British secret intelligence service has never heard of Usenet.
Following the row about the publication of 115 British agents' names on the net last month, British national security censors say that they are considering issuing so-called "D Notices" to internet providers as well as to newspaper editors and broadcasters.
The warning came last week after a second website associated with the controversial businessman Mohamed al-Fayed published the name of British spies working in the Balkans on the net. The previous list, believed to have been drawn up by the disgruntled MI6 agent Richard Tomlinson, was published 3 weeks ago in the United States by the "Executive Intelligence Review" (EIR).
EIR added the list to claims that MI6 or SIS, the British intelligence service, had helped plan the deaths of Princess Diana and Mr Al Fayed's son, Dodi. That file was removed on request by the British government, but is still available from mirrors.
The new MI6 name has appeared on a web site run by the Harrods store in London, which is owned by Mr Al-Fayed. The Ministry of Defence claimed "It is possible that his contacts who are still there [in the Balkans] might be identified and jeopardised." It claims that the MI6 agent had run a "vicious campaign to smear Mr Al-Fayed and destroy his reputation".
The British announcement this week highlights that their security authorities are out of touch with modern developments on the net. The "D Notice" system has previously relied on the loyalty of newspaper editors not to reveal information the government found embarassing. These have included the construction of a secret tunnel network under London, the defection of British spies, and the scale of telephone tapping.
But the British government appears not to have considered how such a system could work on the internet, where users and providers can be in any country. In particular, if information is posted into newsgroups, it will quickly be transmitted around the world. This is what happened to the original list of MI6 names.
The night before the British censorship request was issued, on May 12th, the list had already been copied from the website of the "Executive Intelligence Review" onto three discussion groups on the Usenet system. By 9pm that evening, the list was in news server computers all over the world, including China, Russia and Yugoslavia. It is not likely that these countries would have wanted to respond positively to British requests to remove the information.
Despite this, officials at the department responsible for issuing the censorship notice said that they had never heard of Usenet. "What's that?", they asked.
British officials have also been unable to stop a Swiss-based website from continuing to give details of nine MI6 agents whom Tomlinson claims were involved in a plot to assasinate Slobodan Milosevic. The site holds copies of a dossier Tomlinson prepared for his London lawyer. Another file on the same site unmasks a well-paid, top-level British spy inside the Bundesbank - codename "Orcada". This was part of a spying project against Britain's European partners, codenamed "Jetstream". The file gives details of special handling operations for this agent, whose activities have to be concealed from the German security services.
In the dossier, Tomlinson writes:
"Espionage operations against our European allies is regarded as highly sensitive within MI6, because officers are aware that this work would be deemed illegal under European law."
Despite the row in Britain, these files are still on the web. (Duncan Campbell)