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Monday, 3 August, 1998, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK
Shayler case recalls 'Spycatcher' farce
Shayler: not the first to face ban
Shayler: Not the first to face ban
By BBC News Online's Nick Assinder

There's an awful familiarity about the government's attempts to haul ex-MI5 agent David Shayler back to Britain.

Just over 13 years ago, Margaret Thatcher's government prosecuted Ministry of Defence official Clive Ponting under the Official Secrets Act after he leaked details of the sinking of the Argentine warship, the General Belgrano, at the start of the Falklands war.

The case became a huge cause célèbre, with Labour MP Tam Dalyell harrying the government in the Commons over exactly why the sinking had taken place.

But, in a major setback to the government, an Old Bailey jury acquitted Mr Ponting in March 1985.

The verdict blew a huge hole in the Official Secrets Act and the notion that the interests of the state are identical to those of the government.

If that wasn't bad enough, only a couple of years later, the same government was locked in another bitter wrangle over the publication of the 'Spycatcher' book.

Shady world

Former 'spook' Peter Wright, who was living in Australia at the time, was promising to use his autobiography to draw back the curtain on the shady world of the secret services.

He said the book would catalogue a series of abuses by an agency running out of control.

And he claimed that, during the 1970s, MI5 had "bugged and burgled our way across London".

His main allegation was that there had been a conspiracy within MI5 to undermined Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

There was nothing particularly new in the claims, which had appeared elsewhere, but Mrs Thatcher decided the book had to be stopped and launched a series of legal actions to ban it.

During the proceedings, the cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong appeared in the Supreme Court of New South Wales and famously declared that he had been "economical with the truth".

Ban collpased

Once again it was the government that appeared on the defensive and made to look faintly ridiculous.

The end result was predictably farcical as the biography was allowed to be published elsewhere and, ultimately, the attempts to ban it in Britain collapsed.

Now, another former agent wants to write a book, and even reveal details about MI5 on the Internet. And, once again, the government looks like it may be heading for seriously tricky waters.

Unlike Ponting and Wright, Mr Shayler is not claiming MI5 is out of control and up to all sorts of infamy behind the government's back.

Instead he claims the service is so bureaucratic and incompetent that it bungled opportunities of stopping a series of atrocities, including the IRA bomb at Bishopsgate.

There is now the prospect that the government - which previously opposed such actions - being sucked into exactly the same sort of protracted legal wrangles that so embarrassed its predecessor. And the precedents are not good.

But most experts on the secret services agree the government had no choice but to act.

They insist that, if no action had been taken, it would have given the green light to any disaffected former agents to rush out lucrative books or sell stories to the newspapers.

Only one thing now seems certain - this is a case that will run and run and only at the end will anyone be able to tell whether the national interest has been served.

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