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5 December 2005

Panic in Whitehall

Exclusive - For three months, behind the scenes, senior civil servants have been trying to stem an o

By Martin Bright

Early in September a flurry of confidential e-mails started to fly around Whitehall between civil servants desperate to identify the sources of a series of high-level leaks that had appeared under my name. On 28 August, I had reported that Michael Jay, the top civil servant at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, had warned the government as early as May 2004 that the issue of Iraq was fuelling Muslim extremism in Britain, contradicting repeated denials from Downing Street that the war had made the UK a target for terrorists. A week later, two further leaks revealed that MI6 was planning to infiltrate Muslim extremist websites posing as Islamic radicals and that Foreign Office officials had recommended approving the visa application of the controversial Qatar-based cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi to avoid a Muslim backlash in Britain.

Andrew Noble, head of the FCO’s security strategy unit, and Chris Wright, the Cabinet Office’s director of security intelligence, were deeply irritated that such sensitive documents had found their way into the public domain. They launched a leak inquiry immediately. They even considered putting pressure on my editor at the time, the Observer‘s Roger Alton, to stop me running the stories. They agreed that “stopping any further leaks should be our priority”.

How do I know this? Because their e-mail exchanges have – in the sweetest of ironies – now been leaked to me at the New Statesman. These missives demonstrate a growing panic at the heart of Whitehall over the increasingly porous nature of the civil service.

It is against this backdrop of disarray that the Attorney General’s unprecedented decision to invoke the Official Secrets Act – to prevent further reporting of a discussion between George Bush and Tony Blair over the possible bombing of al-Jazeera – should be seen. David Keogh, a former official, and Leo O’Connor, an ex-MP’s researcher, have been charged with making a “damaging disclosure of a document relating to international relations”.

Jack Straw and other ministers have expressed private fears that foreign governments will be reluctant to confide in them if they suspect the conversations will be habitually leaked. Now Downing Street, the Foreign Office and other departments are broadening the interpretation of secrecy in a desperate attempt to stem the flow of unauthorised information. It does not appear to be working.

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The latest e-mails that I can disclose show civil servants and ministers in confusion. At the FCO, Noble suggests that the best course of action is to encourage his permanent secretary to “issue an immediate message to all staff asking for them to stop all leaking of documents (and to come forward if they have anything they want to tell us)”. Demonstrating a touching naivety about the workings of national newspapers, he adds: “At the same time, is there something we can do with the editor of the Observer to urge them to desist from further leaks, particularly where this identifies individuals (officials and members of the public), whose security is being endangered by the present stories?” The following day, Noble changes his mind, perhaps realising his claims that the paper was putting people at risk were spurious. He writes: “We are not confident that we can act be-fore the weekend in a way which will prevent further disclosures (if the Observer has the material or a leaker wants to send something out). Indeed, any action with staff or the newspaper could make matters worse.”

The response from Wright at the Cabinet Office refers to an earlier leak and Whitehall frustration at its inability to identify a mole. The “Crawford leak” was a secret memo which showed that the Prime Minister had been warned that it would be illegal to go to war in Iraq without UN backing. The memo, written shortly before Blair visited Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, was one of a series of documents from March 2002 leaked to the Telegraph last year, querying the legality of the war. The e-mails between the FCO and the Cabinet Office show that this inquiry has run into the dust. “The sad outcome [of] the Crawford leak investigation,” says Wright, “is that we have not satisfactorily pinned down the source, even for such a tightly controlled set of documents; but, as you know, that is par for the course with investigations of this sort.”

I am beginning to lose count of the number of leaks the government has had to contend with since it began its ill-fated adventure in Iraq. The charges against Keogh and O’Connor recall the earlier prosecution of the GCHQ whistle-blower Katharine Gun, who revealed details of US plans to spy on UN Security Council members in the run-up to war in 2003. In the end, the government was forced to drop the case against her, lodged under the Official Secrets Act, after it admitted it would be impossible to oppose her defence that she had acted to save lives. Gun’s lawyers also threatened to ask for disclosure of the Attorney General’s legal advice on the war, which became the subject of a separate leak earlier this year.

Between the disclosures that tragically contributed to the death of the UN weapons inspector David Kelly in July 2003 and the revelations at the heart of the latest secrecy trial, there has been a regular alternative supply of information to counter the official narrative of the government.

Perhaps most important of part of this was the so-called “Downing Street memo”. This contained minutes of a meeting hosted by the Prime Minister in July 2002, which seems to prove that the decision to go to war in Iraq had already been made at that stage. The full significance of this document has never really been recognised in this country, but in the US it has proved to be deeply embarrassing to the Bush administration, where it has become known as the “smoking gun memo”.

A combination of revelations to journalists and books by former officials is helping to demolish both the facts and the arguments surrounding the war. Gus O’Donnell, the new cabinet secretary, has vowed to make it even harder for public servants to publish their memoirs. One official attributes the problem to a “silo culture” in government departments. “It’s easy for a single individual or a small group to drive their own agenda and very difficult for anyone to stop it.”

. . . and yet more leaks

Concern is growing over the increasing influence of one of Jack Straw’s closest advisers on Muslim affairs, the New Statesman can reveal. Labour MPs and Foreign Office officials have become anxious about the influence of Mockbul Ali, an Islamic issues adviser at the Foreign Office. Ministers have paid tribute to Ali’s work in bringing British Muslims into the mainstream, as part of the Foreign Office’s outreach strategy. But government documents leaked to the NS suggest that Ali has promoted British government links to groups with a radical version of Islam committed to the introduction of sharia law and the creation of an Islamic state.

In a PowerPoint presentation co-authored by Ali’s unit in the Foreign Office, two Islamic political organisations – the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami – are represented as “reformist” groups. The presentation, which is used across Whitehall, states: “The root of the reformist movement can be traced to the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami, which was orthodox but pragmatic. However, the reformist trends have evolved into a progressive and liberal movement, adapting to their own socio-political context, especially those in Britain.”

This may be the case, but both groups are founded on radical Islamic principles. The brotherhood is committed to establishing an Islamic state and is banned across large parts of the Middle East and Jamaat-e-Islami has introduced sharia law in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province.

Ali is also responsible for recommending

a British visa for Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the controversial cleric accused by some of being an apologist for suicide bombers in Palestine and Iraq.

Ali is one of the rare successes in the government’s drive to recruit bright young Muslims to senior positions within Whitehall. In choosing advisers, ministers are in a dilemma: when does understanding of a radical mindset turn into sympathy? Straw sees Ali as a young man of rare energy and talent – so much so, that he was recruited to help with the Labour Party’s general election campaign among Muslims.

But it is unlikely that his employers are aware of the early writings of their Islamic issues adviser. Writing in the radical Islamic student magazine Student Re-Present immediately after the events of 11 September 2001, Ali stated: “It is a paradox of the American system, indeed of the history of the western nation states, that the non-white world has been terrorised in the name of freedom. If you are not white, you are most likely to be ‘liberated’ through bombings, massacres and chaos. Welcome to terrorism as a liberating force. Welcome to civilisation – western style.” In a separate article he accused the Indian government of failing to protect Muslims from torture, massacre, murder and burnings.

In recent months, a number of high-profile leaks on the issue of Muslim engagement with mainstream society have caused embarrassment to the government. These include a letter from the FCO permanent secretary Michael Jay, suggesting that British foreign policy was alienating British Muslims.

The issue is unsettling MPs. The former Europe minister Denis MacShane has expressed concern that the Foreign Office may be concentrating on forging links with radical religious figures in its search for a solution to Muslim alienation. Louise Ellman, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, has told the NS she intends to investigate Ali’s role in drawing up government policy towards British Muslims.

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