Renegade spy puts official secrecy on trial in Britain

Trial of ex-spy tests new law on freedom of expression that goes into effect Oct. 2.

A renegade British spy is planning to force his country's espionage agencies to stop operating out of political control.

He also hopes to blast a hole through Britain's ultra-tough official secrecy laws, pleading that they stifle his legal right to expose alleged rogue spying operations of the past 30 years.

In what promises to be a landmark case, David Shayler has returned from three years' exile in France determined to prove that new human rights legislation due to take effect in five weeks is on his side. He says it gives him a legal right to expose undercover operations by MI5 and MI6, Britain's internal and external spy agencies, respectively.

He will seek to justify a series of "whistle blowing" statements in which he claimed the agencies have been acting illegally and incompetently at home and abroad.

Unlike the United States, Britain has long lacked freedom-of-information laws, and the authorities have always taken a tough line against anyone attempting to breach stringent secrecy legislation.

Security analysts say that by claiming a human rights defense, Shayler is issuing a direct challenge to the 1989 Official Secrets Act, which bans public statements by ex-agents and makes them punishable by jail.

When he landed by cross-Channel ferry at Dover in a well-publicized event on Aug. 20, the former MI5 officer was immediately arrested and charged with offenses under the 1989 act.

But in what Richard Norton-Taylor, a security analyst, says was a sign of the authorities' acute nervousness over the affair, Shayler was swiftly bailed and allowed to go to a soccer match.

Since then he has continued to insist that his allegations are true. "I did what I did because I love my country," he says. "I'm a patriot, not a traitor. If I'm convicted, I'll be a prisoner of conscience."

Shayler has enlisted John Wadham, director of Liberty, Britain's leading human rights agency, as his lawyer. Mr. Wadham says he is "confident that [Shayler] will be able to resist the charges made against him."

Shayler first broke ranks with Britain's espionage establishment in 1995, when he resigned, taking copies of secret papers with him.

He lost little time in telling a Sunday newspaper that in the 1970s, MI5 kept files on prominent politicians, including members of the current Labour government, as well as pop stars, such as John Lennon. He also alleged that MI5 had bungled attempts to head off a successful Irish terrorist attack in London.

Later, in his most serious allegation, Shayler claimed that in 1995 British M16 intelligence officers had planned an assassination attempt on the Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook replied that the claim was "pure fantasy," but Shayler went on to name the two agents he says were involved in the plot.

In 1997, fearing imprisonment, Shayler fled to France where, at Britain's request, he was arrested and jailed for four months, pending an attempt by London to extradite him.

The attempt failed, and since then Shayler has lived in Paris, maintaining his own Web site, and making frequent statements about British security matters.

He returned to Britain, knowing that on Oct. 2 a new British human rights law, based on the European Convention on Human Rights, will take effect.

"Once the Human Rights Act takes effect, it will have to comply with Article 10 of the convention, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression," Mr. Wadham says.

There are already signs that the government is hesitating to launch a full-fledged prosecution of Shayler.

Mr. Norton-Taylor says it is significant that the charges laid against Shayler do not include his comments about the alleged plot against Mr. Qaddafi. "It is possible the police have insufficient direct evidence against Shayler in the Libyan case," he says.

Norton-Taylor recalls that police attempts in July to force two newspapers to hand over documents relating to the alleged Libyan plot were rejected by Britain's appeals court.

Instead, the charges Shayler faces relate to his claims about MI5 electronic surveillance and antiterrorist bungling.

A former journalist with a keen eye for self-publicity, Shayler manages to be nimble-footed in his media relations, and this has added to official frustration.

Intelligence expert Phillip Knightley says, "He has the journalist's skill of knowing what the media wants. His return to Britain was nicely managed, while the arresting police officers at Dover appeared heavy-handed."

Meanwhile, Shayler has begun to attract support from other former British agents.

In July, Shayler's former colleague, Jestyn Thirkell-White, who also resigned in 1996, told the Guardian newspaper that he agreed with Shayler's charges.

Mr. Thirkell-White accused British police's Special Branch of harassing Shayler and "acting like the police state."

In a further sign that the British authorities have been embarrassed by the publicity surrounding Shayler, it was reported Aug. 27 that another exiled British spy, Richard Tomlinson, was being urged to come back, and that the authorities were enlisting a mediator to ensure that his return was publicity-free.

Mr. Tomlinson traveled to Italy in 1998 after serving six months in prison for breaking the Official Secrets Act. He also is suspected of identifying 117 British intelligence officers by publishing their names on the Internet.

Mr. Tomlinson denies the charge and says he would like to come home and clear his name.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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