Magazine article The Spectator

Memo to the MoD (and New Labour): We Don't Live in a Police State

Magazine article The Spectator

Memo to the MoD (and New Labour): We Don't Live in a Police State

Article excerpt

I first wrote about Tony Geraghty and Nigel Wylde on 6 March 1999, and have written about them several times since then. Readers may remember how at 6 a.m. on 3 December 1998, Ministry of Defence police raided Mr Geraghty's house in Herefordshire, removed dozens of files and computer disks, and arrested him. Mr Wylde and his house in Esher suffered similar treatment. Both men were charged under the Official Secrets Act. The MoD and the government's law officers alleged that Mr Wylde, a former lieutenant-colonel decorated for bomb-disposal work, had passed Mr Geraghty sensitive information about computer surveillance in Northern Ireland which appeared in his book The Irish War.

Last December the Attorney-General, Lord Williams of Mostyn, dropped charges against Mr Geraghty. Last week the government's case against Mr Wylde collapsed. It did so for reasons discreditable to the Ministry of Defence. A writer called Duncan Campbell, engaged as an expert for the defence, established that all the material that Mr Wylde was accused of passing to Mr Geraghty was already in the public domain. Some of it had appeared in Time Out as long ago as 1980, some in an Irish newspaper in 1997 and some in a 1992 book by Mark Urban which was passed by the Ministry of Defence. There was nothing in The Irish War about computer surveillance that the IRA did not already know. The Crown Prosecution Service realised it did not have a case.

The MoD should obviously have known that the information in The Irish War was old. Mr Geraghty even mentioned in the book that an Irish newspaper had published some of it. The MoD had itself cleared Mr Urban. So why did it pursue the case? It is difficult to escape the conclusion that someone in the MoD was out to get Mr Geraghty and Mr Wylde at all costs, and in the thrill of the chase overlooked the fact that neither man had broken the law. As an ex-army officer, Mr Wylde had to be made an example of, and his 25 years service in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and his Queen's Gallantry Medal were neither here nor there, Other army officers, serving and retired, had to be shown the consequence of passing information to a journalist or author. As for Mr Geraghty, he too was to be taught a lesson, despite having served in the RAF as recently as the Gulf War. He had written Who Dares Wins, a semi-official history of the SAS, and his techniques had won him enemies at the Ministry of Defence.

The only problem, as I say, was that neither man had done anything illegal. Perhaps the Ministry of Defence sensed this. It could have injuncted the book before its publication in October 1998 but decided not to. At the end of December 1998 it sought legal advice but was told an injunction was unlikely to be granted. So The Irish War remained on sale, even while the MoD was bringing charges against Mr Geraghty and Mr Wylde. The MoD police then decided that they would try to frighten HarperCollins, the book's publishers, into withholding the paperback. During July and August 1999, nervous executives at the publishers were paid three visits by MoD police, who once arrived in a van full of dogs which they parked outside, its lights flashing aggressively. Mr T.E. Taylor of the MoD wrote to HarperCollins strongly advising the company not to publish the paperback of The Irish War. …

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