Cover-up claim as judge rules Bush memo trial must be secret,,1891789,00.html

Richard Norton-Taylor
Tuesday October 10, 2006
The Guardian

The government was accused yesterday of covering up evidence about war crimes after it won a court ruling that the trial of two men charged with leaking details of a meeting between Tony Blair and George Bush must be held in private.

David Keogh, a former civil servant, and Leo O'Connor, a former MP's researcher, are charged under the Official Secrets Act over a memo of a meeting in which Mr Bush is alleged to have suggested the bombing of the Arabic TV station al-Jazeera. The meeting took place in Washington in April 2004 at a time when the British government and military commanders were expressing serious concern about US tactics in Iraq.

In his published ruling, Old Bailey judge Mr Justice Aikens accepted the government's case that disclosing the contents of the memo would have a "detrimental impact" on "diplomatic and political relations" between the UK and the US. This in turn would have "serious consequences" for "the national safety or national security of the United Kingdom in the current international situation".

The media were barred from a pre-trial meeting held in private yesterday. Defence lawyers did not say what was discussed but afterwards voiced their objections to the secrecy. Mark Stephens, who is acting for al-Jazeera, said: "The bottom line is that there is no national security involvement [in the case]. What is being protected from us is evidence of a war crime." The "war crime" reference was to the alleged talk of bombing al-Jazeera.

Mr Stephens is appealing to Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, over the government's refusal to release the memo under the Freedom of Information Act. Lawyers for Mr Keogh and Mr O'Connor, who are on bail, said they could not comment on yesterday's hearing. However, it is understood they too have raised the issue of war crimes. Neil Clark, Mr O'Connor's solicitor, has said that having read the memo, he did not believe it could embarrass the British government.

The judge's ruling makes clear that government lawyers obtained a certificate from Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Mr Blair's foreign policy adviser, in March last year calling for a secret trial. But the necessary certificate from the foreign secretary was only obtained this July, shortly after Margaret Beckett took over from Jack Straw.

No date has been set for the trial.