Demands were made in Parliament yesterday for the police investigation into illegal information-gathering at the News of the World to be widened as MPs heard claims that senior political and public figures were targeted by a notorious private investigator working for Rupert Murdoch’s News International.
The Independent understands that they include Tony Blair while he was prime minister, senior Metropolitan Police officers, a Governor of the Bank of England and Kate Middleton.
Jonathan Rees, 56, whose shadowy detective agency earned £150,000 a year from the News of the World, was previously believed to have targeted celebrities using illicit surveillance techniques, which allegedly included burglary, computer hacking and false representation.
The suggestion that he was snooping on a serving prime minister on behalf of newspapers will place Scotland Yard under intense pressure to include his activities in Operation Weeting, the ongoing police inquiry into phone hacking by the NOTW.
The former Defence Minister Tom Watson told the Commons yesterday that he believed News International was implicated in Rees’s work and claimed that there was an attempt to thwart police from investigating.
As the normally raucous chamber fell silent, the Labour MP told the Prime Minister: “I believe powerful forces are involved in a cover-up. Please tell me what you intend to do to make sure that does not happen.” David Cameron replied that Scotland Yard was free to pursue the evidence wherever it led.
Scotland Yard last night issued a statement confirming that since the launch of Weeting in January it had received “a number of allegations” about intrusions of privacy that fell outside its remit. A spokesman said: “These allegations are currently being considered.”
The Independent’s investigation, spanning the period 1997 to 2005 and gathered after contacts with journalists and private detectives, indicates that Rees targeted several leading figures in Tony Blair’s government. They included the Downing Street communications director Alistair Campbell, Jack Straw while he was Home Secretary and Peter Mandelson, who was overseeing take-overs and commercially sensitive decisions at the Department of Trade and Industry.
Rees, who was earlier this year cleared of murdering his former business partner, is also thought to have accessed the private financial accounts of two very senior figures at the Bank of England and targeted the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir John Stevens.
Until now, the Yard has concentrated on the activities of Glenn Mulcaire, the amateur footballer turned private investigator who was paid by the NOTW to hack into the mobile phone voicemails of celebrities and public figures including the former Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell.
But the Metropolitan Police, which was heavily criticised for its limited original investigation of Mr Mulcaire, is refusing to investigate the trove of surveillance data detailling Rees’s dealings with the NOTW and other Fleet Street titles, including the Daily Mirror, gathered while it was secretly investgating him for alleged murder and police corruption.
The private detective, who employed a network of corrupt police officers, is understood to have used a range of techniques from his office in an unglamorous corner of south London including the planting of Trojan viruses contained within emails to read data on computers and employing a “blagger” to trick banks into revealing details of accounts held by high-profile individuals, including members of the Royal Family.
Mr Watson said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, the officer leading Operation Weeting, had told him that the activities of Mr Rees may well fall outside her remit.
He said: “The Metropolitan Police are in possession of paperwork which details the dealings of criminal private investigator Jonathan Rees. It strongly suggests that on behalf of News International he was illegally targeting members of the Royal Family, senior politicians and high-level terrorist informants. Yet the head Operation Weeting has recently written to me to explain that this evidence may be outside her terms of reference.”
Mr Cameron said he was unaware of any terms of reference governing the Met’s investigation, adding: “They are able to look at any evidence and all evidence they can find.”
Rees was a key figure in a network of private detectives working for Britain’s newspapers in the 1990s and the last decade. After a period of earning six-figure sums from the NOTW and frequent commissions from other titles, he was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in December 2000 after he was caught plotting to frame a former model by planting cocaine in her car.
After he was released from jail in 2004, only News International continued to employ the disgraced investigator after he was rehired by the NOTW under the editorship of Andy Coulson, who resigned from that role in 2007 after taking responsibility for the phone hacking scandal. Coulson, who has always denied any knowledge of Mr Mulcaire’s activities, resigned as Mr Cameron’s director of communications in January over continuing disclosures which destroyed the NOTW’s insistence hacking had been restricted to a single “rogue” reporter.
The dossier of evidence compiled about Mr Rees suggests that illicit newsgathering techniques were more serious and widespread even that suggested by the phone hacking affair, in which the NOTW eavesdropped on a swath of public figures including Princes William and Harry and Sienne Miller.
Rees’s alleged political activities encompassed a far wider range of politicians than Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Trade Secretary. Among the other targets were the former Conservative MP David Mellor, who as the former national heritage secretary threatened tighter regulation of the press and who was subsequently disgraced for his affair with an actress obtained with the help of covert recording equipment.
Gerald Kauffman, the Labour MP who chaired the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport - whose remit includes newspapers - between 1992 and 2005, may also have been targeted by Mr Rees along with Gaynor Regan, the mistress and later wife of Robin Cook, the senior Labour MP and Foreign Secretary.
Among police, his suspected targets included Sir John Stevens, now Baron Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, the career policeman who sought to root our corruption and incompetence at the Met when he ran the UK’s biggest police force between 2000 and 2005.
He also allegedly targeted Assistant Commissioner John Yates, the most senior counter-terrorism officer. Mr Yates was criticised by MPs for failing to re-open the investigation into phone hacking last year following the discovery of secret settlements between News International and the publicist Max Clifford and Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association.
Another figure believe to have been targeted was Ian Hurst, an ex-British Army intelligence officer who had been running informers in an undercover unit in Northern Ireland. After he left the intelligence service, Mr Hurst was in close contact with Alfredo Scappaticci, or Stakeknife, an IRA informant whose cover was blown, forcing him to move between a series of safe houses.
At the Bank of England, the private investigator is suspected of conducting illict inquiries into members of the Monetary Policy Committee, which sets interest rates.
Southern Investigations are believed to have obtained financial details of the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Kent and his wife the Duchess of Kent.
Bank account information was also allegedly sought on the seventh in line to the throne Prince Edward and his wife Sophie who were the subject of press speculation about their finances.
Information was sought on Kate Middleton, amid speculation that Prince William was about to announce their engagement.
Rees’s secret work for newspapers could only be reported following his trial for the murder of his former business partner, Daniel Morgan, which collapsed earlier this year following mistakes by Scotland Yard.
News International said: “It is well documented that Jonathan Rees and Southern Investigations worked for a whole variety of newspaper groups. With regards to Tom Watson's specific allegations, we believe these are wholly inaccurate. The Met Police, with whom we are co-operating fully in Operation Weeting, have not asked us for any information regarding Jonathan Rees.”
Jonathan Rees and the media
March 1987 Daniel Morgan, Rees's business partner, is murdered in a south London pub car park. Detectives investigate claims that he was about to expose police corruption.
April 1999 Launch of Operation Nigeria, a new investigation into the murder and the sale of illegally-obtained information by Rees to newspapers.
September 2000 Rees is convicted, along with a detective, of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. No journalists are charged.
May 2004 Rees is released and re-employed by the NOTW under Andy Coulson.
January 2005 Glenn Mulcaire begins to hack the voicemails of celebrities on behalf of the NOTW.
August 2006 Mulcaire is arrested and convicted of illegally accessing phone messages.
April 2008 Rees is charged with the murder of Morgan, and three years later is acquitted. Scotland Yard confirms it has several hundred thousand pages of evidence from its investigations.