Revealed: the UK's secret terrorism agency

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Ministers are secretly establishing an "Armageddon agency" to respond to devastating terrorist attacks on Britain, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Ministers are secretly establishing an "Armageddon agency" to respond to devastating terrorist attacks on Britain, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Neither Parliament nor the public have been told how far the Government has gone to put the service - which will deal with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks - into operation over the course of 2004.

The body, called the Government Decontamination and Recovery Service, is such a sensitive topic even within Whitehall that it is deliberately known only by its initials - GDRS. Even then it is hardly mentioned, even in official documents.

It is based in Margaret Beckett's Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and, according to a top official, it has been ready to respond to an attack since last April. It has appointed specialist contractors to tackle incidents, has a senior Defra civil servant directing it, and at present has a core staff of about 15 officials.

All that MPs and the public have been told is that ministers are "considering" setting up such a body. A single sentence buried in a two-paragraph press release issued on 25 March mentioned that "the Government is actively considering the establishment of a national decontamination and recovery service".

The same words were used by Nick Raynsford, a minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, in May, and this is still the official position.

Nine months ago, Elliot Morley, the environment minister, promised that further details would be released "as soon as practicable". But ministers are only now contemplating a public announcement, sometime in the New Year, that they have decided to go ahead with the agency.

A search for the GDRS on the Defra and parliamentary websites last week did not turn up a single mention. Only two references to it could be found in publicly available documents: a solitary line in a Home Office statement referring to a £100,000 contribution to the project, and a single budget line in a balance sheet from the Justice Department of the devolved Scottish Executive recording a contribution of £250,000.

One top official admits: "There is not a lot of information about this in the public domain. We are further down the road than it appears publicly at the moment, and have been working on it for longer."

He says that the first moves to form the agency were taken a year ago after a secret study identified "gaps" in arrangements across Whitehall and at local authority levels in terrorism response planning.

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