Two Brits convicted for leaking memo (W & Blair discuss bombing al-Jazeera HQ)

Back in November 2005, a story broke about a discussion between Bush and Blair about possibly bombing the al-Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar. (Apparently, it was Bush’s idea and Blair talked him out of it.) Earlier thread here.

Now the civil servant and legislative aide who leaked the memo have been convicted of violating the UK’s Official Secrets Act.

Issues for debate:

  1. Are these convictions just?

  2. If an American civil servant similarly leaked something, what laws in place might punish him/her?

  3. Is there any way around 2?


Probably not to three. In the United States if you’re an agent of the government and you release classified information without proper authority to do so, you’ve committed a crime. It’s fairly clearly laid out in statute, you can’t be a whistle blower if your information is classified and you are an agent of the government, if you act in such a manner you’re acting criminally. I’ve never seen any suggestion from the courts that there is anything wrong with making it criminal to leak classified information without proper authority.

I should clarify, if a civil servant releases classified information, legal sanctions are both likely and just. However, the United States cannot classify information purely because said information is embarrassing (Clinton couldn’t classify information related to his extra-marital acts, for example) nor to purely to hide an illegal act. For something to be classified in the first place it has to be something which would hurt the state if it were released.

I’m not entirely sure a memo of this nature could be properly classified in the United States. But, if it is then yes, releasing it would be a crime. When you are given a security clearance to see classified, secret, or top secret information you have to sign a document saying you will not disseminate the information and that you understand you can be punished under various U.S. laws if you do so. The “Procurement Integrity Laws” are typically mentioned.

Some information is not strictly classified but is marked as ‘For Official Use Only’ the authority to mark information as FOUO is less restrictive than that required to classify information and to my knowledge I don’t believe there are criminal penalties for disseminating FOUO info improperly, I could be wrong. Disseminating such information is certainly grounds for dismissal from your job if you are a government employee, though. FOUO info is also immune to being revealed through Freedom of Information Act litigation.

Does that apply to FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds? (Court proceedings on her claims have been blocked by assertion of the state secrets privilege.)

Just from reading the Wikipedia article on her, I have to say she probably committed no crime. Just suggesting that there is impropriety amongst your fellow FBI employees in public is not in and of itself dissemination of classified information. It’s fine to whistle blow, but you can’t disseminate classified information in order to do it.

Classified information tends to be HUMINT, SIGINT, information about the identity of covert operatives, technical information about literally thousands of different military weapon systems, and et cetera. Nothing she disseminated really seems like it could be classified, Ashcroft’s attempt to classify it after the fact sort of highlights the point. That’s just not how things are done. If something needs to be classified, that is done at the time the information is produced, not after the fact.

An interesting side note is, the government produces, annually, more classified information than it does public information. Most of the classified information produced is incredibly mundane. Info that is categorized as Top Secret is relatively rare.

That is . . . astonishing. Cite?

The cite is classified.

Seems like it. The OSA is serious stuff and you break it at your peril.

Do note also that had the jury decided that leaking the document was the right thing to do, then they could have returned a verdict of Not Guilty. They chose to not do so.


Sometimes it takes the courage of a patriot to commit the necessary treason.

Hell, in the US you can release the name of covert CIA agents and walk free and clear.

What about the “senior executive branch official” who just leaked to the National Journal a batch of e-mails implicating Rove in the attorney firings? Should he/she be prosecuted?

I have the impression that because of the Official Secrets Act, all government-generated information in Britain is presumptively secret. However, my impression is that in the United States, government information is presumed to be public, unless a particular piece of information is removed from the public domain by the positive act of an official (“classification”) or by operation of law (like the one that was discussed in relation to Valerie Plame’s outing).

Speaking in general terms, it seems to me that U.S. government functionaries can (despite whistleblower protections) often be dismissed for displeasing their superiors by releasing embarrassing information, but that it is usually not a crime.

Am I totally off base here?

:eek: Oh, ya gotta be kiddin’ me!

I’m not kidding, but I’m no expert on the matter. I had read something somewhere a long time ago that said something to the effect that any piece of paper that crosses a government employee’s desk or is generated on a government computer is presumptively secret under the O.S.A. But, as I said, I don’t really know much about it, so this statement could be completely wrong, could be correct, could be correct as a practical matter if not a literal interpretation of the act, or could merely by hyperbole on the part of the writer of the piece that I read oh-so-long-ago.

This is interesting . . . even though the cat has been out of the bag since 2005, the two civil servants were tried in secret to protect the contents of the memo in question.