05:20, February 13 362 0 theguardian.com

2017-02-13 05:20:11
Ex-GCHQ whistleblower attacks plans to extend dragnet of secrecy act

A former GCHQ whistleblower has condemned plans by the government’s legal advisers to increase prison sentences and expand the definition of espionage for the digital age.

Katharine Gun, a former translator for the monitoring agency who leaked details of an operation to bug United Nations offices before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has spoken out following the publication of Law Commission proposals, which suggest maximum jail terms for those leaking information should rise from two years to 14 years.

In the past, Gun has called for a public interest defence to be introduced into the Official Secrets Act to protect whistleblowers and prevent governments from hiding politically embarrassing information.

She said: “The Official Secrets Act 1989 may need reforming for the digital era, but I would argue that at its heart there should be protection for whistle-blowers. As it stands, the OSA is reputedly one of the most draconian secrecy laws in the world. It seems to me to have been very effective at dissuading and preventing the 99.9% of British citizens who have signed to it from making unauthorised disclosures.

“On the rare occasions where it has been breached, it could be argued that it was done to expose lies or misrepresentations of the truth and other forms of skulduggery. Examples include Clive Ponting, Peter Wright, David Shayler, myself, David Keogh and Leo O’Connor. Peter Wright’s case followed the publication of his book, Spycatcher, Lord Goff [a judge] said at the time, ‘In a free society, there is a continuing public interest that the workings of government should be open to scrutiny and criticism.’

“It seems to me that we are living in an increasingly unfree society. The government and its intelligence and security apparatus have amassed ever broader and deeper powers through legislation like the Justice and Security Act 2013 and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. These laws enable it to survey all private communications and online activity, carry out bulk collection and storage of data, hack private devices, detain and interrogate at whim and demand CMP [closed material procedures] in court, preventing evidence and information from being disclosed in the interest of national security.

“If the proposals to reform or rewrite the OSA extend the overall dragnet nature of the act, increase the penalty limit and disregard a public interest defence, it will exacerbate the concentration of power in the hands of the government and deter or even prevent whistleblowers from revealing government lies and abuse of power.”

Gun was charged under the Official Secrets Act in 2003, but the prosecution was dropped when it came to court the following year amid speculation that there would have been a political outcry.

Referring to the request in 2003 from the National Security Agency to bug the offices of countries on the UN security council before the vote on invading Iraq, Gun said: “I was enraged by the subterfuge and potential blackmail they wanted us to carry out. I went public and it was published in the Observer.”