They couldn't break me

As a civil servant awaits trial under the Official Secrets Act, a former whistleblower, Katharine Gu

Derek Pasquill has waited 18 long months before the charges under the Official Secrets Act were brought against him. On 11 October, exactly five years since the US Congress overwhelmingly authorised an invasion of Iraq, Mr Pasquill, a former official at the Foreign Office, made his first court appearance.

I understand the anxiety and stress that anyone would feel, faced not only with the long wait before being charged under the OSA, but also the loss of employment and the glare of publicity. Four years ago, in November 2003, I made my own first appearance. I had waited eight months before Lord Goldsmith, then attorney general, decided to charge me with breach of the OSA.

In March 2003, I had leaked a top-secret email, alerting the public to illegal spying and potential blackmail at the United Nations, which was printed in the Observer. I did so in the belief that Britain would not invade Iraq without a UN resolution and that the actions sought of GCHQ, the British government's listening station, by the US National Security Agency were illegal. Just three months after charging me, the prosecution dropped the charges in a dramatic U-turn, announcing that "there was no longer sufficient evidence for a realistic conviction". Faced with mounting evidence of government misrepresentation of the facts, the prosecution feared that a jury would find me innocent.

We have since learned much about that period. We know how Tony Blair had acquiesced to George W Bush's plan of regime change in Iraq as early as in April 2002. We know, thanks to the leaking of the "Downing Street memo" of July 2002, that Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. We know how the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. We know that the linking of WMDs to terrorism was as tenuous as Bush's grasp of geography. We know that Lord Goldsmith's legal advice was not quite as it seemed. So, in this post-9/11 era, to whom do we turn for the facts?

In 2005, the NS published damning evidence. Contrary to Blair's pronouncements in which he claimed the invasion of Iraq had done nothing to fuel the threat of terrorism in Britain, leaked cabinet documents proved that behind its denials, the government believed otherwise. Similarly, documents that linked the Foreign Office to extremist Islamic groups, and the government's knowledge of extraordinary rendition and torture of detainees, exposed the depths to which this administration had sunk.

When governments are seen to be behaving in immoral, and even illegal, ways, the flow of information from worried civil servants increases, as Nicholas Jones explains in Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs. The common refrain of those seeking a more accountable government is: "Who guards the guards?" Indeed, if it were not for these leaks, the truth would be clouded by misinformation. How can democracy work under these conditions?

The prosecution of Mr Pasquill follows a pattern in which the government uses the OSA to try to divert attention away from bad policy. The use of this draconian legislation to threaten civil servants damages the government's reputation further and strengthens the public's view that ministers are determined to hide difficult information, whatever the cost.

Mr Pasquill's case follows the recent conviction under the OSA of David Keogh, a civil servant, and Leo O'Connor, a parliamentary researcher. Both were given prison sentences. The hounding of such people, and the attempt to break me, are designed to strike fear into other potential whistleblowers. No matter how much ministers try to use the law punitively for their own purposes, they cannot totally shut down disclosures in the public interest. As surely as politicians seek public approval, so civil servants and journalists should and will seek to inform the public, if that approval is misplaced.

Now, with Labour in its 11th year of government and with Gordon Brown belatedly installed as Prime Minister, will the leaks accelerate? Or will we see a move towards a more transparent administration? I hope it is the latter, but I suspect it may be the former.