Court told leaked memo damaged Britain's standing

Thursday, April 26, 2007

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair's senior foreign policy adviser said Wednesday at the trial of two men accused of leaking a classified memo that such disclosures damage Britain's international standing and put lives at risk.

David Keogh, 50, a codes expert, and Leo O'Connor, 44, a lawmaker's aide, are accused of violating secrecy laws by disclosing a document relating to April 2004 talks between Blair and President Bush.

The exact contents of the memo, which is considered so sensitive that much of the trial is being heard behind closed doors, have not been directly referred to by counsel or witnesses in open court.

But the Daily Mirror newspaper reported that the memo noted Blair had argued against Bush's suggestion of bombing Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar. The Daily Mirror said its sources disagreed on whether Bush's suggestion was serious.

Keogh worked at a government communications bunker that relayed information to diplomats overseas via encrypted or secure methods. Prosecutors allege he received a faxed copy of the memo to send on to an unnamed official, before duplicating it unlawfully and passing it on to O'Connor.

Both men deny breaking the Official Secrets Act.

Sir Nigel Sheinwald, a Blair adviser present at the meeting, said it was essential that world leaders share their views frankly and privately. Sheinwald will take over as Britain's ambassador in Washington later this year.

"The unauthorized disclosure of these views puts their people at risk," Sheinwald said. "When dealing with matters of military and more sensitive matters of diplomatic relations, you need a bedrock of trust."

Sheinwald said at the time of the discussion, the performance of coalition troops was under intense pressure due to kidnappings, growing violence from Shiite extremists and Spain's decision to withdraw its forces from Iraq.

The judge then asked the public to leave the court so that the contents of the memo could be discussed privately. The public were allowed back as defense lawyer Rex Tedd began cross-examining Sheinwald.

"If there is a discussion between world leaders -- no matter how illegal or morally abhorrent aspects of the discussion may be -- may that illegality or abhorrence affect whether the cloak of confidentiality should apply?" Tedd asked.

"I think the confidentiality rule applies," Sheinwald answered.

Blair said he had no information about any proposed U.S. action against Al-Jazeera. The White House called the claims "outlandish and inconceivable."

The document, marked "Secret-Personal," was intended to be restricted to senior officials and was written by a Blair adviser, prosecutors have said.

Sheinwald said the "secret" designation was used to indicate the memo's contents, if made public, could damage relations with a friendly government, threaten lives and compromise military operations. He said the "personal" caveat imposed a personal responsibility on the recipients to tightly control who sees it.

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