It is 1977. Three men are on trial for breaking Britain’s Official Secrets Act – for “unlawful receipt of information” and espionage. In the course of the trial, it became clear that much of what was claimed as secret (under the law or otherwise) was not secret.
As our trial started, witness after witness from security sites tried to claim that openly published information was in fact secret. In a typical interchange, one Sigint [signals intelligence] unit chief was shown a road sign outside his base:
Q: Is that the name of your unit?
A: I cannot answer that question, that is a secret.
Q: Is that the board which passers-by on the main road see outside your unit’s base?
Q: Read it out to the jury, please.
A: I cannot do that. It is a secret.
Unsurprisingly, episodes like that during the trial helped sink the prosecution.
The three men involved were Duncan Campbell, Crispin Aubrey, and John Berry. Campbell was in the early part of his career as an investigative journalist, doing a chunk of work on surveillance and the potential for a police state. Part of that work involved meeting with sources and publishing information seen as secret by the British Authorities. Unfortunately for the spy lords, these sources were often USA citizens discussing information in the public domain in the USA. The global nature of the challenge facing the spy lords had not quite been grasped. Nor had the differing approaches to state security.
For one perspective, it’s worth checking out Duncan Campbell’s long post covering some of the highlights of his interaction with the listeners, available as GCHQ and Me – My Life Unmasking Eavesdroppers. The change in attitude towards secrecy seems encouraging, but the pessimist in me wonders if there’s still more going on than we know..