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Tuesday, September 11, 2001

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Blair ally denounces secrecy laws

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, SEPT 10. A close ally of the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, has broken ranks with the Government and cast his lot with the heretics in demanding changes to Britain's creaking 90- year-old secrecy laws which, among other things, bar former intelligence agents from publishing their memoirs.

Mr. Charles Clarke, who was Home Office Minister until a few months ago and is now chairman of the Labour Party with the rank of a Cabinet Minister, has denounced the Official Secrets Act of 1911 as ``anti-deluvian'', giving a new twist to the controversy over the former MI5 chief, Dame Stella Rimington's memoirs which the Home Office tried unsuccessfully to block.

A heavily sanitised version of ``Open Secret: From Bored Housewife to Head of the Secret Service'' is to be published this week amid widespread official disapproval with the Home Office expressing its ``regret and discontent'' over Ms Rimington's decision to go ahead despite attempts to dissuade her.

Mr. Clarke on Sunday became the first leading Labour figure to come out in support of Ms Rimington's demand for a radical reform of secrecy laws which, she believes, give the bureaucracy sweeping powers to ``bully'' former secret service agents.

She said she was ``bullied, threatened and cajoled'' by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, after she submitted her manuscript to him for ``vetting'', a ``Kafkaesque'' procedure which, critics say, is crude censorship by other means.

Mr. Clarke said the vetting process was ``unnecessarily defensive'' and compared ``badly'' with the U.S.

He recalled the bitter experience of his father who wanted to write a book after leaving the civil service and said there was need for a more open approach to it. ``I think our current process for vetting these types of things is anti-deluvian,'' he told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost.

He pointed out that the process was ``unnecessarily defensive and damages the public welfare in this country.'' He believed it was possible to be more open without compromising national security and he did not think that Ms Rimington wanted to reveal details that would affect national security.

His intervention was hailed by civil rights groups but dismayed those who believe too many former spies trying to ``cash in'' on their experiences undermined the very basis of intelligence network.

A Labour MP, Mr. Tam Dalyell, said secret service demanded anonymity and accused Ms Rimington of setting a ``dangerous precedent'' by being the first head of MI5 to write a book.

``How can the service now say no to other people who want to write about their time as agents?'' he asked.

Ms Rimington's memoirs come amid reports that a number of former MI5 and MI6 agents were helping with a biography of their one- time boss, Sir Dick White, ``The Perfect English Spy''.

In recent years, the Official Secrets Act has come under enormous pressure with a raft of insiders' accounts of Britain's shadowy world of intelligence.

The Guardian which today published the first extract from Ms Rimington's book argued that in America retiring CIA Directors routinely wrote about their time with the agency and ``nobody has seriously claimed that any of these books jeopardised the operational effectiveness of the CIA.''

Ms Rimington's memoirs have been described as ``harmless'' and judging from extracts they are more about the ambience at MI5 - men smelling of whiskey, pre-lunch drinks, the dull routine, her first outing as an agent, anecdotes of her daily life - than hard secrets. There are, of course, references to the agency's ``interest'' in communists and Left-wingers but nothing remotely that would affect ``national security''. Indian readers would be interested to know that she was recruited in New Delhi when her former husband was a diplomat there.

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