Detectives called in to investigate how a corrupt colleague gained access to secret phone transcripts for a criminal had to trace 396 officers from 35 forces to find out what had happened to secret records that should have been destroyed.
The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), which controls phone taps under the 1985 Interception of Communications Act, moved quickly yesterday to assure the public that all the records had now been accounted for, but it could do nothing to hide the apparent lapses in security over the most sensitive information available to police forces.
John Stevens, the former chief constable of Northumbria, was called in to investigate by NCIS in December 1995 after it emerged that lawyers acting for John Donald, a former South East Regional Crime Squad officer, had details of a phone tap on a criminal who was paying him. Donald, who should not have had access to the records, was subsequently jailed for 11 years for corruption.
Under interception legislation, senior officers are allowed to examine the transcripts of bugging operations and can make notes to take away in specially issued and logged notebooks which must be returned and destroyed at the end of investigations. However, when he began his inquiry, Mr Stevens found that around 900 notebooks had apparently not been returned. The only administrative system was a ledger that was woefully incomplete.
During a 12-month inquiry involving 12 Northumbria detectives, all the unaccounted for notebooks were either tracked down or "accounted for". Asked whether some of the notebooks were traced to detectives' "offices, garages or bedrooms", one officer in the inquiry smiled and nodded.
Albert Pacey, the director-general of NCIS who called in Mr Stevens's team, said the inquiry had found no evidence that any information had been lost or that any investigations were compromised by the circulation of notebooks. "As a result of the lapse, Mr Stevens has made a large number of recommendations, all of which I have accepted," said Mr Pacey.
Mr Stevens, who examined Customs and Excise controls on phone taps as part of his inquiry, said: "We interviewed 396 serving or retired officers from 35 of the 43 forces and I am satisfied that all the original material has been accounted for. That does not mean that there are not photocopies about."
"I wish this had not happened," said Mr Pacey. "But at least I can reassure the public by pointing out that, as soon as we realised something was wrong, we called an outside force in to conduct an inquiry, we reported ourselves to the Parliamentary Commissioner and we alerted the media to show that we are fully accountable. Nothing was swept under the carpet.
"Now, with new safeguards in place or on the way, we will do our best to ensure there are no similar problems in the future."