Hard Access

For Your Eyes Only

What does it mean to handle sensitive information? We spoke to a suite of nodes from across the pipeline to learn more about the power of confidential intel, in all of its forms. 


Neave Barker, Al Jazeera’s one-time man in Moscow

Keeping secrets in Russia was difficult. Day-to-day life was knowing full well that we were under surveillance. There were various layers to it, depending on what story you were working on at the time. The Russians are quite good at it. When you’ve been in Eastern Europe long enough, you can spot the guys a mile off, huddled in groups, and one is always wearing a leather jacket. The rest are wearing Berghaus, like they’ve just been hiking. The way they’re physically built sets them aside from every other human being on the planet. We used to joke that they were all manufactured in some plant on the outskirts of Moscow.

There’s also the stealthy, low-level intimidation that we used to get in Russia. The alarm clock that you’re sure wasn’t set going off at four o’clock in the morning. The ‘Oh, I live on the 10th floor, I’m sure I shut that window’ kind of thing, or ‘Why is my car parked on the other side of the road facing the other way with one wheel on the curb?’ The equivalent of a little tap at the door, like ‘We’re here, but maybe we’re not.’ One colleague was getting coats out of an Ikea hanger in her hallway and literally pulled a microphone out of the wall.

Reporters have a certain desperation to be where something interesting is happening. I don’t think anyone goes out of their way to put themselves in harm, but it does increase the drive to report something when somebody clearly doesn’t want you to do it. That’s probably why my most radicalising moment was going to Russia, where there’s such a strong effort to shape the narrative of the country, and ordinary Russians’ understanding of who was in charge.

It’s the nature of authoritarian states that they suppress truth and will do everything possible to silence critics, but because you are a foreigner in their country, you’re governed by other rules. You’re also kind of privileged that you have an emergency object in the form of a British passport, an Irish passport, an American passport, which allows you to push buttons and annoy people and stick microphones in their faces because you can usually get on a plane after. Which is why what’s happening in Russia at the moment is so distressing, because I’ve seen friends in really hot water. Now those are the brave people. Us guys, you know, end up parachuting into these countries and getting a great store of stories, but we can pull the plug when things get difficult.



Janine Gibson, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Guardian’s Snowden Files

In the course of working on the Edward Snowden leaks, the funniest thing we found was that the NSA and GCHQ have been developing capabilities to take advantage of ‘leaky’ smartphone apps, like the Angry Birds game, that can share users’ most sensitive information, such as sexual orientation. There was even one app that could work out whether or not the user is a swinger. I really did think that was admirable dedication on the part of the security services.

Have I ever seen how handling classified information can change people? Yes. I was Glenn Greenwald’s editor for two years.

But it was pretty terrifying: for us the situation clarified pretty much immediately to this is either ‘the biggest classified intelligence leak in a generation’ – probably ever – or it’s the Hitler diaries, and how the hell are we going to establish which?


Conversation with ‘John’, a government employee. 

The novelty of handling sensitive information very, very quickly wears off, I have to say. It becomes the norm, and that norm very quickly becomes a burden. To start with, it’s natural that you want to know everything – and then you very quickly want to know nothing at all. You are aware of some amazing, astonishing things, but in my experience at least, you don’t want to tell people the details of what you know. And the type of people you interact with who handle this information over a period of years – the senior security service officers – are extremely reserved. There’s nothing gossipy to it, and it’s all taken very seriously.

There’s a very strict procedure for handling information within the British government, at least at the level I’ve worked at. When you’re working at a STRAP level, there are different computer systems and phones, different printers with different coloured paper for each category of classification. Each document is also marked at the top and bottom with its classification. The printing and subsequent shredding of paper documents will often have to be recorded, witnessed and countersigned. Some documents can leave the place of work, some can’t – some must be carried around internally in a secure case. Everything is demarcated very quickly, and these systems have been learnt after many, many examples of infiltration. I’ve just given you what is far from an exhaustive list of procedures, and I am reticent to say more.

One thing that people don’t understand about classified information is that demarcation shifts very quickly. For example, something that could be at the highest possible classification, like the Prime Minister’s movements through a foreign country, can suddenly become redundant when the Prime Minister’s movements are broadcast on every major news channel.

What’s it like to handle classified information? I have noticed other people change when they become aware that you have information that they are not privy to. They often make a big point of telling you that they don’t want to know – to act cool, shall we say. One phrase I hear a lot is, ‘You can’t tell me that, I know, and I wouldn’t want to know anyway.’

Another thing: information can be classified because it’s embarrassing – again, I am reticent so say more. People think that government secrets are some document lying mottled in a safe, but they are different things: a phrase, a word, a passage of text. More often than not, something may become classified because of the amalgamation of information. Twenty individual emails may individually be harmless, but their amalgamated contents could be highly classified. There may therefore be many different combinations of pieces of information that one holds that become ‘secrets’. How many pieces of secret intelligence do I have to take to the grave? I’d guess in the thousands.


Ronnie Close, author of ‘Cairo’s Ultras: Resistance and Revolution in Egypt’s Football Culture’.

The fixer’s heyday in Egypt came between 2011 and 2014 – the days of the Egyptian Uprising and the instability that followed Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. During that time, especially the beginning, the fixer played a vital role for Western journalists. Often, they were embedded within the groups of emboldened young revolutionaries, attuned to developments in the online sphere that dictated moods on the ground, and could help with everything from translation to classified information to dodging tear gas and finding respite from the police.

Those fixers played an enormous role not just in shielding and guiding journalists, but also shaping the narratives and the analysis that would be transmitted across the world. They could be anyone, of any gender, any status, any motivator, but often they were keen to play a role in countering the behemoth that is the Egyptian state.

Nowadays, Egypt is a far different place than the hopeful and rebellious country it seemed a decade ago, and the fixer’s time has passed. Most have fled the country or quietly returned to their original jobs; government-assigned ones may exist, but they are functionaries of the state security apparatus and could not help in any way with the cause of genuine investigative journalism.

For the few that do exist, the risks are considerable. Danger is present not only for the fixer and the journalist, but anyone who provides assistance to a seditious story that paints the state in a bad light. In Egypt, a complex system of surveillance keeps the people in check, one that goes from the cutting edge of tracking technology all the way down to the bawab (doorman) at your flat block relaying your activities back to state security. There’s a paranoia akin to the era of the DDR, where you perpetually self-censor out of fear that any group, or any person, could be an informer.

The last story I assisted a journalist on – or ‘fixed’ for – was earlier this year, on one of the most contentious groups in Egyptian society: football ultras. They are classified as terrorists by the state and all of their activities are punishable by any means that a security officer could choose to deploy: detention, torture, and worse.

Furthermore, even though we worked with a foreign journalist, the state has already set a worrying precedent for extrajudicial killing, as seen with the murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni in 2016 at the hands of security forces. But the majority of danger came with those we spoke to, who shared their stories – they already had a profile with the police, on account of their connections to the ultras. And so, we had to work with extreme caution throughout the reporting trip, working only within the field of audio as any kind of non-sanctioned filmmaking is now de facto forbidden in Egypt.

Sadly, there will likely be very few stories coming out of Egypt in the coming years, as the military complex has been incredibly successful in its smothering of dissent, at home and abroad. Take Egypt’s hosting of COP27 in Sharm-­el-Sheikh at the end of last year. The international media failed to hold the country to account for its various human rights abuses, despite the best efforts of activists like Alaa Abd El-Fattah and his family, who held press conferences to try and raise awareness of the plight of political prisoners. Things are now, in many ways, worse than before the fall of Mubarak, but there has never been fewer journalists to expose the situation, nor fixers to help set the narrative.



Andrew Lownie, historian, author and freedom of information campaigner

There is a culture of secrecy that operates throughout this country. It’s a control game by public authorities who do not want to give this material up, so they’ll use any exemption they can to prevent people seeing stuff. It’s a completely different mindset to the States, where the presumption is that everything is open unless it has been closed. Here it seems almost the other way round.

When I was writing my Mountbatten book [a 2019 biography of Lord and Lady Mountbatten titled The Mountbattens: Their Loves and Lives] I put forward an FOI request with the FBI and they released several files going back to the Second World War, with people being interviewed saying Mountbatten was a paedophile. I got lists of some of the file numbers and asked for them, and was told that these files, which went up to the 1950s, had been destroyed. They have an arrangement with the British that they can vet material related to British figures. My summation is that the British were shocked to discover these files existed and told the Americans to get rid of them.

And we get loads of cosy situations where material is given to tame journalists or writers, perhaps who’ll do their bidding or are prepared to be censored. And that’s not the way our history should be written. It has to be written in a completely open way, and with all the material open to everyone at the same time.

I have a case at the moment where a protection file from 1932 on the future Duke of Windsor has been closed because it would affect the present safety of the Royal Family. They have then taken those files back and said, ‘Gosh, we didn’t know these were out.’ They’re completely innocent, they’ve been photocopied by lots of historians, some of them are on the website of the National Archives, and this idea that terrorists are going to the National Archives in order to kill the Royal Family, and with all the new technology since 1932, it is just ludicrous.

In a way, it works as a carrot and a stick; if you play ball with them, they’ll feed you tidbits and maybe give you nice quangos, but if you don’t play ball, they’ll take you to court and make your life miserable.

You can put in what’s called a Subject Access Request because public authorities need to tell you what they hold on you. When I did this to the Cabinet Office, I was told that they had so much material on me, that I would have to put in a request for six-month periods, which I’ve been doing. They’re not just monitoring things to do with my life as a historian but, for example, an employment tribunal with a member of my staff, a defamation case, me giving talks at university history societies. And you think, ‘Why are they using their resources to monitor my social media?’ It’s not the mark of a democracy, it’s a mark of living in the Soviet Union or China.

I think a lot of historians give up because it’s not worth the fight. And it’s only particularly tenacious people like me who keep going. They’d hoped I wouldn’t continue to defend this appeal on the Mountbatten diaries, especially after my book had come out, because there was nothing in it for me. And I think they were a bit surprised that I kept going, and that’s why they eventually had to dump this material on the internet – the largest release of material ever, 33,000 pages. But I was going to be made an example of: ‘Look what happens to people who stand up for access to archives, it’s just not worth it.’

I have mixed feelings, because I’m down £350,000, and that’s money that could be used to help my children or my retirement, but I do think there was an important principle at stake, and I didn’t want to be bullied by these faceless officials who feel they can do what they want against the law. If it inspires others and we all begin to stand firm, then maybe we’ll get somewhere.

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