The attorney general last night threatened newspapers with the Official Secrets Act if they revealed the contents of a document allegedly relating to a dispute between Tony Blair and George Bush over the conduct of military operations in Iraq.
It is believed to be the first time the Blair government has threatened newspapers in this way. Though it has obtained court injunctions against newspapers, the government has never prosecuted editors for publishing the contents of leaked documents, including highly sensitive ones about the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, last night referred editors to newspaper reports yesterday that described the contents of a memo purporting to be at the centre of charges against two men under the secrets act.
Under the front-page headline "Bush plot to bomb his ally", the Daily Mirror reported that the US president last year planned to attack the Arabic television station al-Jazeera, which has its headquarters in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where US and British bombers were based.
Richard Wallace, editor of the Daily Mirror, said last night: "We made No 10 fully aware of the intention to publish and were given 'no comment' officially or unofficially. Suddenly 24 hours later we are threatened under section 5 [of the secrets act]".
Under section 5 it is an offence to have come into the possession of government information, or a document from a crown servant, if that person discloses it without lawful authority. The prosecution has to prove the disclosure was damaging.
The Mirror said the memo turned up in May last year at the constituency office of the former Labour MP for Northampton South, Tony Clarke. Last week, Leo O'Connor, a former researcher for Mr Clarke, was charged with receiving a document under section 5 of the act. David Keogh, a former Foreign Office official seconded to the Cabinet Office, was charged last week with making a "damaging disclosure of a document relating to international relations". Mr Keogh, 49, is accused of sending the document to Mr O'Connor, 42, between April 16 and May 28 2004.
Mr Clarke said yesterday that Mr O'Connor "did the right thing" by drawing the document to his attention. Mr Clarke, an anti-war MP who lost his seat at the last election, returned the document to the government. "As well as an MP, I am a special constable," he said.
Both men were released on police bail last Thursday to appear at Bow Street magistrates court on November 29. When they were charged, newspapers reported that the memo contained a transcript of a discussion between Mr Blair and Mr Bush.
The conversation was understood to have taken place during a meeting in the US. It is believed to reveal that Mr Blair disagreed with Mr Bush about aspects of the Iraq war. There was widespread comment at the time that the British government was angry about US military tactics there, particularly in the city of Falluja.
Charges under the secrets act have to have the consent of the attorney-general. His intervention yesterday suggests that the prosecution plans to ask the judge to hold part, if not all of the trial, in camera, with the public and press excluded.
Did the US bomb Al Jazeera intentionally? Hmmmmm. According to the Australian media -- yes. I have little to no respect for Al Jazeera. They are a propaganda organization. But, could the US military really be dumb enough to bomb them because they don't like their coverage of Iraq. Watch out CNN!