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Newspapers Can Publish ‘Spycatcher’ Revelations, Court Rules

October 13, 1988

LONDON (AP) _ The government today lost its 2 1/2 -year battle to stop three London newspapers from publishing excerpts from ″Spycatcher,″ the memoirs of former intelligence agent Peter Wright.

For the press, the ruling was a victory after prolonged legal wrangling that turned ″Spycatcher″ - a best-seller in the United States and Australia - into a test case of freedom of speech versus national security.

The five judges of the Law Lords, Britain’s highest court, unanimously upheld a ruling by the Court of Appeal that The Guardian, The Observer and The Sunday Times could publish the excerpts.

The judges lifted temporary injunctions barring publication, but only after criticizing Wright for violating the lifetime secrecy oath he took when he joined MI5, Britain’s counterintelligence agency.

They said he ″flagrantly″ breached his oath and was ″as guilty of treachery as heinous as that of the spies″ he wrote about. Only the fact that the book was so widely available elsewhere convinced them to allow publication in Britain, they said.

Publishers William Heinemann said they will notify the government they plan to publish 200,000 paperback copies of the book in Britain. The publishers earlier agreed to provide such notice to allow the government time to intervene.

Home Secretary Douglas Hurd said the government felt vindicated by the decision because it upheld its view that former security agents remain bound by their secrecy oath.

But opposition Labor Party spokesman Ray Hattersley said the government ″made Britain a laughingstock from America to Australia″ by pursuing the case.

Lord Keith of the Court of Appeal said he voted for publication primarily because the book is available outside Britain and its contents are widely known.

″It is absolutely terrific,″ said Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian. ″This has gone on for 2 1/2 years and been heard by 23 judges. It is smashing to win hands down at the end.″

The government estimates its legal battle has cost $994,750, but legal experts say it could be as much as $5 million.

The book describes Wright’s experiences during 20 years with MI5, Britain’s counterintelligence agency. Among other things, Wright claims that the late Roger Hollis, an MI5 chief, was a double agent working for the Soviets - a claim the government says has never been substantiated.

It alleges the security service eavesdropped on foreign embassies, bungled operations, stole documents, plotted to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and to destabilize Harold Wilson’s Labor Party government in the 1970s.

Wright retired to Tasmania, Australia, in 1976 and could not immediately be reached for comment. An attempt by the British government to suppress publication in Australia failed, and it has been published there.

Wright, 73, has said that his book, which has sold 1.4 million copies in 40 countries, revealed nothing that could jeopardize national security.

The British government maintains it has pursued its case to uphold the principle that former intelligence agents are bound by their lifetime oath of secrecy and to prevent similar books from being published.

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