Peter Wright was a former technical specialist with MI5 in the heyday of the Cold War. Retiring to Australia in the 1980’s, he wrote a lurid and candid account of his espionage experiences- Spycatcher. Amidst damaging revelations, several significant allegations against MI5 were made. Seeking to publish the book in Australia, the British government attempted to stop the publication. After two years, legal efforts wee unsuccessful, and Spycatcher was published in Australia in 1987. The book was then published in the United States- and soon became a bestseller, with 400,000 copies sold.
Whilst the legal battles were on going in New South Wales, two British newspapers (the Observer and the Guardian) published articles outlining Mr Wright’s revelations in 1986. The Attorney General was successful in obtaining interim injunctions against their publication- and a further injunction when the initial injunction expired. However, the New South Wales court dismissed the British government’s case in March 1987. Spycatcher was published- and the Independent published extracts from the book.
The government was able to successfully prevent the material being published in the UK- but could not stop Spycatcher being published elsewhere in the world, nor media in other countries publishing extracts. Legal action followed legal action in efforts to stop the book and articles being published in the UK- whilst the book enjoyed success elsewhere in the world. 1998 saw the House of Lords rule against the government- and Spycatcher was finally allowed to be published and printed in the press.
In their verdict, although fully admitting the great damage to national security done by the allegations and revelations, the Law Lords found ultimately that the damage to national security had already been done by the book’s publication abroad, thus rendering the government’s attempts to block publication as futile and absurd.
1991 saw the European Court of Human Rights rule in the matter; the 24 judges delivered a unanimous verdict criticising the British government’s efforts to stop publication. Peter Wright died in 1995- a millionaire from the success of the book. The whole Spycatcher episode also raised questions of press freedom and government censorship– very relevant in 2015 following the Levenson inquiry and phone hacking.
Over twenty years later, British intelligence is once again the subject of allegations of improper actions. 2014/15 sees similar revelations against the three intelligence agencies once again being made.
Once again, the three UK spy agencies have been accused of overreach. This is after the recent revelations of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, and various court cases concerning national security and international relations. Indeed, a recent report censured GCHQ for its practises; these practises centring mainly with its intelligence sharing with the US NSA, and unethical surveillance procedures, amidst concerns of state surveillance of the Internet and personal communications. The report further found that GCHQ only recently started acting again with transparency and openness. The other agencies have also been censured or criticised for their actions. Above all, their interactions with the US CIA, and their involvement in or knowledge of torture or extraordinary rendition.
Not only has British intelligence been thrust into the spotlight in the last two years, but legal action and Parliamentary proceedings have been initiated against them, and committees arranged to hear evidence in the matter of improper intelligence gathering. In an interesting twist, leading politicians (such as Theresa May and William Hague) have long been supportive of, and defended, the three agencies and their actions.
In the wake of recent legal proceedings, it is as if the Spycatcher episode is being revisited by the state. Once again, allegations are being made of improper actions by British intelligence. This time, however, the three agencies are publicly defending their actions and unwillingly submitting to legal and Parliamentary scrutiny. Much has come out already- and much still remains buried in mystery.
Instead of attempting to hide the allegations, the government is attempting to investigate and scrutinise the actions of the state agencies in 2014. This time, it is the intelligence agencies that are being censured- not the government. Despite the apparent role reversal, the legacy from Spycather is still painfully obvious, such as legal battles, government investigations and overzealous intelligence services.
However, in the interests of national security, surely it is in the public interest for the intelligence agencies to be over zealous, rather than publicly scrutinised? In another throwback to Spycatcher, the same essential questions and issues remain under discussion and debate- the main one being the need for an effective balance between national security and open and transparent government.