Publish and be damned? – Secrets and spies

The Guardian 29th July

Gary Berntsen, a retired CIA officer, is having problems publishing his book about the Afghanistan war because his former employees are withholding their approval. Mr Bernsten reveals how US commanders knew Osama bin Laden was hiding in the remote Tora Bora mountains, apparently contradicting the White House’s version of how the al-Qaida chief was able, fatefully, to escape.

Mr Berntsen is unlucky. Several other one-time CIA men have written their memoirs recently: one is entitled Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. But in Britain, the only spy stories we have heard are from renegades such as Richard Tomlinson of MI6, and Peter Wright of Spycatcher fame, or from the ex-MI5 chief, Stella Rimington, whose dreary and heavily vetted memoirs spilled very few clandestine beans.

But sensitivities abound outside the secret world too, as Sir Jeremy Greenstock, our man at the UN in the run-up to the Iraq war, has found to his cost. Sir Jeremy has called the war “politically illegitimate” and his book is being blocked.

Now Craig Murray, the former envoy to Uzbekistan, is facing difficulties printing his indiscreet but well-known objections to the use of intelligence obtained under torture. Surprisingly, there have been no problems for Sir Christopher Meyer, ambassador to the US after 9/11, whose DC Confidential records the undiplomatic order from Downing Street to “get up the White House’s arse and stay there”. But Alastair Campbell, that quintessential No 10 insider, is reportedly facing objections to his book.

Every government is entitled to expect a degree of confidentiality from its employees, but the public interest and human nature require flexibility. Any attempt to censor or ban books must show that the intention is not to prevent embarrassment because the secret and civil servants were right and the politicians wrong: that’s what Tony Blair and team should remember when they read on MI5’s website (with handy Arabic and Urdu translation), that our spooks now see the war in Iraq as “a dominant issue” motivating terrorists in this country.