Terror Leaks: Both Home Office And Police Implicated
The row over allegations that lives were endangered by leaks about major anti-terrorism operations deepened last night as it emerged that there were a series of disclosures about one highly sensitive investigation.
As Tony Blair rejected calls for an inquiry, and Liberal Democrats called upon the police to investigate, it emerged that journalists received up to three separate briefings about an allegation that a group of men was planning to abduct and behead a Muslim British soldier.
The Guardian has been told that an aide to John Reid, the home secretary, was responsible for one of those leaks, and has also learnt that there is strong suspicion among the highest-ranking police at Scotland Yard that one of their own officers also briefed the media.
The controversy centres on a series of raids which led to nine arrests across Birmingham in February. Six men were subsequently charged with a number of terrorist offences. The row over the leaks which accompanied those arrests erupted after deputy assistant commissioner Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, warned on Tuesday that such disclosures, both in advance of operations and while they were ongoing, could be illegal and highly dangerous.
Since the arrests that Guardian has learned that:
· Journalists on at least one tabloid paper were tipped off the night before the raids, with the result that some travelled there before anyone had been arrested.
· The following morning, while one suspect remained at large, a small number of journalists were receiving briefings on lurid details of the alleged plot.
· A senior Whitehall official told reporters from two tabloids that a number of Muslim soldiers had agreed to act as bait in an attempt to trap the plotters.
The Guardian has been told by a well-placed source that this information – which later proved to be inaccurate – came from one of Mr Reid’s officials.
However, in a development which could prove to be a serious embarrassment for Mr Clarke and his colleagues, senior Scotland Yard sources said they feared that one of the leaks had come from within the force.
In his speech on the terrorist threat to the UK, Mr Clarke said: “What I am talking about is the deliberate leaking of highly sensitive operational intelligence, often classified, and the unauthorised release of which can be a criminal offence.
“What is clear is that there are a number, a small number I am sure, of misguided individuals who betray confidences. Perhaps they look to curry favour with certain journalists, or to squeeze out some short term presentational advantage – I do not know what motivates them.
“The people who do this either do not know or do not care what damage they do. If they do know, then they are beneath contempt. If they do not know, then let me tell them. They compromise investigations. They reveal sources of life-saving intelligence. In the worst cases they put lives at risk. I wonder if they simply do not care.”
Amid calls from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats for an inquiry, the prime minister said he “completely condemned” such leaks. He added that “as far as I am aware” no minister, civil servant or special adviser had been involved.
But the prime minister failed to assuage opposition anger. David Davis, the shadow home secretary, wrote last night to the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, demanding the inquiry “in the light of the concern” expressed by Mr Clarke. The Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman, Nick Clegg, wrote to West Midlands police to demand they institute a similar inquiry. A police spokeswoman said the request was being considered.
The Conservatives acknowledge that as yet they have no “smoking gun” to tie ministers or officials to the leaks, though they believe they might find one. They have heard names of possible leakers without knowing whether they are true. But they and the Liberal Democrats say the Labour government’s notoriety for spinning and briefing gives it a case to answer. “There is now real evidence that the government’s culture of spin is undermining rather than strengthening our collective response to the terror threat,” said Mr Clegg.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, told Mr Blair at prime minister’s question time: “You say you are pretty certain it’s not a minister or a special adviser. But if you haven’t had a leak inquiry, how on earth can you know? I’m sure you understand the damage the culture of leak and spin has done to your government.
“When it comes to national security this can actually cost lives. So will you today confirm that you’ll establish an independent leak inquiry, led by a senior and independent figure – yes or no?”
Mr Blair replied: “No, I will not confirm that, for this very simple reason. If you have evidence that someone has been involved in such a thing I will of course have it properly investigated.
“But what I’m not going to do is have a situation in which you simply make this allegation, leave it hanging there without any evidence to back it up whatever. If I was being unkind, I would call that a smear.”
Defence lawyers are expected to argue that it will be impossible for any of the men arrested in Birmingham to receive a fair trial as a consequence of the leaks at the time of their arrest. One lawyer, Tayab Ali, said he had been told by a senior West Midlands officer that the disclosures may have been an offence under the Official Secrets Act.
A number of former intelligence and security officials said yesterday they thought a formal investigation should take place. Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), said: “It’s very serious. I personally think that it’s something the government ought to be investigating and it ought to be making the results of any such investigation actually known to the public. And they ought to prosecute. This is what the Official Secrets Act is there for.”
Sir Paul Lever, another former JIC chairman, said: “Whatever you think of this culture of spin as a general phenomenon, if it encroaches on the area of police operations and the handling of sensitive intelligence matters, then that can be very, very damaging.”
The Conservatives said the government had launched 60 leak inquiries in its first three years. The Liberal Democrats delivered a dossier of newspaper reports which they said were apparently compiled by government officials and “Whitehall sources” on terrorism investigations.
As the Westminster rumour mill cranked up, several officials were said to be in the frame for leaks of the operation. Most suspicion centred on the Home Office, but that was flatly rejected.
A spokesman said Mr Reid was “entirely in agreement” with Mr Clarke.
“National security is one of our highest priorities and anything that threatens effective operations, judicial process or counter-terrorism activity is to be condemned. That is why the Home Office has a policy of never commenting on operational matters,” the spokesman said.
The Home Office refused to comment further on more detailed allegations.