Title:                      Classified

Author:                Christopher Moran

Moran, Christopher R. (2013). Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

LCCN:    2012020422

JN329.S4 M67 2013


  • Laying the foundations of control — Bending the rules : ministers and their memoirs, 1920-1945 — Chapman Pincher : sleuthing the secret state — Britain’s Watergate : the D-Notice Affair and consequences — Publish and be damned — Cabinet confessions : from Churchill to Crossman — Keeping the secrets of wartime deception : Ultra and Double-Cross — SOE in France — Counterblast: official history of intelligence in the Second World War.


Date Posted:      November 17, 2015

In 1911, the British Official Secrets Act (OSA) was amended. Section 2 made unauthorized communication or receipt of official information by civil servants, politicians, authors, and journalists a felony. Moreover, the burden of proof rested with the defense. Recognizing that difficulties controlling official information would be greatest with authors and journalists, the government in 1912 established the Admiralty’s War Office and Press Committee—called the D-Notice Committee. Its function was to supplement the OSA and implement an unofficial gentleman’s agreement with the press that would operate on the honor system. When classified or other official information came to, or might have come to, the attention of the press-newspapers, book publishers, and the like—which the government did not want made public, the D-Notice Committee could be consulted for a recommendation on whether or not the item should be published. Alternatively, when the committee wished to keep information secret, it could issue a “D·Notice” suggesting restraint. But the final decision rested with the press. This informal system was put to its first test during WWI, and precedents were set that would apply after WWII. University of Warwick postdoctoral fellow Christopher Moran’s Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain is a study of how the system worked until the early 21st century, when Section 2 of the OSA was repealed and a Freedom of lnformation Act was enacted in 2005.

The early, post WWI, tests of the 1911 OSA in effect created a double standard. Moran tells how Prime Minister Lloyd George ignored the rules and decided for himself what official documents could be used for his memoir. Winston Churchill did the same for his six volume study, The World Crisis, 1911-1918[1]. Likewise, Field Marshall Sir John French and Admiral John Jellicoe produced memoirs based in part on official documents, the latter mentioning the Government Code and Cypher School. (p. 57) None had official approval; all escaped legal action.

Author Compton Mackenzie, on the other hand, was prosecuted for his book Greek Memories[2], which mentioned the still not officially acknowledged Secret Intelligence Service, identified its chief by name, and noted he was called “C.” The government persuaded him to plead guilty—thus preventing further revelations in court-and copies of the book were recalled-although not all were confiscated. Mackenzie escaped jail time but was fined £100.

Moran describes the bureaucratic skirmishes created by these and other episodes through the end of the Cold War before going on to even more complex attempts to control secrecy and the press. He uses the experiences of Chapman Pincher, “Fleet Street’s greatest scope-merchant,” (p. 99) and other authors to explore the intricacies of the D·Notice system. One case, although based on open sources, involved the failed attempt to suppress mention of NSA and then little known GCHQ. The journalists involved were deported, but the political fallout was severe. Another concerned former CIA officer Philip Agee, who was deported after publishing his memoir Inside The Company[3] in Britain. (p. 190)

The chapters concerning the battles to publish intelligence histories and memoirs perhaps will be the most interesting to intelligence professionals. They include descriptions of the clashes preceding exposure of the “double-cross secret” and Operation Mincemeat—“the man who never was!” Later, encounters followed over official histories, for example, M.R.D. Foot’s SOE in France[4], the six-volume history of British intelligence in WWII and Peter Wright’s unofficial expose, Spycatcher[5].

Classified concludes with a discussion of what Moran terms “a retreat from secrecy” (p. 329) on a surprising scale in Britain today despite the threat of WikiLeaks and the implications of cyber communications. It is a superbly documented study and a fine contribution to the literature.

[1] Churchill, Winston (1931). The World Crisis, 1911-1918 (Abridged and rev. with additional chapter on the battle of the Marne). London: T. Butterworth [LCCN: 31033772]

[2] Mackenzie, Compton, Sir (1987). Greek Memories. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America

[3] Agee, Phillip (1975). Inside the Company: A CIA Diary. New York: Stonehill

[4] Foot, M.R.D. (1966). SOE In France: An Account of The Work of British Special Operations Executive in France 1940-1944. London:H.M. Stationery Off

[5] Wright, Peter (1987) with Paul Greengrass. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of A Senior Intelligence Officer. NY: Viking

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