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Quote:Stolen RAF vice files spark blackmail fear
Vetting data included drug abuse and use of prostitutes by senior officers

David Hencke, Westminster correspondent, Sunday 24 May 2009 22.30

Sensitive files detailing the extra marital affairs, drug taking and use of prostitutes by very senior officers in the RAF have been stolen, raising fears within the Ministry of Defence that personnel could be vulnerable to blackmail.

Up to 500 people in the service could be affected by the theft. They have been interviewed individually about the possible consequences to them and to their families.

Westminster correspondent David Henke talks about stolen hard disks which detail drug taking and the use of prostitutes by senior staff in the RAF Link to this audio
The potentially damaging information was stored on three computer hard drives that went missing from RAF Innsworth, Gloucestershire, last September. The files were not encrypted, so could be opened easily. The RAF disclosed the loss of the hard drives two weeks after they went missing, revealing only that the bank details and home addresses of 50,000 servicemen and women were on the computers.

It kept secret the fact that the "vetting" information about 500 staff had also disappeared. The defence secretary at the time, Des Browne, was not told, nor was Sir Richard Thomas, the then information commissioner. The details were also withheld from parliament.

But the seriousness of the potential loss, and the nature of the information, were outlined in an internal MoD memo, which was obtained under Freedom of Information legislation.

It said: "This information included details of criminal convictions, investigations, precise details of debt, medical conditions, drug abuse, use of prostitutes, extra-marital affairs including the names of third parties.

"The data is not routine vetting information, but relates to those cases that have been referred to RAF … because the individuals have serious vulnerabilities that affect their suitability to obtain/retain a security clearance. This data provides an excellent target list for foreign intelligence services, investigative journalists and blackmailers. Moreover, if the information relating to the private lives of RAF personnel, especially of some very senior officers, enters the public domain, the reputation of the service will be tarnished.

"The vetting information would be likely to generate further interest and, due to the profile of some individuals, would likely grab front page status."

Details of the ministry's internal memo will be revealed in the BBC2 programme Who's Watching You, to be broadcast at 9pm tonight. The programme will include an interview with an unnamed former serviceman who put the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Acts request to the ministry.

The requests revealed internal concern about the loss from an RAF wing commander. The source, now retired, handled top secret and highly sensitive information, including data on aircraft and ship manoeuvres in Iraq.

At the time of the theft, on 11 September 2008, the MoD took more than a fortnight to publicly disclose the loss of the 50,000 files.

The drives were kept in a secure area of the base at Innsworth, which was regularly patrolled, and they were not encrypted. They were due to be transferred to the RAF's air command headquarters at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

The ministry seems to have been encouraged by Downing Street into making any information available.

A memo on 26 September reveals: "No 10 is insisting that an announcement is made tonight and she thinks this is a fait accompli. SpAds [special advisers] here apparently on side … on principle of better to have announced (not very much) proactively than be accused of an attempted cover-up if it leaks."

The Mail on Sunday reported two days later that the theft involved the loss of personal and career details of pilots, ground staff, maintenance engineers and civil servants. It reported that Des Browne was said to be " furious" and had ordered an inquiry. However, a day later civil servants were already planning to play down the story. An update to Browne said: "Given the relative lack of media attention we do not feel at the moment that parliament will need to be informed about the suspected theft of the hard drives." In the event parliament was never informed.

The internal vetting memo, whose author and recipient have been redacted by the ministry, shows that by 2 October RAF personnel were aware of the loss of the vetting files but had decided not to tell any of the senior people affected.

Yesterday, the ministry said that they had since interviewed all the people whose vetting records were stolen to warn them of the theft – though this was not done until a few months after it occurred.

Browne, who was shown the memo by the Guardian, said he was not aware of the loss before he was replaced by John Hutton as defence secretary on 3 October. Nor do any documents suggest his private office was informed.

The MoD yesterday defended its decision not to acknowledge that the sensitive personal information had been stolen.

In a statement to the programme, the MoD said: "Every data loss incident is extremely regrettable and treated with the utmost seriousness. The response to the incident was at the highest levels of the department. Our two concerns were to ensure that any person affected was made aware as quickly as possible, while at the same time not placing into the public domain unnecessarily detailed information about the nature of the data.

"This would have only served to compound the loss and alert potential criminals to the potential value of the missing data."

He added: "This incident occurred during the summer recess when parliament was not in session. The department have made no secret of this incident. We placed information prominently on the MoD and RAF websites and activated an emergency helpline to assist personnel with concerns."

In a further statement to the Guardian, the ministry added: "All individuals identified as being at risk received personal one-on-one interviews to alert them to the loss of data, to discuss potential threats and to provide them with advice on mitigating action.

"There is no evidence to suggest that the information held on the hard drive believed to have been stolen from the secure … site at MoD Innsworth has been targeted by criminal or hostile elements."

The spokesman confirmed that the people involved were from the senior ranks who had been vetted at the highest level because they had access to top secret information. The information commissioner's office confirmed that they had not been told about the loss of the vetting files, only that personal details of servicemen and women had been stolen.

A statement yesterday about the disclosure said: "People's personal information must be properly protected … personal information sometimes has a value on the open market and can be a toxic liability."
The revelations prompt several questions, none of which are currently being asked by MSM.

For starters:

i) Why were such files, with details of serious misconduct or personal misbehaviour, being held by an unspecified military unit?

ii) If senior officers were known to be guilty of offences such as drugtaking, why were they still employed as senior officers?

Of course such "personal misbehaviour" files provide leverage for those who own the information over those who "misbehaved".

It's a dirty game....