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Leaks: three of five

Data leakage or loss in the pre-cyber age throws light on how information – and therefore its securing – was, well within living memory, solely on paper. The file Prem 15/640 at the National Archives shows what could go wrong; and what did.

Sir Burke Trend (Cabinet Secretary) wrote a memo to Robert Armstrong (principal private secretary to the prime minister Edward Heath) on October 25, 1971 about JIC (that is, secret intelligence) files found by Fison’s. Standing instructions covered how security containers (filing cabinets in other words) were to be ‘thoroughly checked when emptied for removal or disposal’. ‘It is clear that on this occasion there was a failure to observe these instructions in both the JIC Registry and the accommodation section of the Cabinet Office [the cabinets had gone from Downing Street] but it is not possible to identify the individuals concerned …”

That meant the civil service could not start disciplinary procedures against anyone guilty of not taking files out before the finished-with office furniture was sold to Fison’s in Loughborough, for the second-hand market. And as Trend’s memo went on, ‘although further inquiries can be made, they would involve approaching Fison’s which would increase the risk of publicity without necessarily taking us any further. But the staff in the sections concerned have been reminded very clearly of the serious view which is taken of the incident’.

In true civil service style, the memo went on to minimise the loss; the files that had left government hands were closed; and Trend also blamed ‘recruitment problems’. Heath asked who was responsible; why were files not missed?

The paper trail as a result of the loss of documents – they left Downing Street ‘fairly recently’ Trend wrote to Armstrong on October 18 – does shed light on what happened to government paperwork usually. The filing cabinet would have gone to a Department of Employment store, before delivery on to Fison’s. What data did government hold? The missing files included a document on the Bossard and Allen spy case. Some information may have been compromised, Trend went on; such as, the fact that the government intelligence agency GCHQ had a ‘sigint’ [signals intelligence] function, and that GCHQ and the United States authorities co-operated. While common knowledge now, that was not so in 1970 in the height of the Cold War against the Soviet bloc. But in the ‘considered view of those concerned’, including GCHQ, ‘no serious damage has occurred’; only in terms of publicity.

The story began inside central government on October 1, 1971 when Trend wrote to Armstrong that Fison’s had reported that two surplus cabinets contained two ‘top secret’ files, since recovered back by the authorities. The other file contained ‘a few papers discussing the security gradings of intelligence information on Soviet and Chinese missiles and space activity’. That file, and the spy one, contained ‘codeword material’. Trend could only hope ‘that not too much damage has in fact been done’. And Trend promised ‘a very searching inquiry’.

These senior civil servants were plainly alive to the danger of embarrassing publicity. “It is just possible that in the current atmosphere of intensive curiosity about spies this incident will get into the Press. if so I do not think that we can deny that Fison’s have told us of their discovery but we should avoid being drawn as far as possible about the detailed implications and we should try to play the whole thing down as much as we can …”

Heath scribbled a note ‘please keep me informed immediately of any developments’. As that is all the file holds, we can gather there were no more developments. It did show how nervous government was of the press and public finding out its business. Also, that the bread and butter of a prime minister’s administration was pieces of paper – and that any loss of control of the contents bothered Heath. Also, the attitude to security mirrored the style of government – any government, of whatever political colour, that prized keeping facts to itself, and even the way it carried out its affairs – because such pieces of info might have a use to unfriendly powers, if they helped a foreign intelligence agency to make better sense of how Britain managed its secret intelligence-gathering.

Next: it began with a story in the Daily Mirror …


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