Military's top secrets may be privatised

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Highly sensitive computer operations for the Ministry of Defence could be contracted out to private companies under plans being considered by the Government.

Among the operations whose intelligence-gathering would be privatised are some administrative sections of GCHQ, the Government's electronic listening centre, and the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre, which gathers top-secret satellite images.

According to today's issue of Computer Weekly, which has a proven track record of uncovering government plans to outsource information technology operations, officials at the Resources Planning Centre within the MoD's offices in London have been preparing a feasibility study on contracting out the work for the Chief of Defence Intelligence, Major-General Sir John Foley.

Last night, the MoD said contracting out would relate only to "certain non-core activities mainly in the area of routine information systems and information technology support.

"It would have nothing whatever to do with national security," a spokesman said.

However, Computer Weekly's sources within the MoD have revealed that "non-core" activities include the collation of highly sensitive, and in some cases secret, intelligence.

"The MoD regards strategy and policy-making as 'core' and the IT support of those decisions to be 'non-core'," said Tony Collins of Computer Weekly. "Some people, even within the MoD, find it hard to distinguish between the two. I understand that routine matters like payroll and personnel would be contracted out. But even that has been described as sensitive information in the past. If you have access to the payroll, then you know who works where and when."

According to Mr Collins's sources, IT support for intelligence staff in the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force, MoD staff in London and bases in Gibraltar and Cyprus would be affected. The Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre at Brampton, Cambridgeshire, and the Military Survey would also be involved. Both gather pin-point satellite mapping information used in planning attacks and for the programming of cruise missiles such as those used this week against Iraq.

No figure has been put on the contract, but it is thought to run into hundreds of millions of pounds. A small number of companies have been approached to tender, one of which is understood to be Electronic Data Systems, or EDS, the company formally owned by the American billionaire, Ross Perot. EDS has already won government contracts for IT services within the Inland Revenue and the Department of Social Security.

Dr David Clark, the shadow Defence Secretary, said he planned to tackle the Government over the proposed changes when Parliament re-convened. "This is privatisation madness," he said. "We checked this out and found it to be true, although the MoD is backtracking a bit now.

"They say the systems involved will only relate to administration, but where do you draw the line between administration and intelligence? If you are sending X to Moscow three times a week and X claims travel expenses, then that is administration, but it could tell you an awful lot about intelligence operations."