HC Deb 18 April 1921 vol 140 cc1528-31

asked the Prime Minister whether it is proposed to take any proceedings, either of a disciplinary character or under the Official Secrets Act, against the late Assistant Secretary of the Supreme War Council for his unauthorised use of confidential official documents in a recently published book, in which he has taken advantage of his permitted access to such documents for the purpose of traducing certain military officers of the highest rank and others in responsible positions during the War?


The book referred to by my hon. Friend is not the only one recently published which purports to give information derived from access either to official documents or to persons in high official positions or to both. It is true that other books reflect on a different set of persons—some military, some political—that does not alter the principle. Although it is reprehensible, even two years after the War, without sanction to publish information about the War derived from official sources, it does not contain the element of dangerous treachery to the Army involved in giving away secret official information during the progress of the War. If action is taken it must be taken quite impartially against those who improperly published and those who improperly imparted this secret information.


Does not the book contain, among other things, quotations from or references to minutes of the War Cabinet—my right hon. Friend is aware that that is so—and in the circumstances, is it not a very dangerous thing to allow books of that sort to be published, and as attacks are made in that and other books on people in responsible positions, will those persons, if they wish to make an answer to those attacks, be given access to the same sources of information?


I am not sufficiently conversant with the book to know, but I do not think that there are any quotations from the documents of the War Cabinet. This official, though he was at Versailles, was not on the War Cabinet staff, and therefore he had not access to the documents of the War Cabinet. I agree that all this has been going on for the last two or three years. All these communications of secret infor- mation of the Council recently published purported to be got from the highest official sources within 24 hours afterwards, and there are letters published in that book from some of the high officials. If there is to be a prosecution, it must be a prosecution of all of them. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] And it must be a prosecution not merely of those who published, but of those who gave the information.

Lieut.-Colonel MURRAY

Are we now to understand that it is open to anyone to make use of official documents that may now be in his possession, as, if so, soma war reputations will be' blown sky high?


Seeing that books of this kind are very lucrative if no action of any kind be taken, is it not an encouragement for other writers to follow on the same lines?


I agree. I have been rather surprised that the raising of this question has been postponed until this time, because there have been very much worse offenders than this book—I shall be prepared to establish that—but, at any rate, it is a reprehensible practice.


Was it not stated, in the course of the Douglas-Pennant inquiry, that the proper method was for the person libelled to bring a civil action for libel, and in view of the fact that the writer of this book has brought charges amounting to treasonable divulgence of future plans of campaign against Sir William Robertson and General Sir F. Maurice, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether those officers intend to bring an action for libel against the writer of the book? If they do not clear their character by such action, will the Government consider, their position?


In view of this growing and most pernicious practice, will the right hon. Gentleman consult the Law Officers as to whether prosecutions would not lie in cases in which it has been done?


I am sorry to say it is not confined to this book by any means. Secret information of the same character is published both in America and in France. It is very partial; the whole story is never told. What is to be done it is difficult to say in the circumstances.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this practice is not confined to the writing of books?