This story is over 5 years old.


The UK Government Has Opened Up Thousands of Secret Files to the Public

According to a 1958 law, secret state records in the UK must become public 30 years after their creation. But in a sprawling manor estate just west of London, hundreds of thousands of Foreign Office records dating back to the 17th century are still...

All photos taken at the FCO archives in Hanslope Park

On Tuesday, for the first time ever, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), the United Kingdom's equivalent to the State Department, welcomed a small group of reporters to the archives of Hanslope Park, a secretive, high-security compound in Buckinghamshire that it shares with intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6. We were there to discuss the fate of millions of historic documents that, for decades, were illegally withheld from the public, in flagrant breach of the Public Records Act, the 1958 law that stipulates that records should be made public 30 years after their creation.


Some of the documents in question date back to the 17th century; others contain incriminating evidence of murder and torture by British colonial authorities—another NSA-style imbroglio waiting to happen, if headline writers thought that 200-year-old stories would sell. Tuesday's presser was a new chapter in a dramatic, if damning, tale of missing archives, imperial purge operations, and allegations of high-level state cover-ups.

Hanslope Park is a sprawling complex in the county of Buckinghamshire, about 45 miles west of London. The property was once an old manor estate but it was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defense in 1941 and used as an operational hub during WWII. Today, the facility, encircled by tall fences topped with razor wire and CCTV cameras, is used for work on “cyber security.” Hanslope is prized for its strategic location: a little out-of-the-way, but still easily accessible from Oxford and Cambridge, the customary stomping grounds of many of Britain's future intelligence officers.

Yesterday, several other journalists and I were led along tree-lined footpaths and into a brown brick building that was purpose-built in 1992 to house the FCO’s archive. Before long, we were meandering through rows of historic documents on shelves with labels like “Sierra Leone Arms Investigation,” “Compensation of victims of Nazi persecution case files,” and “Sir Winston Churchill’s Messages of Sympathy.” I flipped through a volume of “Slave Trade Correspondence” from 1858 to 1859 and the personal desk diary of Donald Duart Maclean, a British diplomat who served as a Soviet KGB spy during WWII. These documents should have been put in the public domain years ago—yet here they are.


In October, the Guardian revealed that the FCO had unlawfully retained an estimated 1.2 million historic files—15 miles of papers from floor to ceiling—at Hanslope Park. For decades, the government did not acknowledge the existence of the papers, even though some concern subjects of immense importance: Nazi War Criminals, the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland, Hong Kong, Cold War propaganda, the slave trade, and Britain’s withdrawal from Empire. Since the revelation, relations between the FCO and journalists have been strained.

Tuesday was presented as a public airing. A small group of journalists met with FCO officers, archivists, and a “senior sensitivity reviewer,” a former diplomat who scrutinizes official documents before they are publicly released—and, in some cases, redacts them. For about half an hour, we were given limited access to the documents in what seemed to be a belated gesture of transparency.

Unfortunately, journalists were told upon arrival at Hanslope Park that the meeting was “off the record.” I am allowed to tell you what I saw and what I learned, but I can’t pass on direct quotes. I can generally tell you what was said, but "not the name of the person who said it.”

Late last year, the Guardian revealed that the FCO was holding hundreds of thousands of historic files at Hanslope Park. For decades, the files were held illegally, in violation of the Public Records Act’s 30-year rule. Months earlier, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling had quietly signed an exemption authorising the FCO to “legally” retain an astonishing 1.2 million files. No public announcement was made. Though, in December 2012, Foreign Office minister David Lidington made a vague statement about a “large accumulation” of FCO documents.


The FCO's secrecy began to unravel in 2011, when a group of elderly Kenyans brought a lawsuit against the FCO, claiming damages for abuse suffered under British colonial authorities. At the time, FCO officials were asked if they had any relevant documents; they said they did not.

Except they definitely did.

After being pressed by the court, the FCO admitted that it was unlawfully holding 1,500 Kenya files at Hanslope Park. Later, it admitted to possessing 8,800—and, eventually, 20,000—undisclosed files, covering 37 former colonies. “The general response of historians of the British Empire upon hearing this,” historian David Anderson told me, “was shock and amazement.”

The documents had great bearing on the Kenyans’ successful legal suit against Britain. One file included a 1953 letter from Kenya’s Attorney General, who observed that colonial detention facilities in Kenya were “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.” Another included a telegraph accusing an officer of “beating up and roasting alive” a Kenyan.

The entire affair did not bode well for the FCO. An independent inquiry commissioned by Foreign Secretary William Hague blamed a cocktail of ignorance and ineptitude, but concluded that officers had not acted deceptively. Officials insist that the content of the files, which were inherited from another facility, had been misunderstood and then neglected due to limited resources.


Still, the files’ sensitive nature—and the FCO’s failure to be forthright during the Kenya trial—fed suspicion that the government had something to hide and was attempting to avoid comeuppance, legal or otherwise. “The reason for the continuing secrecy,” wrote the Guardian, “is itself, at this stage, a secret.” On Tuesday, historian Anthony Badger, who has been appointed independent reviewer of the archive, acknowledged: “It’s clear that there was an intention with the migrated archives not to let people know.”

Late last year, the eagle landed. News leaked that the 20,000 colonial files were just a drop in the Hanslope Park bucket. The FCO admitted to possessing the so-called “special collections,” estimated at 250,000, then 1.2 million, and now 600,000 files. Asked why its estimates keep changing, FCO officials cite “rounding errors” and difficulty counting files of varied formats like audio and microfilm.

Given the FCO’s line—that miles upon miles of documents were neglected for years—I was expecting the Hanslope Park archive to be a chaotic and cavernous space, filled with teetering mounds of files and papers. Instead, I saw tidy shelves stacked with neatly labeled boxes and bound volumes.

While many files probably contain trivial miscellany, others surely hold some juicy information. One bag of records contains papers from the “Information Research Department,” the Foreign Office’s famous Cold War propaganda unit. Other boxes contain so-called "Nazi persecution files." A further 267,000 files concern Hong Kong and were brought to London after Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997.


When the existence of the colossal Hanslope Park stash was revealed, the noted Oxford University historian Margaret Macmillan wondered whether she would “have to go back and rethink my work on such matters as the outbreak of the First World War.” What might the special collections tell us about the history we thought we already knew?

On Tuesday, FCO officials outlined their plans for releasing the documents. Sixty thousand high-priority (as defined by the department) files will be reviewed for release over the next five years. The FCO hopes to review “medium and low priority” files by 2027.

Here’s the catch: The FCO says that “sensitivity reviewers” (colloquially, “weeders”) must review each and every paper before it's passed on to the National Archives, redacting where necessary, and that only 1 percent of its material is closed to the public. Still, this all takes a long time: On Tuesday, officials announced that they would hire 12 new sensitivity reviewers to add to their current team of 26.

Given how slow the process has been thus far (it took two and a half years to release the 20,000 colonial files), some doubt the government can manage the pace. In October, the Guardian estimated that, at this rate, “clearing up the special collections would take around 340 years.”

The FCO continues to be vague about its timeline for release. On Tuesday, FCO officials took pains to insist that the files are being “held legally.” That’s technically true, but only because a little-known government body called the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Office allowed the entire stash under a security blanket.

Already, some historians—a traditionally patient bunch—are losing faith in the government process. One group of prominent academics are considering a lawsuit; They suspect that they might be able to sue the Foreign Office to obtain all the documents and, in the meantime, protect them from destruction. At an FCO meeting with academics on Friday, one historian wondered aloud if the Public Records Act—a critical check on government power—can be considered to be working at all.

The Foreign Office began keeping records in around 1800, when it appointed its first “Library and Keeper of Printed Papers.” “This was,” one FCO official has explained, “the time of the enlightenment, the age of reason, when governments throughout Europe sought to subject administration to rational principles,” of which record keeping was a key component.

But sometimes a process that's meant to be rational acquires its own irrational logic, just like the one aimed towards the tidy chaos of Hanslope Park.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter