London — Thousands of miles away in Tasmania, an unprecedented court case is bringing the full glare of media publicity to Britain's intelligence services. The New South Wales Supreme Court in Australia is hearing requests from the British government to prevent Heinemann, a publishing company, from publishing the memoirs of retired senior MI5 agent Peter Wright. MI5 is the British equivalent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency.
Mr. Wright, who had previously been thwarted from publishing his disclosures in Britain, retired to Tasmania, Australia where he felt free to publish his allegations.
Among his charges is that the former director general of MI5 from 1956 to 1965, Sir Roger Hollis, was a Soviet spy.
While Sir Roger was subsequently cleared of the charge, the British government regards the issue of a former senior secret agent breaking his code of confidentiality so seriously that it is now trying to stifle the memoirs in an Australian court.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government charges that British intelligence, the intriguing ingredient of le Carr'e's spy novels and recurring source of concern to successive British administrations, is being compromised by Wright.
It has even sought the intervention of the Australian government in the case. And its senior civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong, has been sent to head a team of witnesses in the court room.
But the British mission has been frustrated at almost every turn. Several legal maneuvers which would restrict or prevent the publication of sensitive information have been thwarted by Justice Powell, the presiding Australian judge.
The trial will go down in British legal records as one of the most controversial brought under Britain's Official Secrets Act.
The Act, which has sweeping powers and has always been controversial for its broad definition of national security, makes it a criminal offense for any government employee to pass on information regarded as prejudicial to the interests of the state.
Wright regards himself as being immune to the Act because he now lives in Australia. The British government, however, maintains that a contractual obligation - such as the one Wright signed when he joined MI5 - is a permanent one.
Infiltration into British intelligence remains a sensitive issue. A number of prominent British intelligence agents have subsequently become Soviet spies, although most of these cases date back to the 1950s and 1960s.
What worries the British government in this particular case is not that Wright points the finger at Hollis, nor makes other damaging allegations against MI5 - such as bugging foreign embassies and attempts to smear former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
The danger, says the British government, is that Wright's memoirs could damage British intelligence today and its standing with the intelligence services of other countries.
Some of Wright's information has already found its way into print.
But the government is determined to make the point in this particular case that British intelligence is leak proof, and should be seen as such.
The case has given rise to some classic exchanges. Justice Powell has not disguised his irritation with Britain's legal maneuverings and has spoken of Britain's ``serpentine weavings'' and ``mumbo jumbo.''
Cabinet Secretary Armstrong, in turn, has denied having told a lie. He said, instead, he was only being ``economical with the truth.''
Prime Minister Thatcher's government, after suffering several legal reversals in the case, is attempting to undertake a damage-limitation exercise in which as little information as possible is allowed to be made public from the trial.