Widespread bugging by authorities

The inside story of how and why one MP was bugged reveals that eavesdropping by the authorities in Britain is far more widespread than suspected – and that no one is immune

The Special Branch officer’s instructions were precise, according to sources who have revealed new details of the case this weekend. Kearney was told to “keep an eye out for” Sadiq Khan, who would be making a request to visit an inmate in the next few days. The antiterrorist squad, Kearney was told, wanted Khan’s meeting to be recorded covertly.

Kearney was unhappy. He was being asked to bug the private conversations of Khan, a prominent Muslim civil rights lawyer who had recently been elected as a Labour MP. The man Khan was due to visit was one of his constituents.

Kearney attempted to complain, but his boss was away and he felt under pressure. “I did record the visit,” Kearney wrote in a statement, “but have never felt it was justified.”

When The Sunday Times revealed the incident last week, it sparked uproar. MPs believed that they were protected from such spying under an agreement established in the 1960s by Harold Wilson, then Labour prime minister. The Wilson doctrine, as it became known, was reconfirmed in 2006 when Tony Blair declared in parliament that there would be no eavesdropping on MPs.

As Jack Straw, the justice minister, promised a full inquiry into the Woodhill bugging, the authorities tried to limit the damage. They claimed that Khan had been bugged only by accident. Police sources said he was a victim of “collateral intrusion” — ie, caught up in the bugging of the prisoner he was visiting: Babar Ahmad, a suspected terrorist.

The distinction is important. Spying on a terrorist suspect is one thing; spying on an MP accused of no crime is quite another.

Khan believes he was not accidentally caught up in the monitoring of Ahmad, however. His friends believe he was deliberately targeted for being a civil rights campaigner and a thorn in the side of the police.

“It beggars belief they did not know who I was,” Khan said yesterday.

A source in the prison intelligence unit said: “This is bugging by the back door.”

Since Downing Street and the Home Office claim to have known nothing about the bugging, the implications are far-reaching. If an MP can be deliberately bugged simply on the say-so of police officers, is anyone safe in modern Britain from being spied on?

THE public are led to believe that surveillance and bugging are strictly controlled in Britain. Warrants must be obtained, permission given by ministers and safeguards met. A number of important-sounding watchdogs, such as the surveillance commissioner, report annually that the rules are being properly met and all is well.

The truth is that the law and standards for different types of surveillance vary enormously.

To bug your home telephone or e-mail in the UK, spies need a warrant authorised by a secretary of state, usually at the Home Office. About 1,800 such warrants are issued each year.

Many other methods of spying are permitted with far lower safeguards. Your car can be bugged on the authorisation of a senior officer in the security services or the police. Covert surveillance in a public place can be conducted just on the say-so of a senior officer. Informants can also be recruited on the authorisation of a senior officer.

Tens of thousands of such operations take place each year (including the recruitment of 435 informants by local authorities in 2005-6). Lesser surveillance, such as examining telephone records and other data, occurs in hundreds of thousands of cases.

In prisons the authorities have been allowed to intercept the telephone calls and mail of prisoners for years. But they have also developed far more subtle methods of spying.

In 2003, after a long career with Thames Valley police, Kearney was put in charge of what was called the police intelligence unit at Woodhill. It ran a sophisticated eavesdropping system. Prisoners and their visitors could be secretly recorded at “talking tables” in the main visitors’ room. The partition panels of eight tables had been hollowed out to hide microphones, batteries, antennae and transmitters.

In a witness statement for an unrelated court case that he is now facing, Kearney declares: “Keeping the covert recording devices [secreted into the visitor tables] working was always problematic. It involved working late quite often so that we could covertly gain access to the tables for maintenance.”

Officers were listening to as many as 10 visits a day. Kearney’s statement, seen by The Sunday Times, says: “There was continual pressure to provide investigators with products of the technical facilities available within the prisons.”

This weekend there were further claims that hundreds of lawyers had been bugged during visits to see their clients in British prisons. If it could be proved legally privileged conversations had been taped, then defence lawyers might move for cases to be retried.

While the extent of the surveillance might be surprising, it was not illegal. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, senior police officers can authorise such bugging without a warrant from a government minister.

In 2004 Babar Ahmad, a Muslim computer expert who worked at Imperial College, London, was sent to Woodhill on remand while he faced extradition to the United States. The American authorities had accused him of running a website that raised funds for Taliban and Chechen terrorists in the late 1990s.

Although Ahmad was charged with no offence in Britain, Sir David Veness, then Scotland Yard’s head of counterterrorism, granted permission to bug his conversations. The authorisation had to be renewed every three months and was subsequently granted by Andy Hayman, who took over from Veness in 2005. Hayman recently left the Metropolitan police after a row over his expenses.

The bugging by Kearney and his team at first concentrated on visits by Ahmad’s family, who often discussed legal issues with him, and a complaint he had filed that he had been beaten when he was arrested. Yet any legal discussions are privileged and should not be recorded or, if they are recorded, no use should be made of the material.

Ahmad was also in contact with Khan, who had been a friend since childhood in south London. There was no love lost between Khan and the police. As a young lawyer he had pursued a series of cases on behalf of ethnic minority police officers who won compensation from Scotland Yard for malpractice and discrimination. He became well known to Sir Ian Blair, the Met commissioner, and other senior officers.

Although Khan did not support Ahmad’s radical views, he did believe that Ahmad was being held in prison unfairly. The 2003 Extradition Act allows the United States to extradite British citizens — such as Ahmad — without having first to prove in the UK courts that there is a case to answer.

When Khan arrived at the prison in May 2005 to see Ahmad, he signed in as normal. Last week senior sources in Scotland Yard suggested that Khan signed in as a “family friend” and did not make it clear that he was an MP. The implication again was that Khan was not deliberately targeted for bugging.

The accounts of Khan and Kearney suggest otherwise. First, Khan says that when he applied to visit Ahmad, the police vetted him at home. Visitors to category A prisons may be checked to confirm their identity — so the police knew exactly who he was.

“Met Special Branch knew he [Khan] was coming before we did,” said a prison source. “They called [Kearney] to say, ‘Over the next few days an MP called Sadiq Khan will be visiting’. We were told to keep an eye out for him and bug the meeting.” Khan had recently been elected MP for Tooting, and Kearney alleges that Special Branch was well aware that it was asking for an MP to be bugged. In his witness statement he writes that he was under “significant pressure from the Metropolitan police, requesting that we covertly record a social visit between a terrorist detainee and a member of parliament”.

When Khan entered the prison’s visiting room on a Saturday morning in late May, he was seated opposite Ahmad at one of the “talking tables”.

The conversation was beamed up to a receiver in the domed ceiling. It was then relayed to a room in the prison where Kearney was listening in through head-phones. A dual-track tape recorder was running.

At the end a master tape was removed and sealed with a unique serial number. The second tape, the working copy, was later collected by a Special Branch officer. The paperwork to go with the tapes includes details of visitors and a section for any remarks.

Khan was bugged in the same way on a second visit to the prison in June 2006. On that occasion he was seated at another talking table.

IN early December David Davis, the shadow home affairs spokesman, was contacted by an MP who had heard about the bugging operation.

Davis fired off a letter to Gordon Brown seeking further information. Last week Downing Street claimed it had never received the letter and had known nothing of the bugging operation.

By then MPs were agitated by the revelations in The Sunday Times. The bugging was raised three times during prime minister’s questions last Wednesday.

Ann Cryer, a veteran Labour MP with many Muslims in her Keighley constituency, summed up the mood of the Commons: “Our constituents must be assured that they can talk to us in confidence.”

The government blamed the police and last week the police were claiming multiple excuses. As well as saying that Ahmad was their target, not Khan, police sources also suggested that the Wilson doctrine had not been breached. They said the doctrine applied only to telephone tapping, not bugging in prisons.

This was highly disingenuous. The 2005-6 report of the interception of communications commissioner — which covers the date when Khan was bugged — discussed the Wilson doctrine at length.

It made clear that the doctrine was still in force and said: “It has been confirmed that the doctrine applies to all forms of communication, to members of the House of Lords and to electronic eavesdropping by the intelligence agencies.”

In the same report the commissioner, Sir Swinton Thomas, who was stepping down after six years, attacked MPs for putting themselves “above the law”.

He said: “The doctrine means that MPs and peers can engage in serious crime or terrorism without running the risk of being investigated in the same way as any other member of the public.”

Thomas lauded the “striking successes” and “benefits” of bugging and boasted that he could “personally ensure that there was no improper interception of the communications of any public figure”.

It appears he was mistaken. The Khan case raises questions beyond MPs. How many lawyers also have their supposedly privileged conversations bugged? Would members of the public even know if they had been improperly bugged? And do they have any meaning-ful methods of redress?

The task of unravelling what happened to Khan has been handed to Sir Christopher Rose, the chief surveillance commissioner and a former lord justice of appeal. He has been given just two weeks to report. As of last Friday he had not even approached Kearney.

You are being watched: the many forms of surveillance that make Britain ‘similar to Russia’

Targeted bugging and interception

Involves interception of private calls, e-mails, letters and other communications on public networks.

Within the UK this can be done lawfully only with a warrant authorised by the secretary of state for the purposes of national security, preventing a serious crime or protecting the economic wellbeing of the country.

Applications for warrants can be made only by or on behalf of the heads of MI5, MI6, Defence Intelligence, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the National Criminal Intelligence Service, chief constables and a few others, including overseas authorities engaged in “international mutual assistance”.

Between April and December 2006, 1,333 warrants were issued and 24 errors were recorded. They included cases where MI5 and HM Revenue & Customs bugged the wrong numbers because of administrative mistakes.

Other forms of intrusive surveillance, such as bugging in prison or covert observation in a public place, can be authorised initially by senior officials or police officers. They must then be approved by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners.

Global eavesdropping

GCHQ runs a network of listening posts and powerful computers engaged in signals intelligence. Its website says: “It’s hard for an outsider to imagine the immense size and sheer power of GCHQ’s supercomputing architecture.” The systems can search vast amounts of telecommunications for key words and locations and are believed to be capable of voice identification.

The secretary of state authorises GCHQ to target communications only outside the UK. But the line between what is internal and external is not always clear. GCHQ also works closely with America’s National Security Agency which may have no qualms about monitoring UK citizens.


Many of the things we do, from communications to travel to shopping, leave records on computer databases that can be easily searched and cross-checked. The intelligence services, 52 police forces, HM Revenue & Customs, 474 local authorities and more than 100 other authorities are allowed to access communications and other data. Requests can be authorised by senior officials.

The government is intent on creating huge new databases. The National Health Service is building one to hold all patients’ health records, accessible from anywhere in the country. Contactpoint, a scheme to register every child’s name, address, gender, birth date and other details, is due to start later this year.

Since 2003 the police have had the power to take and keep fingerprints and DNA samples from everyone arrested, regardless of guilt or innocence. The fingerprint database contains more than 6m sets of prints. The DNA database contains genetic profiles of 4.2m individuals.

The government is also intent on a national identity register and ID card scheme. It will require everyone resident in the UK for more than three months to register their details on a central database.

Visual surveillance

The UK has about 4.2m CCTV cameras. The police want a comprehensive automatic numberplate recognition system. Techniques for automatically identifying individuals from photographs are improving fast. The facial images national database is due to be up and running next year.

Privacy International, a human rights watchdog, ranks Britain only fractionally below Russia and China for levels of surveillance.