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2 Going to Trial Over Disputed War 'Secrets'

The Britons are charged in the leak of purported notes of a Bush-Blair talk about bombing Al Jazeera. Britain denies such a discussion.

January 21, 2006|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Can two men be jailed for revealing a state secret that officially does not exist?

Britain's Crown Prosecution Service seems to say so.

On Tuesday, a civil servant and a former parliamentary aide will go on trial on charges of passing on notes of a conversation between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush that reportedly indicate that Bush spoke of bombing the offices of Al Jazeera television in Qatar.

The White House and Downing Street have denied the account, and the notes have not been published.

But the case against the men is shaping up as a test of the government's ability to keep confidences and enforce the country's Official Secrets Act at a time when the war in Iraq has led to a stream of unwelcome insider disclosures.

The charges against civil servant David Keogh, 49, and former parliamentary aide Leo O'Connor, 42, are being widely interpreted as the government's attempt to warn those with access to what the state deems sensitive information that if they leak, they may be prosecuted.

But that has angered some critics of the government.

"There is a question of public interest here," said Peter Kilfoyle, a Labor Party member of Parliament from Liverpool who was among the first to hear about the leaked document.

Kilfoyle said he heard about the notes in early June 2004 from his colleague Tony Clarke, at the time an MP for Northampton. Clarke employed his friend O'Connor as his parliamentary researcher.

"I think the British public and the American public have the right to know. They ought to know about the kind of people that are leading them," Kilfoyle said.

Kilfoyle has had more than a passing role in the case. He has acknowledged discussing the document with "all and sundry" after Clarke told him about it. He even tried, he said, to persuade a Democratic Party member in California to publicize the story in the United States to hurt Bush in the 2004 election.

Still convinced that the information should be public, he recently challenged prosecutors to charge him as well.

"Bush Plot to Bomb His Arab Ally," shouted the banner headline in London's Mirror tabloid Nov. 22, 2004, over a photoof a wild-looking president. The paper, without direct quotes, said Bush had proposed attacking the Arabic TV channel during a conversation with Blair on April 16. Blair reportedly dissuaded him, aided by then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

The White House initially dismissed the Mirror's report as "outlandish," and Downing Street said it would not comment on leaks.

But the story did not go away. It has been circulated in the media and on Internet Web logs around the world. On Thursday, it even was mentioned in the latest taped message attributed to Osama bin Laden.

Now with the trial of Keogh and O'Connor about to begin and Al Jazeera pursuing a legal application for more information, the prime minister's press office this week issued its strongest denial to date that Bush ever suggested to Blair that Al Jazeera should be bombed.

"It is not the practice, and will not be the practice, to release conversations between the prime minister and other world leaders," Blair's official spokesperson said. "But what we can confirm is that the memo does not refer to bombing the Al Jazeera station in Qatar, despite the various allegations."

What makes the case somewhat puzzling to the public is that only the government and those who received it know exactly what is contained in the document officials are trying to suppress.

O'Connor's attorney, Neil Clark, who has seen it, said, "I don't think there was anything in it that could embarrass the government," Britain's Guardian newspaper reported.

Clark told the paper he was under court order not to discuss the document, but added, "It is important to our case, essential to our case, that it be disclosed."

Prosecutions under Britain's 1989 Official Secrets Act are relatively rare. This case has been accompanied by a stern warning from the attorney general, Lord Peter Goldsmith: Newspapers that divulge further details will be prosecuted as well. Such a prosecution would be a first under the act.

Also unusual, the government has charged not only the civil servant who allegedly passed on the notes of the Bush-Blair talk, but the alleged recipient.

Al Jazeera, which has asked both Britain and the United States for clarification of the report, has filed a formal request for the document under Britain's recently enacted freedom of information law. "We would like to know the truth," Al Jazeera's London bureau chief said.

The Arab world's most popular TV channel has hired a British law firm to pursue its request to see the document.

The Bush-Blair conversation reportedly took place during a chaotic period in 2004 when U.S. forces in Iraq were training to contain insurgents in Fallouja and Najaf. According to the Mirror's disputed account, Bush was angered by Al Jazeera reports about a U.S. offensive in Fallouja and suggested that the station be bombed.

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