Presidential Declassification of Information
I just wanted to observe that the recent controversy over the President’s alleged disclosure of classified information to the Russian Foreign Minister was discussed in analogous way by an episode of “Yes, Prime Minister.” Prime Minister Hacker and Sir Humphrey have a conversation after Bernard Wooley tells the press (in a garbled way) that the PM is above the law with respect to the disclosure of information under the Official Secrets Act.
The PM: We must do something to improve my relations with the press, which deteriorated considerably when my private secretary told them I felt I was above the law when it came to official secrets. What’s the constitutional position, Humphrey?
Sir Humphrey: Well, in a sense, Bernard was right. The question, in a nutshell, is what is the difference between a breach of the Official Secrets Act and an unattributable, off-the-record briefing by a senior official? The former-a breach-is a criminal offence. A briefing is essential to keep the wheels turning. Is there a difference or is it a matter of convenience and interpretation? Is it a breach of the act if there is an unofficial, non-attributable briefing by an official who’s been unofficially authorised by the Prime Minister?
Sir Humphrey: Not if it’s been authorised by the PM, no. I should decide if it’s in the national interest for something to be disclosed, not officials. Last week’s leak must’ve come from an official.
Sir Humphrey: But what if the official was officially authorised or even unofficially authorised? What if the PM officially disapproves of a breach of the act, but unofficially approves? Then a leak would be unofficially official, but officially unofficial.