The loss of the top-secret cabinet office files has raised interest in how the BBC came by the documents and how it treats such stories. Security correspondent Frank Gardner called me in the middle of day to alert me to the fact he had in his possession some highly classified documents. I scooted down to his office to discuss with Frank and his producer what we should do with them.
The documents were titled "Joint Intelligence Committee Assessment" and marked "UK Top-Secret". They were numbered and marked "for UK/US/Canadian and Australian eyes only". They had been found on the seat of a commuter train from Waterloo to Surrey by a member of the public.
It was obvious that if the papers were genuine, we were in possession of very sensitive material. If published, there might well be implications for national security.
So what did we have to bear in mind in deciding our next steps? These are the kinds of questions we began asking:
• Are the documents genuine? How can we find out?
• What is the nature of the information they contain? How big a potential story is this?
• If we published any or all of this information, could we be putting lives at risk, or telling Britain's enemies something which would endanger our national security?
• If we published, would we be breaking the law?
Frank and others spent the next few hours attempting to find the answers to these questions.
It seemed clear to him that the documents were the genuine article and were not fakes. This was later confirmed by officials. The senior civil servant had already reported them missing and a search was taking place for them.
One of the documents was an assessment of the state of Iraqi Security forces. It didn't seem to contain much that couldn't already be found in published academic papers. But the second paper - "Al-Qaeda Vulnerabilities", was more complex. We felt that the information it contained could endanger lives if it was made public. We also took the view that it may have helped to alert Al-Qaeda to what the British knew - and didn't know - about them, potentially compromising national security.
But we felt the main issue was the huge security breaches that must have taken place in order for the documents to pass into our hands. After other losses of confidential information by government departments, there is great public concern about information security generally. The fact of their being left so casually on a train was the most significant part of the story.
To illustrate that story on television, we needed to show the audience something of the documents. But we filmed them so as not show any of the contents. Just the title pages with the headings and security classifications.
Before we went with our story, we alerted the government to the fact the documents were in our possession and said we were prepared to return them. A little later the police arrived at Television Centre to reclaim them. We handed them over, assuring them that we had made no copies.
The member of the public who passed the documents to the BBC did us all a great favour. As a result of that action, we now know that Whitehall's procedures on handling this material are clearly at fault. No doubt they are being tightened at this moment. That member of the public presumably chose to give the material to the BBC in the knowledge that we would treat the material responsibly. I believe we did so. Imagine the consequences if the finder had chosen to put them on the internet instead.