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Sunday, 9 September, 2001, 19:31 GMT 20:31 UK
UK official secrets laws 'outdated'
Dame Stella Rimington, with MI5 HQ in background
Dame Stella Rimington: A personal account of MI5 life
Labour Party chairman Charles Clarke MP has admitted Britain's official secrets laws are outdated and in need of reform.

Mr Clarke's comments come as former MI5 chief Dame Stella Rimington prepares to publish her memoirs.She has called for reform of the Official Secrets Act (OSA), which restricted her freedom to write about her career.

Mr Clarke said he believed Britain "compares badly with the US" on the issue of secrecy and he conceded that "we could have a far more open approach on it".

The current process of vetting this type of thing is very antediluvian

Charles Clarke MP
Labour Party chairman
He told the BBC's Breakfast With Frost programme "the process of vetting this sort of thing is very defensive, unnecessarily defensive and damages the public welfare of this country".

Dame Stella's book, Open Secret, is due to be serialised in The Guardian newspaper next week, and she is the first British spymaster allowed to talk frankly about her experiences in the intelligence services.

Mr Clarke revealed that he had personal family experience of government vetting of potentially revealing documents.

"My father was a senior civil servant and wanted to write a book and went though this process of being vetted," he told the BBC.

He said that on the day his father died, "people came around to the house to recover documents".

Charles Clarke
Charles Clarke: Family memories of vetting
Dame Stella said the OSA needed reforming because it imposed an "unrealistic" duty of confidentiality on former members of the security and intelligence services.

Mr Clarke agrees, and told the BBC: "I think the current process of vetting this type of thing is very antediluvian".

He said the line between issues of national security being compromised and "an informed public debate about the public sector and the way it goes about making a decision is a difficult one".

"If I felt that Stella Rimington's book threatened national security then I would be very concerned about it," he said, adding that he had not yet seen the book.

The Home Office has expressed "regret and discontent with the decision to publish".

'Let country down'

But officials refused to comment on calls to change the 12-year-old Official Secrets Act.

Tory MP Julian Lewis, who sits on the Defence Select Committee, said: "I believe that Stella Rimington has let down herself, her service and her country."

The government objected to the book but dropped plans to block it after she agreed to make certain changes.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger says the book does not give away secrets
She said MI5 bosses were "ridiculously careful" about the contents of the book, telling her to remove any mention of the SAS, even when describing the well-documented killing of three unarmed IRA members by SAS soldiers in Gibraltar in 1988.

Roger Bingham, of the pressure group Liberty, said Dame Stella was right to challenge the Act, which he said was "long overdue" for reform.

In an interview with The Guardian, she said it should be made easier for former members to write about their work, and called for an independent review body to vet publications.

She also revealed MI5 tried to stop her publishing her book but said she never intended to betray secrets or embarrass the service.

Charles Clarke MP
"We could have a far more open approach"
See also:

22 Jun 99 | UK
Behind the MI5 myth
22 Sep 99 | Britain betrayed
Spying Who's Who
17 May 00 | UK
The culture of secrecy
06 Dec 00 | UK
MoD fails to stop SAS book
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