Mr. Waldegrave's Need to Know

Article excerpt

On June 25th, 1992, William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, took the first step introducing a new 'open' government policy on Public Records. Speaking on the Radio 4 Analysis programme, in what has become known as the 'Waldegrave initiative', he said, 'I would like to invite serious historians to write to me ... those who want to write serious historical works will know, probably better than we do, of blocks of papers that could be of help to them which we could consider releasing'. Many historians did write detailing documents that they believed had been withheld past the Thirty Year Rule without justification.

In July 1993 Waldegrave published the 'Open Government' White Paper. Chapter nine proposes further changes in public record policy, easing restrictions that had previously caused documents to be withheld over thirty years.

Under the new rules a new 'harm' test is applied to documents, which states they can only be withheld if their release clearly harms national interests. Embarrassment of the government is not sufficient grounds to withhold material, according to Mr Waldegrave. There still remain a number of categories for retention. Some make sense -- like not revealing information for 100 years that could identify a rape victim. Others are 'blanket' including security and intelligence material.

To coincide with the publication, the government released some intelligence documents for the first time, albeit for the period 1791-1909, a move that attracted a great deal of media attention.

Last November, the influential Institute of Contemporary British History held a conference to discuss the progress of the Waldegrave initiative. An indicator of the new mood in Whitehall was that the heads of the Departmental Record Offices of several key ministries attended. They said that by the end of 1993 they hoped 6,000 items previously withheld over the thirty year period would be released. The Foreign Office had already released 1,066 items. The Ministry of Defence said they had released 2,000 and were on course for 3,000. The ministries are working through retained material and reviewing it for release. This exercise is expected to take some years. All this is being done with existing staff and in addition to the annual release of material under the Thirty Year Rule.

Richard Bone, the Departmental Records Officer for the Foreign Office said that the government policy on release has seen 'very significant change in the last year or so ... What it has demonstrated over the last eighteen months is that with the will and means a lot of progress can be made'.

The ICBH cautiously welcomed the Waldegrave initiative and has encouraged further openness. Many documents have now been released including some dealing with important historical events, for instance, the occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War, Joint Planning Staff papers, Chiefs-of-Staff minutes and documents on the Suez Crisis.

This all looks very encouraging, but how significant is the change? Over the last year I have been making a programme for BBC TV's Timewatch series on Anglo-American spyplane operations against the Soviet Union during the 1950s. It has proved to be an interesting micro-example.

I knew from former US military sources that Britain had undertaken a number of important air intelligence operations against the Soviet Bloc. I discovered that between 1951 and 1954 a secret RAF unit had flown several deep penetration flights into the Soviet Union. The operation had been flown from the United States Air Force base at Sculthorpe in East Anglia using state-of-the-art American aircraft, repainted in RAF colours. On each of these night missions three aircraft had been over Soviet territory for up to five hours. The purpose of the flights was to take radar photographs of targets for the USAF's Strategic Air Command's nuclear bomber force.

I also found a reference to another RAF operation in late 1953. …