LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Wednesday he would take “the strongest possible action” against anyone leaking sensitive intelligence about ongoing counter-terrorism operations.
Blair’s comments came after top anti-terrorism officer Peter Clarke said people who leaked such information to the media were “beneath contempt”, compromising investigations and even putting lives at risk.
“They reveal sources of life-saving intelligence. I wonder if they simply do not care,” Clarke said in a speech on Tuesday.
“What is clear is that there are a number, a small number I am sure, of misguided individuals who betray confidences,” he added. “Perhaps they look to curry favour with certain journalists, or to squeeze out some short-term presentational advantage.”
Clarke highlighted the investigation into a suspected plot to kidnap a British serviceman which he said had been compromised by the release of intelligence.
Both Blair and Home Secretary John Reid backed him.
“I share his analysis entirely. There can be no justification for ever doing this and I entirely agree with him,” Blair told parliament.
In the kidnap case, almost before the suspects had arrived at police stations to be quizzed by officers, key details of the investigation and the evidence had been leaked, Clarke revealed.
“This damaged the interview strategy of the investigators, and undoubtedly raised community tensions,” he said.
“I have no idea where the leaks came from, but whoever was responsible should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.”
Blair could not guarantee that a minister, civil servant, or government adviser was behind the leaks but said there was no evidence suggesting that they were.
He ruled out holding an independent inquiry into the source of the leak, which Conservative leader David Cameron demanded, but vowed action against anyone who was found to be passing on confidential information.
“If there is any evidence at all that people have been engaged deliberately in leaking information of this sort then I can assure him (Cameron) I will take the strongest possible action in respect of whoever it may be,” Blair said in parliament.
The Liberal Democrats, echoing calls for an inquiry, said they had a dossier of similar unofficial briefings.
“We need to know urgently whether these briefings stemmed from Whitehall and the government, in which case political accountability for such a spectacular misjudgement is inescapable,” said Nick Clegg, Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary.
In his speech, Clarke also said the “only sensible assumption” was that Islamist militants would strike again in Britain.
He said he did not disagree with a figure given by Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of the MI5, who said last November that her agents were tracking some 1,600 suspected Islamist militants.
But he said he stood by a comment he made last year that the total number — including people “vulnerable to being drawn into extremism” — may run into thousands.