Socialist Worker

How secret state spied on activists

Issue No. 1825

FORMER MI5 officer David Shayler was jailed for six months on Tuesday for revealing state secrets. He should have been congratulated for shining a tiny bit of light on the stinking covert forces whose existence subverts any notion that we live in a real democracy.

Shayler was sent down for showing that the secret state is directed at people who fight back against this rotten system, and at any foreign governments that might stand in the way of the rule of profit. He is dubbed a criminal for exposing the state's crimes. There have been no trials for the agents - including former MI5 head Stella Rimington - whose operations have been revealed in the BBC series True Spies over the last few weeks.

They used every trick and manoeuvre in an effort to undermine people on the left. They planted infiltrators in the campaign against the apartheid rugby tour and in the Anti Nazi League. Security forces bullied members of the general council of the TUC. They handed the names of trade union activists over to the bosses who wanted to sack them.

They also spied on left wing MPs like Dave Nellist. When New Labour came to office many people hoped there would be a bit more openness, an end to secret service agents having free rein.

Following Tories IN THIS, as in many other issues, New Labour has followed in the footsteps of previous Tory governments. Under Margaret Thatcher's regime there were repeated efforts to stop the mass of people knowing what was happening at the top. In 1983 Sarah Tisdall, a young foreign office clerk, was jailed for six months for leaking details of when US cruise missiles would arrive in Britain. This repressive strategy came unstuck two years later when civil servant Clive Ponting walked free from court after a jury cleared him of breaking the Official Secrets Act.

Ponting had courageously leaked a Ministry of Defence document about the General Belgrano, the Argentinian cruiser which British forces sank during the 1982 Falklands War, killing 360 people. The document showed the government had lied when it said the Belgrano was threatening British lives. Then in 1987 former MI5 officer Peter Wright published a book which said the secret service conspired to discredit Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in the 1960s.

Thatcher's government spent millions unsuccessfully trying to extradite Wright from Australia. In opposition New Labour condemned these prosecutions. Yet it has given MI5 tens of millions of extra funding and enacted new laws to stifle civil liberties.

'One verdict' IN THE Shayler case New Labour's aim was to suppress any chance that the jury would free him. So he was prevented from telling the court that MI5 had placed illegal phone taps, or that MI6 had paid an agent involved in a plot to assassinate Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi, or that Shayler and his colleagues had bugged left wing meetings. Then the trial judge, Justice Moses, told the jury that 'in reality there can only be one verdict'.

'The lamp would be snuffed out if freedom could not be protected by the security services,' he said. The courts, he said, cannot 'pass judgement on parliament' and are 'not a forum for public debate'.

The fact that the jury still took three hours to convict shows how ordinary people are rightly suspicious of the myth that the secret services protect us. It is a disgrace that Shayler has been jailed.

It is another sign that this government is utterly wedded to a state which protects the rich and the powerful - by 'democratic' means if possible, by violent and secret means if necessary.


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Article information

What We Think
Sat 9 Nov 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1825
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