Mark Thomas defends David Shayler

David Shayler is being pilloried because he exposed a secret service plot to fund al-Qaeda. Surely,

David Blunkett and Jack Straw are the Labour government's very own Angus Deaytons - except in their case taking cocaine and shagging prostitutes would be seen as endearing human foibles that might soften their image as ruthless hypocrites.

Jack Straw is more obviously guilty than David Blunkett. Whenever Straw opens his mouth, emergency glaziers let out a cheer as another glasshouse is trashed by his stone throwing. By now we know that any policies espoused by Straw in opposition will be the polar opposite to Labour policy in government. Blunkett can thank God that Straw, in opposition, didn't say that a Labour government would increase guide dogs for the blind: he would now be overseeing a national cull of Labradors.

This October, both Straw and Blunkett signed public interest immunity certificates - so-called gagging orders - to prevent an ex-MI5 officer, David Shayler, from presenting a defence at his trial. The PII certificate is a blunt instrument of censorship used by governments to avoid being embarrassed; it was most noticeably used last in the Matrix Churchill trial over the arms-to-Iraq affair. There are no prizes for guessing that Labour in opposition heavily criticised the use of PII certificates.

Not content with this, the judge in the Shayler case placed reporting restrictions on the certificates, banning the press from evev mentioning the gagging orders. So Shayler was prevented from making his defence, and the world was not to know he had been silenced. Even more bizarrely, he had to submit every question and statement he wished to make in open court to the judge and prosecutor in private. Everything he wanted to say was vetted before it could go before the jury, thus destroying any chance of a fair trial.

By signing the PII certificate, Blunkett and Straw have turned Franz Kafka's The Trial into a documentary work. They have displayed more contempt for natural justice than the News of the World's Rebekah Wade could muster in her "name and shame" paedo-publishing days. The only surprising thing was that we didn't see Straw and Blunkett outside the Old Bailey charging at random police vans, banging on the sides and screaming "hang 'em!" at darkened windows.

It has been obvious from the beginning that the British establishment cared more about exacting revenge on Shayler for the breach of secrecy than they did for examining the substance of his allegations. These being that, in 1995, MI6 funded an operation to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi. Malcolm Rifkind, foreign minister at the time, has said that he didn't authorise this action - thus making the operation illegal as well as immoral.

In 2000 an official security service CX document was placed on the internet; the authorities were furious at the breach. Tellingly, though, the document backed up Shayler's story showing that MI6 was at least aware of the plot to kill Gaddafi. The document mentioned that the plot involved "Islamic extremists, some of whom are veterans of the Soviet Afghan war". In government and security circles, "veterans of the Soviet Afghan war" meant al-Qaeda. The failed assassination attempt took place in 1996 - and killed civilians in the process. This was three years after the first al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993.

It is no wonder that Straw and Blunkett took away Shayler's right to claim he had acted in the public interest. On hearing these allegations, any jury in the land would question why Shayler was on trial and not MI6 and those responsible for overseeing it.

The usual reactionary voices claim Shayler knew what he was getting involved with when he signed the Official Secrets Act. They are wrong. How could he have known of the murdered civilians? Or the cover-up of evidence on the Israeli Embassy bombing? Or the state funding of terrorist groups? How could he have known that his superiors would ignore his complaints and airbrush them from internal documents?

Some claim Shayler endangered lives by handing over agents' names to journalists, which is factually untrue. However, if the state security apparatus is so concerned with saving human lives, why has it not investigated Shayler's claims?

Surely the accusations of endangering human life should be levelled at those in MI6 who funded al-Qaeda and not someone who tried to expose their involvement with this group.

The Official Secrets Act needs reforming - as both the former spy boss Stella Rimington and the current chair of the government's censoring D-notice committee acknowledge - and those who blow the whistle on wrongdoing need to be protected, not persecuted.

But we know the Act will not be reformed under a Labour government. Why? Because Labour said it should be while the party was in opposition.

This article first appeared in the 11 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Whatever happened to No Logo?