A senior Whitehall official who left highly classified intelligence documents about al-Qaida and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces on a train was fined £2,500 yesterday by Westminster magistrates court after admitting negligence.
Richard Jackson, 37, of Yateley, Hampshire, who had been seconded from the Ministry of Defence to the Cabinet Office, was charged under a section of the Official Secrets Act covering the safeguarding of information. It is the first prosecution of its kind and it had been assumed in Whitehall he would be disciplined by internal procedures rather than charged under the criminal law. The court heard he had already taken a ‘drastic’ pay cut and effectively been demoted by three grades.
The two joint intelligence committee documents were left on a London Waterloo to Surrey train on June 10.
They were found inside an orange cardboard envelope on a train by a member of the public who passed them to the BBC’s security correspondent, Frank Gardner. He subsequently reported the loss. A damage assessment carried out by the Cabinet Office found the loss had the ‘potential to damage national security and the UK’s international relationships but to date this appears negligible’, the court heard.
District judge Timothy Workman said: ‘Had there been real risks to national security a custodial sentence, possibly suspended, would have been inevitable.’ He said he had taken into account Jackson’s good character, remorse, full cooperation and guilty plea. ‘I am conscious that he has already paid a heavy penalty, a significant reduction in income and damage to his own and his family’s health,’ the judge said.
Jackson, who had a previous warning for not locking secret files in his safe, had accidentally picked up the files with some other papers as he left the office on June 9 and did not realise he had them until he was almost home, the court heard.
As he returned them to the office the next morning he put the folder on the train seat beside him, then got off at Waterloo without them. By the time he realised he had forgotten them the train was already on its way to Woking. He then spent the day frantically visiting lost property offices in the hope of recovering the files.
Neil Saunders, defending, said his client accepted his mistake but ‘there was never any risk to any lives whatsoever’. He said: ‘He was under extreme pressure at this time and it may well be partly because of his own role, the team he was leading and the work he was being asked to conduct that he has made this gross error of judgment.’
Deborah Walsh, prosecuting, said Jackson, who has been sent back to the MoD, did not report the loss of the files until the next day as his superiors were abroad. She added: ‘There’s ample evidence that Mr Jackson failed to take such care to prevent the unauthorised disclosure of the documents as somebody in his position may reasonably be expected to take.’
One of the documents was a seven-page assessment on al-Qaida. The other was described by Gardner at the time as a ‘top-secret and in some cases damning’ assessment of Iraq’s security forces.
Jackson had permission to take the documents out of the office as long as sufficient security was provided, meaning a locked box, Whitehall officials said.