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UK Prepares 'WikiLeaks Act' To Ban National Security Journalism

The ban will even criminalize foreign reporting

By: Jay Greenberg  |@NeonNettle
 on 3rd February 2017 @ 7.30pm
whistleblowers like edward snowden and julian assange will face 14 years in prison for leaking information © press
Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange will face 14 years in prison for leaking information

The British Government is overhauling its current laws to ban journalism considered to pose a threat to national security due to it being based on leaked secret information.

In the first reworking of the Official Secrets Act in 100 years, the new law will mean that whistleblowers or civil servants who leak information or state secrets will face a 14-year prison sentence.

Foreign spies or snoop on British Embassies or steal information and leak it overseas will also face prosecution in a British court for the first time, under the new proposals.

According to the new plans, which are currently being considered by ministers, officials who leak "sensitive information" about the British economy may also be jailed.

The Telegraph reportsThe proposals from Government’s independent law advisers also advise that the four Official Secrets Acts, which back to 1911, are scrapped and replaced with a modernized Espionage Act and a data disclosure law.

Experts said the Law Commission’s plans – drawn up after a request from the Cabinet Office and in consultation with MI5 and MI6 as well as civil liberty groups - were vital to help Britain tackle the snooping threat from Russia.

The review says: “It is crucial that the United Kingdom has a robust legislative response that meets the challenges posed by espionage in the 21st century.” Current legislation is “not capable of reflecting the potential harm and culpability that may arise in a serious case” of stealing state secrets, it says.

Under the Official Secrets Act 1989, an “unauthorized disclosure” of classified information carries a maximum sentence of just two years in jail – the same penalty as for a data breach by a National Lottery worker.

The review is the first time that official secrets legislation has been overhauled in a century amid concerns that it is “archaic” and has failed to keep pace with advances in technology and modern threats.

It says: “In the digital age, the volume of information that can be disclosed without authorisation is much greater than when the Official Secrets Act 1989 was originally drafted.” This meant that “the ability to cause damage to the national interest and the risk of such damage occurring has also increased”.

Pointing out that the maximum jail term for such breaches in Canada is 14 years in jail, it adds: “We provisionally conclude that the maximum sentences currently available for the offenses contained in the Official Secrets Act 1989 are not capable of reflecting the potential harm and culpability that may arise in a serious case.”

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, Professor David Ormerod, the Law Commissioner who drew up the reforms, said at present Britain’s “principal legal protection in the United Kingdom against espionage” was the 1911 Official Secrets Act.

He says: “Some offenses in the 1911 Act are focussed narrowly on protecting specific locations, but are mainly related mainly to sites of munitions of war.

“But what about an embassy abroad? Or a data center? The legislation needs to protect against modern threats.”

Lord Carlile of Berriew, the former reviewer of anti-terrorism legislation, added that the reforms would help combat “hacking by either the Russians or people who disclose what they have hacked to the Russians, or anybody with malign motives started to hack into British national security material”.

The overhaul comes after Alex Younger, the head of MI6, warned in December that cyber attacks and attempts to subvert democracy by states such as Russia posed a fundamental threat to British sovereignty.

And it comes in the wake of the Edward Snowden case which saw the former US defense contractor copied classified information from the National Security Agency, before fleeing fled to Hong Kong where he passed the data to journalists. He eventually flew to Russia where he is thought to reside today.

mi6 headquarters in london  england © press
MI6 Headquarters in London, England

The 324-page review suggests that anyone who leaks “sensitive information” that damages the economy could be jailed under the Official Secrets Act.

Currently, official secrets legislation is limited to breaches which jeopardize security, intelligence defense, confidential information and international relations.

The review suggests the law is expanded to cover “information that affects the economic well-being of the United Kingdom in so far as it relates to national security”.

Foreigners who leak information overseas that damages British national security could also be prosecuted in the UK for the first time.

This would include a non-British citizen seconded to a government department, and in that role, have access to information that relates to security and intelligence”.

Currently, they can only be prosecuted if the leak is by a British national or happens on UK soil.

The Official Secrets Act from 1911, 1920 and 1939 will be replaced with the new Espionage Act.

The most recent Official Secrets Act 1989 will be replaced with a new data disclosure law.

Changes include dropping the use of the word “enemy” to describe foreign powers which are hostile to the UK to allow prosecutions for the leaking of information to terrorist groups.

“Anachronistic” jargon to describe secrets used in the earlier legislation like “sketches”, “plans”, “models”, “passwords” and “code words” will be replaced with the more generic “information”.

A Government spokesman said: “We welcome the important work undertaken by the Law Commission, at the request of Government.

“As the work is ongoing and no final conclusions have been made, it would be inappropriate to comment at this stage.” A public consultation on the plans runs until April 3, after which the Government will draw up a draft Bill for the Government to consider.

The Law Commission is a non-political independent body, set up by Parliament in 1965 to keep all laws under review, and to recommend reform where it is needed.

Since the Commission was established in 1965, 73 percent of its reforms have been accepted or implemented in whole or part by the Government.

Overhauling the Official Secrets Act – the Law Commission’s proposals

Civil servants who leak files of state secrets could be jailed for up to 14 years. Currently, the maximum term is two years, under the Official Secrets Act 1989

Official secrets legislation to be expanded to cover “information that affects the economic well-being of the United Kingdom in so far as it relates to national security”

Foreigners who leak classified information overseas that damages British national security could be prosecuted in the UK for the first time

Dropping the use of the word “enemy” to describe foreign powers which are hostile to the UK to allow prosecutions for leaking of information to terrorist groups

“Anachronistic” jargon to describe secrets in law  like “sketches”, “plans”, “models”, “passwords” and “code words” to be replaced with the more generic “information”

The Official Secrets Acts 1911, 1920 and 1939 to be replaced with a modernised Espionage Act 

The Official Secrets Act 1989 to be replaced with a data disclosure law amid concerns that it is "archaic" and has failed to keep pace with advances in technology

Prosecutors no longer to have to prove damage to national security to secure a conviction for disclosure of classified information

Spies and civil servants to be allowed “to seek authority” to release confidential information

An offence is committed if the defendant “knew or had reasonable grounds to believe his or her conduct was capable of benefitting a foreign power”

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