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Top Secret Document Leaks

Volume 731: debated on Tuesday 18 April 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on the leaking of top secret military documents.

The unauthorised disclosure of classified US documents discovered last week was clearly a concerning development. The Defence Secretary spoke to his opposite number in the US last week and has been kept closely informed since. He is in Washington this week for a long-planned briefing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well as for other bilateral meetings. Clearly, while there, he has been able to discuss things further with Secretary Lloyd Austin and others. The US Department of Defence and intelligence community are currently conducting their own investigation to determine the validity of those documents and the circumstances under which they were leaked.

The UK commends the swift action taken by US law enforcement to investigate and respond to the leak, including the arrest of a suspect. As the Secretary of State, the US Department of Defence and the French Ministry of Defence have already said, not all of this information apparently leaked is accurate. Colleagues will be frustrated, I know, that I am unable to tell them which bits are inaccurate as these are sensitive intelligence matters, but it is important, nonetheless, to stress the need for caution when reporting what has apparently been leaked. Obviously, the investigation is now a matter for the US legal system.

As the refreshed integrated review set out earlier this year, the US remains the UK’s most important ally and partner. The depth of the UK’s relationship with the US remains an absolutely essential pillar of our security. We remain committed to supporting Ukraine’s armed forces in response to Russia’s illegal invasion. Ukraine has repeatedly shown us its determination and resilience in the face of Russia’s barbaric invasion, and, as we have said, we are working in lockstep with allies through forums such as the G7 and NATO, and efforts such as the UK-led international fund for Ukraine, to get Ukraine the firepower that it needs to rapidly regain its territory.

I thank the Minister for his statement.

Mr Speaker, may I begin with a declaration of interest that is pertinent to this subject? I am a dual US national born in the USA and I hold a US passport. I have grown up increasingly appreciating the value and, indeed, the importance of the unique and incredible bond that we have with our most trusted and valued security ally. However, when a security leak of this magnitude takes place, it should not prevent the legislatures on both sides of the Atlantic from seeking assurances—such as the Minister is giving us today—about the fall-out from the scale of top secret information that is now in the public domain and from the changes that may be considered to significantly limit the chances such an event being repeated. I ask the Minister not to hide behind that general veneer of secrecy here, but to be frank with the House about the process. Mass data are accumulated from a multitude of sources. This is then summarised to provide relevant information, and analysis of that information forms the intelligence picture. That is then presented to decision makers, and can then lead to action that might limit or alter the behaviour of an adversary to close down a threat or indeed inform and persuade other nations to join our cause.

I am pleased to hear that the Minister and the Secretary of State are speaking with their counterparts, but does the Minister believe that too many eyes now have general access to sensitive intelligence, with the pendulum of sharing files swinging too far after 9/11? Is there now too much information—almost by default—now classified as top secret? For example, if Egypt is intending to supply missiles to Russia, surely the world should know about that. If a Russian Su-27 jet did deliberately attempt to fire a missile at an RAF Rivet Joint over the Black sea last September, it was an act of war, and the details should surely be publicised, not hidden away in intelligence files. We certainly must avoid another Daniel Ellsberg situation.

As the world enters a dangerous chapter, we slide, potentially, into another cold war. The parameters for sharing and acting on pooled intelligence must surely be overhauled, so that they are fit for purpose. America, is our closest security ally, absolutely, but if a vital aspect of our relationship requires reviewing or addressing, surely we should have the confidence to do just that.

As my right hon. Friend notes, the apparently leaked documents are in the public domain. However, that does not change their classification and thus the degree to which any UK Minister or official can comment on their content, so I will not be commenting on specifics of the examples he raised, nor any others over the course of this urgent question. He is absolutely right in setting out the process by which information is gathered, assimilated and presented to decision makers; he is absolutely right that the breadth and scale of information in this data age is enormous; and he is absolutely right that one of the key decisions that any organisation with intelligence at its core has to make is how to allow access to that information so that the relevant people can use it to make good decisions.

My right hon. Friend asserts that perhaps too many eyes now have access to that information. I think that is a matter for different Departments in different countries to consider. As you would imagine, Mr Speaker, the MOD has looked at our own processes as a consequence of what happened last week. We have to place huge trust in our vetting processes to ensure that those who routinely have access to classified information have been risk-managed appropriately. Even beyond that, within the vetted workforce there is a very necessary compartmentalisation of information, so that only those who need to see things to do their jobs see them.

That said, what we are learning in the information age, when it is about getting ahead of the other side’s narrative, is that it is very useful to be able to think quickly about the information we have. There is thus a balance to strike between being overly compartmentalised and being in a position where people can be well informed and quickly make decisions in a way that meets the speed of relevance in modern competition. Suffice to say, and I hope my right hon. Friend and the House will be reassured, that of course the permanent secretary, on seeing what happened in the Department of Defence last week, has had a good look at what is going on inside the MOD to make sure that, if we have any lessons to learn, we do so.

The US is our closest security ally, so this is of serious concern. The intelligence we share bilaterally and through alliances such as NATO and Five Eyes is fundamental to our UK national security, and it is essential that that continues confidently and confidentially. The Secretary of State for Defence is in Washington, we are told, apparently to discuss this breach, but will he make a statement to Parliament on his return to confirm the reassurances he has received on how British intelligence is handled?

The Minister is right to say that the US agencies are treating this seriously. The Pentagon says that it expects findings from its investigations within 45 days. Two years ago, UK classified documents on Challenger 2 tanks were similarly reported leaked from an online forum for video gaming, “War Thunder”. What action was taken following that leak?

I have a number of questions that the Minister has not yet answered. He has described the documents as inaccurate, but to what extent have they been manipulated and to what extent have they been used as disinformation? Has this leak put at risk any UK personnel? Is the MOD mitigating such risks, and if so how? This is the time when the UK should be accelerating military support to Ukraine, so what assessment have the Government made of the impact of this leak on Ukrainian plans for a potential offensive?

While threats to the UK continue to rise, security breaches have been getting worse on the Defence Secretary’s watch, with 2,000 people affected by data breaches set out in the last MOD annual report and a 40% increase in the number of referrals to the Information Commissioner—and that was last July. How many MOD data breaches have occurred since? Finally, why is no Minister designated as responsible for information security when handling intelligence is so critical to our national security?

First, I thought I was clear in my initial answer that the Secretary of State is in Washington for a briefing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that was requested in December and scheduled in January. It is fortuitous that he is there to discuss these matters in addition, but it would be inaccurate to say that he is there because of what happened last week.

The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) asks about previous incidents where the UK MOD has been responsible for leaks. I agree with him that it happens too often, but every time it happens, reviews are put in place and lessons are learned in terms of both the way that information is handled digitally and—because this was the case last year—the way that documents are removed from the building. On the former, there has been a wide-ranging and robust effort to assure the digital security of documents and to ensure that all users of secret and above systems are aware of the way that those systems should properly be used, and of how it should not even be attempted to move information from one system to the other. On physical documents, the Secretary of State put in place random bag searches at MOD main building immediately following the leak of hard documents last year, and those searches remain in place now.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to observe that some of those documents have, since their apparent leaking, apparently been manipulated for various misinformation and disinformation purposes. That is why it is important to qualify that colleagues should be suspicious not only of the original content, but of the different versions that are in circulation subsequently, because they have been manipulated for various means. He is of course right to flag his concern, which mirrors our concern, about any force protection implications from such leaks. That was indeed our first concern, and the chief of joint operations was able quickly to reassure us that all those involved in the protection of diplomatic mission in Ukraine are not compromised in any way by the leaks—nor are any of those involved in the wider support for Ukraine and the wider continent beyond.

I do not think that there is any impact on the Ukrainian plans for the offensive. In fact, as the right hon. Gentleman will have seen in the reporting of those, there has been a degree of amplification from the Ukrainians around some of the casualty statistics—I make no comment on the accuracy of the figures being pumped. Indeed, there is reporting that those figures have been manipulated by both sides to tell their story. But I am pretty confident that the Ukrainians are intending to stick to their plan and go for it. I do not have the information today on precisely how many breaches there have been, but I will write to him.

I do not wish to be disobliging to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who succeeded me as Chairman of the Defence Committee, but I feel it necessary to ask the Minister to clarify beyond any doubt or confusion that matters relating to defence intelligence—like those relating to the intelligence roles of other Departments—do not fall within the ambit of the departmental Select Committee, but should, and rightly do, fall within the ambit of the Intelligence and Security Committee. My right hon. Friend was courteous enough to let me know that he had been granted this urgent question after it had been granted. Had he asked before applying, I would have advised him, first, that it was not within the remit of the Defence Committee to seek information on this matter, and secondly, as the Minister’s replies have indicated, that it would be very unwise, particularly at this early stage, to discuss the implications of such a leak in public. Will the Minister confirm that, in any future questions and answers about defence intelligence, he will address his answers to the appropriate Committee, which is the Intelligence and Security Committee?

May I just help a little bit? I granted the UQ not because the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) is the Chairman of the Defence Committee, but because I thought it was appropriate, so we do not need to level it in that way.

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker; I value the friendship and counsel of both the current and the previous Select Committee Chair, so I think that you have said it all.

I will be equally brief. There are clearly serious issues to consider here, and it is very important that we avoid speculation, particularly because, as I understand it, this case is sub judice in the US. No doubt our intelligence community is working hard with its partners to review the implications and will report to the ISC. I do not want to prejudge anything, but to echo the comments of the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis), can the Minister confirm that he will work closely with the ISC to ensure that we are fully able to consider any outcomes of this investigation?

I note the concern of the hon. Gentleman and of my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. We will ensure that any matters that can be exposed to them relating to this are exposed.

The whole House should welcome the great seriousness with which this is being taken by our Government and the Government of the United States. It is important for us to acknowledge that mass leaks of this kind are unjustified and serve only to help the interests of those terrorist groups and hostile states that wish us harm.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: these leaks, as unfortunate as they are, only benefit one group of people, and that is our competitors and adversaries in the world who mean us harm. Whatever heroic intentions those responsible for these leaks may think they have, they are wrong. They risk the safety of our armed forces, and they compromise the work that we and our allies are doing around the world to stand up to the challenge to the rules-based international order that we so strongly believe in.

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I concur with his views about the close relationship that we rely on with not just the United States but our other Five Eyes partners. The Intelligence and Security Committee has not yet met to discuss this issue, and it is the only Committee of Parliament that will be able to look at the classification of material that is covered. It is right not to make any pre-emptive statements about what has been in the press, but if we do decide that we wish to look at this—and there is a good chance that we will—can he confirm that we will get full co-operation from not only Defence Intelligence but other intelligence agencies in pursuing the rightful questions that we, uniquely, can ask in the closed environment in which we meet?

In the interests of not only expectation management but accuracy, I will say to the right hon. Gentleman that I will ensure we do all that we are allowed to do and that the Committee is serviced with whatever is releasable, accepting, of course, that the content that has been leaked is US content, which might mean that that is very difficult for us to do.

We know that Russia is a master of propagating disinformation, and this is an evolving tactic increasingly used by hostile states, so can the Minister assure us that this issue is being considered in the Defence Command Paper refresh?

I certainly can. A very important theme we have learned over the last year is that the way in which we own the narrative and counter disinformation is almost every bit as important as the physical reality of the battle on the ground, so this is an important part of our work on the Command Paper refresh.

The leak in the US should be, and I am sure is, focusing the Minister’s mind on the importance of our own information security. To that end, can he give an assurance that all information and data relating to our own armed forces personnel that is held by private sector contractors—particularly those that are foreign-owned—is secure?

I would fully expect it to be, but perhaps I can take the hon. Gentleman’s question away, ask it of the Department and write to him, so that we can both have confidence that my expectation is well founded.

The Minister will know that a number of years ago, the diptels of our brilliant former ambassador to the United States were leaked, which had real ramifications for our relationship with the United States and the issue of secret documents being shared within Government Departments. Were any specific lessons learned from that incident at the Foreign Office with regard to how our brilliant former ambassador was treated in doing his job and to the leak of secret documents? Does the Minister have a view on the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) about restricting the number of individuals who see these documents?

As the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), set out, there have been occasions when we reside in a glass house on these matters, so I am reluctant to throw stones at any other Department.

The Minister is right that we must be careful with leaked US documents that may turn out to be misinformation or disinformation, but they do appear to reveal that the UK Rivet Joint aircraft was subject to a near miss. If the Secretary of State had assessed that the Rivet Joint aircraft had been intentionally fired upon, would he have shared that Ministry of Defence assessment with the House?

The Secretary of State has briefed the House on that incident. I am not going to offer any discussion on the version of events that was put across in the leak.

The main short-term worry on both sides of the House is that this leak might compromise the much-vaunted spring offensive, which may be the most crucial move in the effort to repel Putin. On that basis, will the Secretary of State undertake to appear before the ISC as soon as there is anything substantive to report?

There are two separate issues there. The first is what the impact of this leak may or may not be on the Ukrainian spring offensive. The shadow Secretary of State asked whether I thought it would have any consequence for that. I do not. I think the Ukrainians will proceed with their plan as it is, and I have every confidence that they will be successful. The international effort to resource their plan is extraordinary, and the plan is coming together very well indeed.

The second is whether any matters relating to the spring offensive and these leaks should be briefed to the ISC. As I have said, the difficulty is that this is not our information to brief, nor is it a leak from the UK MOD. While I have undertaken to a number of colleagues who are on that Committee to ensure that we share what we can with the Committee, I have to be very clear that it is not our information to share, nor was it our leak, and thus I suspect that we are rather limited in what we can say and do with the Committee on this matter.

I thank the Minister for his response and recognise that the hallmark of the last 12 months has been the MOD’s willingness to publish defence intelligence reports and give decision makers and legislators the information we need to identify disinformation and guard against false flags. I welcome the indication he has given that a review is under way by the permanent secretary of processes to ensure that information and intelligence in particular is retained as it should be within the Department. Will he undertake to update the House when the review is complete, whether through an oral statement or written ministerial statement, recognising that the detail contained in that review would be more appropriate for the Intelligence and Security Committee?

I am happy to make that undertaking. As we conclude our internal reviews, we will make sure that if there is further information to offer to the House, we do so. Similarly, I have made a number of commitments to offer assurance through written answers, and we will make sure that those are shared with the Library.

The arrest of a fairly junior 21-year-old National Guardsman in relation to this leak begs the question of who has access to top secret information. Pentagon officials say that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people would see this kind of document. The Minister is right to say that it is a matter for the Americans who has access to their documents, but on the basis of this worrying development, what reassurance can he give us about the level of seniority that British information shared with the Americans goes to?

We certainly draw no boundaries based on seniority around the information that is shared bilaterally—UK-US—or within the Five Eyes, NATO or elsewhere. Information flows to where it is needed. An analyst who is the expert on a particular Russian capability might be a relatively junior non-commissioned officer, but they might be the best in the world at that area of expertise, so rank is probably not the right boundary to set.

But what we are very careful about—I think the United States and other Five Eyes partners are similarly clear about this—is that information goes to where it is needed, not where it is necessarily wanted. That level of compartmentalisation gives enormous assurance. Leaks such as this one are exceptional, rather than the norm, and it is important that we put this—no matter how grave it appears to be—in the context of the vast amount of information that is shared between the UK and the US and within the Five Eyes routinely, and which is never, ever seen by any eyes other than those for which it was intended.

There are clearly issues with the process of vetting individuals. What reassurances can the Minister give? He says lessons are being learned, but does something not ring a bell on the vetting problems we have seen in UK policing? What can be done holistically to look at the vetting of individuals who have access to information held by the state and to top-secret processes?

I looked anxiously for reassurance from the Policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), but my sense is that the police vetting to which the hon. Lady refers is a background and character check for a person’s initial employment, and therefore somewhat different from the developed vetting process that is used within Government—and particularly within the MOD and the security agencies—to assure access to top-secret and compartmental information. That process is extraordinarily rigorous, involving in-depth background checks that go back a number of generations, plus interviews and other evidence gathering that allows us a relatively high level of assurance about the people with whom we share information. The exact process is perhaps not something that should be set out in public, but it is one in which I and other ministerial colleagues have great confidence.

A somewhat overlooked revelation from these documents was that not only were the United Arab Emirates and Russia co-operating on evading international sanctions, but—I quote the Associated Press report—

“In mid-January, FSB officials claimed UAE security service officials and Russia had agreed to work together against US and UK Intelligence agencies, according to newly acquired signals intelligence.”

Despite that knowledge, the Government continue to facilitate military, security and economic exchanges with authoritarian Gulf states, and encourage them to make massive investments in infrastructure across these islands. So I ask the Minister this: after the Russia report, have this Government learnt nothing about the cost of doing business with authoritarian regimes, or will they just continue to be the frog that thinks it can ride the back of the scorpion?

The hon. Gentleman, in a style with which I am now familiar, comes left and right-flanking and down the centre all at once, but at the heart of the question was an invitation to reflect on some of the content of the leaks. As I have been very clear, I am not going to do so.

We know that leaks of secret and top-secret military information put lives at risk. At what point were soldiers on the ground made aware of the breach, and what support has been put in place, practically for them as well as emotionally for their families at home?

The troops on the ground—those involved in the protection of the diplomatic mission in Kyiv—will likely have been aware of it as it broke in the news. It is not for them to worry about their force protection beyond the tactical measures they can take locally; that is a matter for the permanent joint headquarters, and the chief of joint operations was quick to assess what the implications may be for their force protection. He concluded that there were none and that the mission can safely continue. The amazing thing about the men and women who serve in our nation’s uniform is that their instinct is to carry on with the mission at hand, not necessarily to worry for their safety. We are very lucky that that is the way they approach these things.