Foreign Office funny business kept out of court
FOREIGN Office civil servant Derek Pasquill stepped free from the Old Bailey yesterday after waiting two years to face charges that could have led to his imprisonment under the Official Secrets Act.
Pasquill had been accused of passing official papers to journalists, who had used the information to expose divisions within government and officialdom about the US practice of "extraordinary rendition" -whereby "terror suspects" are secretly spirited away to countries where they can be tortured - and the British government's relations with Muslim groups.
The case was dropped after it was revealed that senior officials believed Pasqual's leaks actually benefited rather than harming Britain. That meant a prosecution could fail. This was said in letters from soon after his arrest two years ago, but the police and prosecution were only told last month, and the defence only heard about them on the morning the trial was due to open.
Guardian security correspondent Richard Norton-Tayler says 'Sources familiar with the case said several ministers were aware that they could be called by the defence. They included the former communities secretary Ruth Kelly, her successor, Hazel Blears, and David Miliband, the foreign secretary.
'After he was discharged, Pasquill told the Guardian he had suffered a "very unpleasant ordeal", adding: "I am relieved I have now been completely vindicated in my actions exposing dangerous government policy and changing its priorities."
A Foreign Office spokesman said leaking official documents was "absolutely contrary" to good government. "As Mr Pasquill may be subject to internal disciplinary procedures, any further comment would be inappropriate."
I've known cases dropped before when those with authority realised the accused might be looking forward to the confrontation and hoped-for publicity. It happened to the delight of some young friends of mine charged for disrupting an Iraqi oil investors conference. But they were not senior civil servants and didn't face the Old Bailey, only Thames Magistrates Court.
This was different.
Because the man facing prosecution was a Foreign Office official and the case had a bearing on the Middle East, it brought to my mind what happened to another Foreign Office man, Andrew Balfour, back in 1989. Balfour, an official at the British embassy in Dubai , was recalled to London then lifted by Special Branch as he came to work in Whitehall, and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act(PTA). While he was held his home in Walton on Thames was turned over thoroughly by the police.
It was unusual for an Englishman to be taken under what many saw as an anti-Irish law, never mind a Foreign Office diplomat. In the end the accusation made against Andrew Balfour seemed to be that he had sought advantage for his brother-in-law's business in exchange for giving a visa to an Iranian businessman whom the FCO claimed was running guns which might be used by terrorists.
This businessman, a Mr.Ansari, was also arrested under the PTA, but released without charges. Balfour himself was dealt with by an internal disciplinary hearing, and dismissed in 1990. At an Industrial Tribunal claiming unfair dismissal he claimed that MI6 had instructed him to befriend Ansari among others. Ministers asked for "public interest" immunity so the Tribunal evidence would not be public.
A person in a corner could make up the "MI6 told me to do it" story. But before he was sent to Dubai, Balfour had been removed from Damascus, because the Syrian government objected to his activities.
('A Who's Who of the British Secret State', Lobster special, May 1989)
Was Balfour perhaps fall-guy for a failed operation? Was this one of those cases where MI6's deviousness ran into the zeal of M15?
In the Pasquill case there has evidently been a row going on in the Foreign Office for some time. Late in 2005 former Observer journalist Martin Bright started receiving copies of Foreign Office internal documents, e-mails and minutes revealing concern that British officials felt they were being kept in the dark about "extraordinary renditions", which might involve prisoners taken by British officials, and according to one official were "almost certainly illegal".
Derek Pasquill was concerned that the government, particularly former Home Secretary then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, was cultivating contacts with the Muslim Council of Britain, at the expense of other Muslim organisations.
He was also worried about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office developing secret connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to replace the Egyptian government with an Islamic state.
Articles by Martin Bright pursuing these themes appeared in the New Statesman, the Observer, and a pamphlet published by the Policy Exchange 'think tank'. The New Statesman won praise, and Martin Bright earned Exclusive of the Year at the Magazine Journalism Awards of 2006.
Mention of Policy Exchange rings a bell of caution for me, if not apparently for Mr.Bright. It is headed by former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore. Would that his passion for openness and investigative journalism had led him to scrutinise the affairs of his old boss Lord Conrade Black, who has just begun a jail sentence for fraud.
Moore has remained loyal to Black to the end. They share similar views on the State of Israel, even if Black called Moore a "pub bore" on the issue of Ulster.
Moore has complained of the BBC's "anti-Israel" bias, and accused it of being over-cautious when Alan Johnson was held captive in Gaza. But worse was to come. Policy Exchange's Islam experts have been grilled by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight about questionable evidence used to support a story they fed the media on "extremist" literature in mosques, particular some receipts of doubtful provenance. Policy Exchange is still complaining about this ill-treatment.
Tory shadow Security minister Dame Pauline Neville-Jones also made use of the Martin Bright's material. But would a former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, whose position in the privatised Qinetic defence establishment probably affords good contacts, really need to read the
New Statesmen to hear what went on in her old department? And considering Pauline Neville-Jones notorious ability to do business with Slobodan Milosevic, and more recent trip to rub shoulders with Israeli 'anti-terrorism' officers and neo-cons at high-powered US seminars,one wonders what kind of Muslim would be "moderate" enough to be mutually acceptable.
The truth is that US and British intelligence services have been prepared to use the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) and much more extreme and violent groups whenever it suited their intrigues, and since long before the hapless Jack Straw, whom Bright seems to blame for recent dalliances, had come on the scene. The Bush administration has also acknowledged that the reactionary Jamat i-Islam serves its purpose in Bangladesh. And in Iraq the occupiers have bequeathed Islamic reaction and sectarianism, intent as they are on consigning a modern secular country to backwardness. Setting the seal on such an alliance, Henry Kissinger, who once called for an alliance against radical Islam last month received Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), in Washington, and urged him to remain steadfast.
This should give the Left pause for thought, mind. The Muslim Association of Britain, to which the anti-war movement attached such respect, is a product of the Muslim Brotherhood. Jamat e-Islami has worked through the Muslim Council of Britain, as well as reportedly furnishing several Tower Hamlets councillors. Neither is so fanatical they wouldn't ditch radical causes and left-wing alliances for more rewarding deals with those in power.
Questionable as the motives are of some of those pursuing this issue, the row among those in authority and those behind the scenes has done a good job in bringing the contradictions and two-facedness of official policy into the open. It may have had an effect too,not only in making the government retreat from privileging the Muslim Council of Britain, but in dropping its collaboration with "Extraordinary rendition" (or state-sanctioned kidnapping).
If the move to prosecute Derek Pasquill was aimed at intimidating all civil servants, as well as sparing ministers embarrassment, it's to be hoped the collapse of the case will encourage more to speak out. Whatever the arguments, we should defend the whistleblower, because we have a right to know what is going on.