Exclusive: BBC's Panorama team loses confidential information relating to a secret British Army unit

A researcher allegedly downloaded material from an online dropbox service on to a USB stick and handed it to a third party

Highly sensitive and confidential information relating to a secret British Army unit which is alleged to have shot unarmed civilians in Northern Ireland has been “lost” by the BBC’s investigative team on the Panorama programme.

The material, which includes information on former soldiers from the controversial Military Reaction Force, leaked out following a lapse in security.

It is understood that at least one former serviceman from the elite unit has had his identity compromised. 

The notoriously secretive MRF included men from the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Service, the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment.

Names and details of other senior military figures – in addition to those who served with the MRF – were also contained in the compromised file.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is investigating the major loss of data by the Panorama team after an inexperienced researcher allegedly downloaded a cache of material from an online dropbox service on to a USB stick and handed it to a third party.

It is understood that the matter is being treated as a potential criminal offence under Section 55 of the Data Protection Act.

Initially, the data was believed to relate only to Panorama’s investigation into alleged questionable practices at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The researcher leaked the file to the office of the mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, because she did not believe the documentary, broadcast in April, was balanced.

The material included details of people who had contributed to the documentary anonymously. But The Independent has learnt that the file also contained confidential information relating to “Britain’s Secret Terror Force”, a highly sensitive previous Panorama programme, which was shown last November.

The experienced Panorama presenter John Ware hosted both documentaries, although he is understood not to be responsible for the breach in security.

During the Northern Ireland programme, made by the television production company twenty2vision, seven unidentified members of the plain-clothes Military Reaction Force discussed their covert activities.

They all denied they had been part of a death or assassination squad but one soldier admitted: “If you had a player who was a well-known shooter who carried out quite a lot of assassinations it would have been very simple – he had to be taken out.”

Another said: “We were not there to act like an army unit. We were there to act like a terror group. We had our own rules, but I don’t recall being involved in the shooting of an innocent person.”

Two fatal shootings were linked to the MRF; Patrick McVeigh, a father of six who was shot in Belfast in 1972 and 18-year-old Daniel Rooney, who was killed in West Belfast in 1973.

The Ministry of Defence said it had referred Panorama’s findings to the police.

Last night military figures expressed astonishment that the BBC could have put the anonymity of servicemen who served with elite undercover units at risk. The mistreatment of confidential sources was “absolutely disgraceful”, said Hugh McManners, a military author and commentator.

“Protection of sources is paramount and the BBC and its researcher have behaved utterly disgracefully. I cannot believe that anyone could be so lax. If the media is going to misbehave like that, the Ministry of Defence would be justified in refusing all media requests, which isn’t in anybody’s interests.”

In the making of the Tower Hamlets documentary, it is understood that BBC application forms for covert filming used in the Northern Ireland film were duplicated to use as a basis for applications to film undercover in east London. But due to an error, confidential details used in the Ulster films were not deleted, putting the identities of at least one ex-MRF contributor at risk.

The breach of security occurred at Films of Record, which made the Tower Hamlets investigation “The Mayor and Our Money”, and not at twenty2vision. The researcher, who only worked at Panorama for five days, has told The Independent she acted “because of my conscience”. She said: “My basic point was that this is damaging to the Bengali community.”

It is understood that the Tower Hamlets copy of the file has now been destroyed.

A spokesperson for the ICO said it had to be “particularly cautious” when discussing an investigation which may lead to a criminal prosecution.

“We have been made aware of a possible data breach at Films of Record. We will be making inquiries into the circumstances of the alleged breach of the Data Protection Act before deciding what action, if any, needs to be taken.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “There has been a lot of baseless speculation on the circumstances surrounding this programme. It’s not appropriate for us to comment further while there is an investigation by the ICO under way.”

Licensed to kill: Military reaction force

The Military Reaction Force (MRF) was a covert British Army unit operating in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s at the start of the Troubles.

The undercover unit, which is thought to have comprised 40 men, is said to have been given licence to operate a shoot to kill policy and ignore the Yellow Card rules which spelt out the circumstances under which soldiers were permitted to open fire.

The MRF included men from the Special Air Service (SAS), the Special Boat Service (SBS), the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment.

It has been linked to the shootings of several unarmed civilians, including Patrick McVeigh, a father of six children, who was hit by sub- machine-gun fire while manning a nationalist barricade in west Belfast in 1972. The MRF was disbanded in 1973.

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