Police search MoD offices after leak of defence cuts letter

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The Independent Online

The Defence Secretary Liam Fox is among those to be interviewed by police after an investigation was launched into how a letter he wrote to the Prime Minister, warning of the effect budget cuts would have on national security, was leaked to a newspaper.

The letter to David Cameron, leaked to The Daily Telegraph, warned that "draconian" reductions in military funding could have "grave consequences" for the Government. But following its publication yesterday, the Ministry of Defence Police were called in to investigate the leak. About 30 MoD officers searched the departmental headquarters on Whitehall, seizing paperwork and examining computers.

Given that the letter is private correspondence between a cabinet minister and the PM, very few people will have been authorised to see it. Unless Downing Street or Dr Fox circulated it more widely, the leak could only have come from the private office of Dr Fox or David Cameron.

Last night the author of the story, Thomas Harding, the Telegraph's defence correspondent, told his newspaper's website: "Politicians generally do not commit things to paper without the knowledge that it might be seen by the eyes of the public one day."

A source close to Dr Fox said: "This is a mystery to us. It [the leak] is certainly not from here."

The MoD Police, a unit which comprises 3,500 officers, are said to have been called in by Bill Jeffrey, the permanent under secretary at the MoD.

In a statement, Dr Fox said: "It is totally unacceptable that a highly confidential letter from me to the Prime Minister should be leaked to The Daily Telegraph. I am utterly appalled by this breach of trust and have ordered a full investigation to find out how it happened. We will stop at nothing to ensure that the culprit is found."

But Mr Harding last night said: "My source on the story will feel fairly confident that he is well covered. The footprint, hopefully, is well hidden. The MoD Police can look for all they are worth in the MoD and I very much doubt they will find anything."

The letter was written the night before a National Security Council meeting and discussed the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which is currently being carried out by the Government. The Treasury has asked the MoD to find 10 per cent savings on its annual £37bn budget.

In the letter, Dr Fox writes: "If it [the SDSR] continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years.

"Party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not recognise the dangers, and continue to push for such draconian cuts at a time when we are at war."

Opposition politicians seized on the letter and used it to suggest that relationships between members of the Coalition Government were becoming fractious over the extent of the budget cuts being imposed on each department.

The shadow Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said: "It is clear the Government is in chaos. This is an incredible letter which reflects many of our concerns about their approach to this review.

"Rushed decisions that are not based on our strategic needs pose a real risk for our future security. The question now for David Cameron is what he is going to do about it."

But Dr Fox said the letter was not unusual. "It is entirely normal that ministers should make representations to the Prime Minister during the SDSR and the Comprehensive Spending Review," he said. "That is an entirely proper part of the process of government. The Prime Minister is fully entitled to expect that those representations to be made in private and kept private.

"I am extremely angry that this confidential communication has been made public. The SDSR continues. We will reach decisions in due course collectively as a government in the national interest and abide by those decisions collectively."

The story has echoes of the Damian Green saga in which the civil servant Christopher Galley leaked confidential information to the then shadow Immigration Minister. There was fury when the police raided Mr Green's office as part of their investigation. No charges were brought against Mr Green or Mr Galley, although the civil servant was sacked from his £25,000-a-year post.

That case, however, was different to the Dr Fox leak in that Christopher Galley leaked the information to a politician and not the press.