Secret email that freed the mole at the Foreign Office

Secret email that freed the mole at the Foreign Office

The case against Derek Pasquill, accused of handing a journalist secret papers, collapsed dramatically as it became clear it could embarrass the government. Peter Beaumont reports

The bundle of documents delivered to the Crown Prosecution Service by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 6 December last year should have contained few nasty surprises. The files told the alarming story of Derek Pasquill, a civil servant in a hitherto obscure new unit set up to improve relations with the Islamic world, who had broken one of the golden rules of a Crown servant.
Pasquill, 48, had handed over confidential documents to an Observer journalist after becoming concerned about Foreign Office contacts with Islamic groups and individuals who backed violence. Now he was facing trial for six breaches of Section 3 of the 1989 Official Secrets Act that, according to Mariot Leslie, the Foreign Office”s director of defence and intelligence, had seriously damaged UK interests abroad and endangered the life of a colleague.

The CPS and Special Branch officers who put together the case at the behest of the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, were convinced that the secrets case against Pasquill was watertight.
They were wrong. Included among the documents being prepared for disclosure to Pasquill”s defence team was a bombshell. It was an email that should have been handed to both the defence and the CPS many months before.

What it showed was that far from unanimity existing among the mandarins at the Foreign Office”s imposing King Charles Street headquarters – as expressed forcefully in Leslie”s witness statement – other voices were cautioning strongly that the Official Secrets Act was not appropriate for charging him. They also argued – according to one source who was familiar with the email – that “under no circumstances was national security threatened”.

When the current Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, became aware of the email”s contents in December, and the fact that it was on its way to the defence, he told colleagues there was “no longer any chance of a prosecution”. Last week at the Old Bailey the case against Pasquill was dropped.

Suddenly, attention turned from the prosecution of a shy man who had risked his career and future – not for money, but for something he believed was fundamentally wrong with the government”s policies – and towards the Foreign Office, which was accused of being “malicious” and politically motivated in prosecuting Pasquill.

In the words of Labour MP and former Foreign Office Minister Denis MacShane last week, the law had been used as a “steam hammer”. Now it is the Foreign Office that seems increasingly likely to be called to account, facing the threat from Pasquill”s lawyers of a suit against them for malicious prosecution.

At the centre of the argument, not for the first time in the Pasquill affair, is the controversial figure of Mockbul Ali, an ambitious young civil servant accused by his critics of being an apologist for extreme Islamist views within Whitehall.

With the backing of Straw, Ali, Pasquill believed, had soft-soaped organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its spiritual leader, the controversial Islamist preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who had expressed his support for Palestinian suicide bombers and whom Ali suggested should be allowed to visit the UK. He had offered similar support for Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a Bangladeshi MP who preaches violent hatred against the West, proclaiming him to be “mainstream”.

One source familiar with the thinking behind the prosecution alleged that Straw wanted to take “revenge” – embarrassed by the exposure of Ali as being too close to the Islamists, and worried at the failure to prosecute, at a time when Whitehall was awash with documents about the war in Iraq whose leaking could prove damaging.

Discussing the case in detail last week, for the first time since the charges were dropped, Pasquill admitted he was at first impressed by Ali, a bright young man in his mid-twenties with whom he shared an office. “It would be fair to say that I came into that unit with not a great deal of knowledge about British Muslim politics or some of the issues being discussed. So I had no particular reason at that time to have an opinion opposed to what the unit was doing.”

But while Pasquill may have been at a disadvantage at first, he was an assiduous and committed reader. And as he researched the background to political Islam he says he developed serious misgivings about a policy he felt was being pushed by Ali that had opened the door of the Foreign Office to a group of Islamists with whom Ali shared sympathies. “I think acceptance [of the policy] was diluted in my mind. And you can”t get away from the effect of the London bombings.”

Reading an article by Observer journalist Martin Bright, now with the New Statesman, about how more moderate groups had been prevented from participating in an Islamic arts festival, Pasquill contacted Bright, at first to find out more of what he knew about what was going on. By the end of the meeting he had decided to begin leaking material to Bright, exposing the failings he believed existed in the government”s policy of engaging with Islamists who had a record of supporting violence.

The sense of anger at the top of the Foreign Office over the leaks was quickly communicated to the unit. Oddly it came not from its titular head, Francis Guy, now ambassador to Lebanon, but in a briefing from Ali. “I was at the meeting that discussed the first leaks,” said Pasquill. “I was sitting next to Mockbul. He said that [Sir] Michael Jay [Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office] was exceedingly upset. He said something like: “Jay wants whoever leaked this stuff boiled in oil.” “

It is what happened next that is at the heart of accusations that Pasquill was singled out to be punished for blowing the whistle on what was going on inside his unit. Pasquill admits he was naive in not realising that Bright would see other stories in the documents, including the British government”s knowledge of the American policy of extraordinary rendition; discussions over whether or not to proscribe groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah; and the view of officials that the Iraq war had in fact radicalised British Muslim youth, contrary to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair”s claims.

Around June last year, five months after Pasquill”s arrest but before he faced any charges, senior officials discussed what to do about the case. Despite what the Foreign Office would later claim in the witness statement prepared by Leslie when the Foreign Office presented the “official” complaint against him, they were not unanimous that the Official Secrets Act was the best way to proceed.

The dissent expressed in that email was not minor. “Part of the argument contained in that email,” said a second source, “is whether the case should have proceeded under different charges.” “This was not a threat to the realm,” said a third. “It was like leaking the car parking plans.”

But instructions from on high were to push ahead regardless.

The Foreign Office, however, displaying a lack of understanding of English criminal proceedings, which requires all such discussions as that contained in the email to be disclosed to the defence (as well as the CPS), continues to insist that what was important was the “settled view” reached at the end of the process.

Others explained last week that the Foreign Office was not clear that it needed to hand over the material until a year and a half into the case.

It is an explanation that has been met with incredulity by Pasquill”s solicitor Neil O”May who believes it is “inconceivable that no one on the Special Branch” investigation would have asked senior officials at the beginning of the case if documents existed that undermined the case.

Which in O”May”s mind leaves the crucial question unanswered: whether the email was lost as the result of incompetence or whether – more seriously – the views contained in it were suppressed for well over a year. The latter would suggest the decision to prosecute Pasquill under the Official Secrets Act, rather than dealing with him on lesser charges or through a disciplinary panel, was based not on a genuine analysis of “damage” caused to UK interests, but on political reasons, to make an example of him.

“It is important to have mechanisms to be able to protect confidences. I know that as a lawyer. But this is the second time where a major Official Secrets case collapsed at the door of the court,” said Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty last week. “It brings back bad memories of the Katharine Gun case [where a GCHQ employee leaked a memo on the bugging of UN delegations to this paper]. They have done it twice now.

“I think to do it between arrest and charge is one thing, but for people to go to the Bailey … It is a scandal that it has happened twice in a row at the discovery stage. They now have to honour their promise to the review the Official Secrets Act, and introduce a robust mechanism that allows civil servants who have concerns about government policies to be able to raise them.”

How the secrecy law works

What is the Official Secrets Act?
It is a law which forbids government employees from disclosing information formally classified as secret. It was last revised in 1989.

Who does it apply to?
The first section of the act applies to members of the security and intelligence services, who face jail if they disclose sensitive information. Other sections refer to “Crown servants” and cover civil servants, diplomats and members of the armed forces – but anyone could breach the act.

What does it mean to sign it?
People working with sensitive information are commonly asked to sign a contract saying they will abide by the act. However, this has no effect. As the act is law, individuals are bound by it whether they have signed it or not.

Is it difficult to prosecute using the act?
Tony Blair ordered a reform of the secrecy laws in 2006 to stop situations like that of Katharine Gun, the GCHQ whistleblower whose case collapsed.