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Official Secrets Act, United Kingdom

Official Secrets Act, United Kingdom

ADRIENNE WILMOTH LERNER

The Official Secrets Act of the United Kingdom prohibits the transfer of information deemed sensitive to national security interests. The first Official Secrets Act was passed

in 1889, and criminalized the sharing, disclosure, or publication of government information by employees and former employees of the intelligence and security forces. The act also covered the disclosure of information by journalists. The Intelligence Bureau, under the recommendation of the Committee for Imperial Defense, lobbied Parliament for the legislation. The act also codified the gathering of evidence to try an individual on the crime of treason based on espionage or the purveying of sensitive information. Parliament hurried the bill to passage, but some dissenters noted failings in the act, especially that the act did not grant explicit powers to search someone on suspicion of illegal activity and did not address new advances in technology, such as photography.

As tensions heightened in Europe in the years leading up to World War I, Parliament sought to broaden the Official Secrets Act. The newer act addressed some of the concerns raised in 1889 upon passage of the original legislation. The Official Secrets Act of 1911 included provisions criminalizing the sketching or photographing of restricted places, especially military installations.

While stipulating expanded criteria for illegal information, the 1911 act contained a few sweeping provisions that remained controversial for nearly 80 years. The Official Secrets Act of 1911 broadened the original act to give the government full discretion over what information would be considered illegal to disclose, and placed lifetime orders of silence on civil servants and security personnel regarding their actions and any confidential knowledge gained during their tenure of service.

The government did set forth some guidelines over the classes of information protected by the Official Secrets Act. Information provided by agents of foreign governments and organizations, security and intelligence forces, intercepted communications, and information related to crime and law enforcement was covered by the act. Opponents of the act cited the broadness of these categories, alleging that any government information or news could be construed to fit the designated categories.

Perhaps the largest controversy surrounding the act was that it gave scant consideration to tests for harm. It stipulated that no motive or proof of intent to cause harm is necessary to prosecute, but that both can be inferred from a defendant's conduct, character, or associations. The law furthermore did not permit a defendant to claim that disclosure of information was in the public interest or that such information was already in the public domain. While criticism of the law subsided during wartime, it began to draw sharp criticism in the 1960s and 1970s from journalists who claimed the act allowed the government to cull the press of embarrassing information and prosecute journalists who used government employees as sources. Other opponents claimed it permitted government abuses in the intelligence and security forces to go unchecked, and failed to provide information to the public regarding security and terrorist threats.

In 1989, Parliament revisited the Official Secrets Act and replaced the long controversial Section 2 of the 1911 draft. The definition of secrets and information covered by the act was tightened to include only information deemed vital to national security and intelligence interests. Civil servants and military personnel wishing to report fraud and abuses now appeal to intra-government review boards, but are still prohibited from public disclosure of confidential government information, even if gained second-hand. Despite these revisions, the act remains contentious in Britain, especially among journalists who view the 1989 amendment as a negligible victory for freedom of information in the press.

FURTHER READING:

ELECTRONIC:

Parliament of the United Kingdom. Select Committee on Public Administration, Third Report, 1998. <http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm199798/cmselect/cmpubadm/398-vol1/39812.htm> (January 2, 2003).

SEE ALSO

United Kingdom, Intelligence and Security

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