Security is a Democratic Imperative
By Ian Allen | intelNews | 12.05.2008
BRITISH PUBLIC OPINION WAS SHOCKED recently by the controversial arrest of Conservative Member of Parliament and Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green, which, critics have charged, amounted to a “Stalinist” act of a police state. Mr. Green was arrested in connection with a series of leaks of immigration-related information from the British Home office. Having failed to uncover the source of the leak, the Home Office contacted London’s Metropolitan Police in early October, with a request for help. The investigation led to Christopher Galley, a junior Home Office official, who in turn led police to the next link in the chain, namely Mr. Green. Early in the afternoon of November 27, the Conservative Parliamentarian was arrested and his offices and residence were searched. Mr. Green was held in police custody for nine hours before being released.
Citing British constitutional experts, The New York Times pointed out that “no other Parliament member in recent memory, much less a member of the ‘shadow cabinet’ like Mr. Green, has been treated so harshly” in Britain. The paper further noted that the Scotland Yard’s special operations unit in charge of Mr. Green’s arrest is primarily preoccupied with counterterrorism. Members of the unit “carried off computers, documents and personal letters exchanged by Mr. Green and his wife, Alicia, when they were dating 30 years ago”. The article cites pointed -though typical- criticism from prominent Conservative Party figure, Michael Howard. Howard, a former leader of the Conservative Party, compares Mr. Green’s arrest “with the moment in 1642 when King Charles I burst into the House of Commons demanding the arrest of five of its members” and warns that “[t]his is the sort of thing that led to the start of the civil war”.
Thankfully The Guardian website aired today a much more tempered commentary in the form of an editorial written by Labour Party donor David Abrahams. He wisely reminds readers that, in a democratic state, “no one is above the law”. Abrahams urges British Members of Parliament to remember that “just because they are untouchable when they speak in the Commons does not make them untouchable for their conduct too. If they are breaking the law -by downloading or storing information illegally[, as Damien Green appears to have done], or by behaving in an illegal manner- they should be held accountable for their actions wherever they are on British soil. You cannot treat the Palace of Westminster like it is some foreign embassy, sovereign land of another nation”, he states.
Although Abraham accepts that, arguably, “national security was not at stake” in the case of Mr. Green, he correctly points out that pundits are not yet in a position to know this for sure. More importantly, Abraham points to the fact that leaks of official government documents by whistleblowers often have the operational markings of spy cases and the police are thus obliged to act with that in mind, until the espionage angle has been ruled out. “Given the young man doing the leaking is said by many to be of vulnerable and fragile disposition”, states Abraham”, who knows where his leaks could have ended? Today’s whistleblower can be tomorrow’s spy”.
It is refreshing -indeed essential-to be reminded of the intelligence dimension to this story. Critics of the British government’s handling of the case, though not entirely unjustified in their accusations, tend to overlook the fact that freedom of access to information is but one parameter of a functional democratic state. Another parameter is security of government information, which is distinct from and should not be confused with unwarranted government secrecy. Damien Green’s arrest, though shocking in itself, was neither an affront to British democracy nor a “Stalinist” act. It was a reasonable response by law enforcement against routine unauthorized information disclosure of government documents. Whether the leaking of that government information was unjustified, or in the public interest, is quite another matter, which is up to a functional democracy to decide.