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Top-secret files

Fran Unsworth Fran Unsworth | 17:43 UK time, Thursday, 12 June 2008

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.

Top-secret documentsThe 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Of course, one of your own correspondents was heard to say on Five Live that the most exciting thing about these documents was the Top Secret strap across the top...

    One piece of television news footage was slightly dubious too. It showed the documents being handed over to the police and placed into an evidence bag - outside the main entrance to reception at Television Centre. Surely this was grandstanding; should this not have been done in a much more secure environment?!

  • Comment number 2.

    Am I just getting cynical in my old age?

    Strange how, whenever the Bush Administration started to get into some form of political trouble there was a "security scare". Now it seems the UK government is doing the same... the timing of this find about the threat of terrorism and the 42 day debate is immensely convenient.

  • Comment number 3.


    Interesting blog!

    How can a government loss a such a senstitive file....

  • Comment number 4.

    This Govt. can lose anything. There definitely needs to be vastly improved security from the top down. Any chance of the Police using the new 42 day detention on the bosses and supervisors? I doubt it. The terrorist legislation is only being used on parents and those who put the wrong rubbish in dustbins.
    And Kelvin McKenzie thinks all is well in 1984 UK

  • Comment number 5.

    Major broadcasters have enormous power but a clear responsibility. Highly confidential files especially related to security should be treated with the utmost care and integrity.Nevertheless this news story highlights human errors, carelessness and gross individual neglience. More than the lack of security procedures and rules. Whitehall needs to get its act together! National security is at stake!

  • Comment number 6.

    Did the BBC consulted the approriate departments in the BBC Bureaux regarding on how to report this story.

  • Comment number 7.

    It would be interesting to know how to paper goes from the person who found them on the train to Frank Gardner? Did they go through lots of different people at the Beeb, or did the person who found them hand them to Frank personally?

  • Comment number 8.

    Oh come on..................The loss of TS material on the same train line in the same you not think the BBC are being made scapegoats!!! come on not even the BBC could be that stupid...................could they!!! Look around no other news network is commenting on this issue!!!

  • Comment number 9.


    there could be a part 2 to the story:

    question: what is the security services doing
    to protect the national (and) international secrets.

  • Comment number 10.

    laptops missing .... files left on trains .... child benefit data cds lost ..... should we really be even considering the use of british ID computer cards ??
    oneparentfamily group

  • Comment number 11.

    Can the BBC stop treating us as nieve? The people that gave them to you and to the Independant have broken the Official Secrets Act themselves: they should have given the papers to the Police. Why did they not do so? Those were deliberate and calculated leaks.

  • Comment number 12.

    Following on from SurbitonSteve's comments.
    There Is another way at looking at this and that Is the LEAKS have come just at the RIGHT TIME to have a GO AT Labour and the more you look at It the more that It looks like a SET UP,as for the other either LEAKS or TOP SECRET papers that are either lost or stolen.
    If you check the History of when the Conservatives were In Power. Files and Information were leaked and at times on a regular basis and especially If Labour were In Political trouble.
    It's obvious that the TOP SECRET Document was left by mistake as no one would deliberately put there JOB AT RISK. But as to the others watch the politics between the parties and see how often these things happen!!!:-( how sad has politics become.

    Then BOTH Parties wonder why VOTERS are not turning OUT to Vote at Election's no-matter whether there General Election's or Local By-Election's as I've said HOW SAD.

  • Comment number 13.

    To leave one set of secret documents on a train Ms. Smith, may be regarded as a misfortune; to leave two looks like deliberateness.
    And another thing, the handover of the documents at the BBC was farcical, how many fingers must have handled them previously, so what was the purple gloves and plastic bag all about, just a stunt for the cameras?

  • Comment number 14.

    Re #10: As Jimmy Carr observed, why do we need a card with our fingerprints and retinas anyway? We all carry them around without the need for a card!

    Re#11: You can't break the OSA if you haven't signed it first!

  • Comment number 15.

    In response to a separate email it was suggested that Frank Gardner "needed" to read them to calibrate just how sensitive they were. Doesn't the classification make the opinion of the authors clear? By the way, I hope only one BBC individual, Frank Gardner, read the documents. Seems to me that the BBC is getting above itself.

    And actually we do not "know that Whitehall's procedures on handling this material are clearly at fault". It seems that someone disregarded some perfectly clear procedures and it would require some sort of document tagging or electronic encryption to prevent people ignoring procedures.

  • Comment number 16.

    Do you know something it cracks me up, obviously this is a very serious breach of security but unfortunately the ho hay henries of the ministry of defence will sit in their posh clubs with their posh pink gins gwarfing over the snafu of this plonka he'll get a slapped wrist and the luxury of bragging he dropped a klanger. he's stupid enough to not realise he had put the life's of thousands of very brave men and women at risk.
    Now think of the other scenario if it was someone of a lower rank they probably would have lost their job or have gone to prison even both. they probably would have found it next to impossible to get a job, because their bosses would have been so indignant, puffing out their collective chests and flagged that persons work record as untrustworthy.
    So come on lets play fair for once and expect nothing less for this irresponsible nerk.

  • Comment number 17.

    I heard on the radio "Incredibly, 2 Top Secret files were lost on the same day".

    Indeed, incredible. The files were planted either:

    a) deliberately via a government agent to garner support for the 42 day detention (and suspension of Habeus Corpus);


    b) er... actually, I cannot think of any other reason why they were deliberately planted.

    But it is too incredible that they were "lost" the same day.

  • Comment number 18.

    Hand it over to the police. Probably the correct way but would it ever have come to public notice if they had. The Police have signed the OSA so theoretically they could not tell the media. And you an be certain that this Govt is not going to broadcast their incompetence.
    Just as well i was done the way it was!

  • Comment number 19.

    Why would the government have planted them there to gain support for 42 days when it works so badly against them? A desperate idea from a parties supporter desperate to find as many insults as possible to the Government

    As with all these stories it is an individuals incompetence or design. that has led to this security breach. The timing is a little suspicious so soon after the 42 day vote.

    With these documents and the stolen computer with the wrongly emailed document. my suspicions are that someone might be trying to set up the government. Could be wrong though.

    Was it found on the train in that big bright orange 'look at me' folder on TV news covered handover? and why was it taken to the BBC? The person who found it definitely had a political agenda.

  • Comment number 20.

    "But it is too incredible that they were "lost" the same day."

    I agree.

    I think they were a plant of MI5/6.

    Terrorists could be planning something. If they thought that MI5/6 were onto their plan then they might abandon the mission.

    The Germans were told where and when the D-Day Invasion was to take place. Yet they ignored it as misinformation from British Spies.


    Why go to the BBC with the files?
    That is strange. The BBC do not pay for news stories. Why did they not take them to The Times or Telegraph?

    If someone found plans for a dirty bomb attack in Britain I would like to think they would go to the police first not the BBC.

  • Comment number 21.

    Hi Haydon, thanks for the comment. I think going to the BBC with the discovered files is a perfectly acceptable response for a member of the public. Note that 2 separately files were lost, the other turned in (by someone else) to the Independent.

    I don't understand dhwilkinson's comment that the person finding (one) file had a political agenda. I think the person leaking the documents had an agenda: more government fear mungering about terrorists and Iran's WMDs.

    (While terrorism should be fought, it should not be at the expense of giving up our Human Rights)

  • Comment number 22.

    Listening to the comments on the Today Program about this story, it is nice to know that the civil servant responsible could possibly be disciplined, and this could even affect their career prospects.

    I am being sarcastic. They should be summarily fired and lose their pension rights too, just as they would be in the private sector. It is quite scary how accurate "Yes, Minister" was..........

  • Comment number 23.

    Why can't you get the transliteration from the Arabic correct, even when, right in front of you, there's a better example to follow?

    "Qaeda" is undoubtedly wrong - there's no 'e' in Arabic. (There is an 'i' and an 'ee' but no 'e'.) The closest transliteration would perhaps be al-Qa`ida, with the backtick indicating the Arabic letter `yn or ayn, and some media do follow this (e.g. The Independent). However, the compromise displayed prominently at the top of the secret report is a reasonable one: al-Qaida.

    All the BBC has to do is copy it!

  • Comment number 24.

    To answer your questions: it would have broken many laws on the information you presented...


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