“National Security” excuse used one too many times?

Shami Chakrabarti at Humber Mouth on 28 June 2007

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The government has been accused of using the fabled “threat to national security” excuse as a justification to suppress or withhold information that does not, in fact, pose any threat to national security.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the civil rights group Liberty, wrote to the attorney General, Dominic Grieve, stating that ministers and their lawyers were abusing their positions. Chakrabarti stated that increasingly, the government is citing “national security” in court cases to supress information that could be potentially embarrassing.

The “War on Terror” essentially allows governments and ministers to abuse the perpetual hightened security alerts that they themselves implement. The most common excuse used to justify the witholding of information or for persuing a contentious course of action is that it is for the preservation of “national security”. It is difficult to contest this as, typically, one has to take the government’s “word” for it; they cannot show “evidence” for their claims as that, too, could breach “national security”. Which is convenient.

Now, however, the government has come under attack from the director of Liberty, who stated: “Recent court decisions demonstrate that Whitehall and the security agencies are failing to distinguish between national security and departmental embarrassment in applications to suppress information”. Chakrabarti went on to cite several “disturbing examples” in the letter to the attorney general.

One such example was dubbed by Liberty as being a “particularly worrying example of the misuse of a national security rationale to avoid disclosure of material disadvantageous, or indeed…fatal to to, the merits of the home office’s case. In this example, taken from a recently published high court ruling, the Home Office insisted that a document be redacted when in fact there was no need for the control order that the Home Office was demanding. When the judge released the document, it revealed that the terror suspect was being detained on remand, awaiting trial. The order was revoked.

The Ministry of Defence allegedly misued “public interest immunity certificates” (demands for gagging orders) in a high court hearing. The high court hearing was investigating claims that British soldiers killed and abused Iraqi prisoners.

In another such case, the Ministry of Defence again signed public interest immunity certificates relating to military guidelines on the interrogation of detainees. The information the MoD wanted to surpress, however, was already in the public domain. Judges ordered the MoD to pay indemnity costs of £1m. There are several such cases of the government having to withdraw demands for redacting documents on national security grounds after they have already been in the public domain – it is not the first time they have tried to classify documents that have already been published.

The ‘War on Terror’ has undermined public confidence in intelligence enough without this kind of ill-judged knee-jerk behaviour”, Chakrabarti wrote. “It is imperative that the public have confidence in the integrity of our security services”, she continued later. Whatever the response will be from the attorney general, it is more than likely that this will not be the last time that the War on Terror is used as a justification for censorship.

[Information taken from the Guardian]


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