challenges several of the FAC’s recommendations. These include its recommendations around re-classifying information, disabling the forward button on its systems, and empowering the FAC to screen all ambassadorial candidates prior to their appointment by government. Even the former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, known for his approval for regime changes, did not see the purpose of lengthy prison sentences for those who leak information. All agreed the ‘culture of loyalty’ to be the best protection against leaks. The FAC seems to have its own agenda whatever. Most clearly, beneath its desperate reflexive maneuvering to stop leaks… is the attack on whistleblowers.

Pockets of the leaks inquiry reveal how whistleblowers are really viewed by British diplomats, as shown in this comment offered by Adam Thomson, former UK permanent representative to NATO:

There are other leaks that can be massively more damaging, such as cases where lives are lost because sources and methods have been disclosed, or things on the scale of what Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden were responsible for, which, I assume, have had large-scale consequences for how the US system operates.

Thomson does not explain the things Manning and Snowden ‘were responsible for’ but we get the message that their whistleblowing of state-sponsored abuses are never to be mentioned by government officials; state-sponsored murders and human rights violations are airbrushed. As is always the case, any statements about “loss of lives because sources and methods have been disclosed” is kept intentionally vague and unqualified. Surely an inquiry into why leaks should be stopped would be the ideal place to provide evidence of deaths they have caused?

During the inquiry whistleblowers were smeared as being ‘useful idiots’ or individuals working for governments intent on malevolent leaking. It is within the description of malevolent and useful idiot that former UK ambassador to the US Peter Westmacott places Wikileaks and whistleblowers:

If you are, say, a Government that is into malevolent leaking of another Government’s communications, you might quite like to use a cut-out, or if you are the Russians you might use Wikileaks, for example. You might use either a useful idiot or somebody who shares that interest in getting that material into the public domain.

Here we have the “malign Russian influence” narrative regularly used to attack Wikileaks, and to smear whistleblowers, or any other political dissent for that matter. But as John Pilger points out, the numbers do not add up if we are to believe Wikileaks conspires with the Kremlin:

That Wikileaks is seen as the enemy during the inquiry is clear: the fear of having the impunity of its diplomatic and political class challenged is an unacceptable red line for the British elite. That the UK government has spent almost a decade assisting the US in its persecution of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, is the evidence.

Bob Seely Tory MP for the Isle of White, who sits on the FAC, has aggressively promulgated the ‘malign influence of the Putin government’ narrative. The political agenda of Seely and the FAC around Russia has led to the formation of the UK’s Magnitsky sanctions. These originated from the politically-driven US Magnitsky Act based on the dubious claims against the Russian government made by Bill Browder, and used to target individuals. Although the sanctions are in theory applicable to any individual, not just Russians, the agenda of the FAC and individuals like Seely appears to be to drive a ‘new cold war’ narrative between Russia and the West.

Following Assange’s arrest on 11th April, after being unconstitutionally stripped of his asylum and Ecuadorian citizenship rights inside the Ecuadorian embassy, he was charged by the US government for what amounts to a bogus conspiracy to hack a US government computer charge. It relates to Manning’s 2010 release of documents exposing US war crimes published by Wikileaks, and was accompanied with a request for Assange’s extradition to the US. That day, Seely made the following comment in Parliament:

I understand that the potential extradition to the United States relates to the half a million leaked documents in the Chelsea Manning case. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is potentially a more serious and disturbing case against Julian Assange in relation to his and WikiLeaks’ role in the Kremlin’s 2016 attempts to interfere with and manipulate the United States presidential elections, when WikiLeaks was used by Russian military intelligence—the GRU—as the primary vehicle to disseminate the stolen documents, hacked by the GRU from the Democratic party? While some see him as an information war hero, others see him as a useful stooge of an authoritarian state.

Seely continued pushing the Russia government hacking conspiracy narrative, one that has been shown by numerous intelligence analysts to be false and also rebuked by a recent US court ruling. The same day, in an article in the Telegraph, he called Assange a ‘useful idiot and left-wing dupe‘. The article drives the narrative that Assange is somehow implicated in a Russian intelligence conspiracy designed to undermine American democracy by interfering in the 2016 elections, and describes Assange’s role, crucially, as disseminating documents. Seely then goes on to suggest that only by being forced by a court, could Assange answer questions of what happened. In his article Seely recognises documents were leaked to Wikileaks and Assange by whoever accessed them in order for them to be published: a practice in journalism. This did not stop a member of the FAC and government from effectively suggesting prosecution for exactly that.

Isn’t Seely suggesting here that disseminators of information, otherwise known as journalists and publishers, should be forced into court to answer questions on their sources? It seems so.

New US Court Ruling Vindicates for Assange, WikiLeaks

Seely’s authoritarian stance was exposed last week as a federal judge in New York, Judge John Koeltl, dismissed a lawsuit by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) over WikiLeaks’ publication of DNC documents in 2016. The judge ruled that:

Journalists are allowed to request documents that have been stolen and to publish those documents.

A person is entitled [to] publish stolen documents that the publisher requested from a source so long as the publisher did not participate in the theft.

This ruling by a US judge is significant as it upholds the ability of journalists to report matters of public concern without being criminalised, a protection for free speech:

If WikiLeaks could be held liable for publishing documents concerning the DNC’s political financial and voter-engagement strategies simply because the DNC labels them ‘secret’ and trade secrets, then so could any newspaper or other media outlet. But that would impermissibly elevate a purely private privacy interest to override the First Amendment interest in the publication of matters of the highest public concern. The DNC’s published internal communications allowed the American electorate to look behind the curtain of one of the two major political parties in the United States during a presidential election. This type of information is plainly of the type entitled to the strongest protection that the First Amendment offers.

It is also vindication that Assange, now facing trumped-up charges of espionage in the US, is a journalist who has published information on matters of great public interest and importance through Wikileaks.

The future of press freedom in the UK is of great concern. In its 2017 recommendations, the Law Commission, in addition to suggesting higher prison sentences for whistleblowers, proposed prosecuting those who receive and disseminate information covered under the Official Secrets Act. Those who receive and disseminate information are journalists. Seely’s article on Assange indicates how within the corridors of power there is desire to place journalists in the dock simply for doing their job. What’s more, the statement released by the Metropolitan police following the publication of the Darroch emails, that media outlets should not publish leaked government documents should perhaps not be swept aside as some random error.

Given the mounted attack on press freedom by the UK government through its support of Assange’s extradition to the US, effectively for doing journalism, combined with the potential attack on whistleblowers and journalists under the Official Secrets Act – which the new Home Secretary appears to be cheerleading already – the public should remain more vigilant than ever and treat any comment about prosecuting journalists as suspicious.

Reprinted with permission from 21st Century Wire.