This is the blog of British investigative journalist Jason Lewis.
It features articles from my time as Investigations Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Whitehall and Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday.
I specialise in writing on intelligence and security matters, human and civil rights and the activities of the British State.
Tuesday, 7 July 2009
MI6 chief blows cover on Facebook
Wife's account reveals family holidays showbiz friends and links to David Irving
Last updated at 7:14 PM on 05th July 2009
The new head of MI6 has been left exposed by a major personal security breach after his wife published intimate photographs and family details on the Facebook website.
Sir John Sawers is due to take over as chief of the Secret Intelligence Service in November, putting him in charge of all Britain's spying operations abroad.
But his wife's entries on the social networking site have exposed potentially compromising details about where they live and work, who their friends are and where they spend their holidays.
Amazingly, she had put virtually no privacy protection on her account, making it visible to any of the site's 200million users who chose to be in the open-access 'London' network - regardless of where in the world they actually were.
There are fears that the hugely embarrassing blunder may have compromised the safety of Sir John's family and friends.
Lady Shelley Sawers' extraordinary lapse exposed the couple's friendships with senior diplomats and well-known actors, including Moir Leslie, who plays a leading character in The Archers. And it revealed that the intelligence chief's brother-in-law - who holidayed with him last month - is an associate of the controversial Right-wing historian David Irving.
Immediately after The Mail on Sunday alerted the Foreign Office to the astonishing misjudgment, all trace of the material – which could potentially be useful to hostile foreign powers or terrorists - was removed from the internet.
The move suggests that MI6 or the Foreign Office, which is also responsible for the GCHQ electronic eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham, had not vetted what sort of information Sir John and his family were distributing over the internet.
Nor does it appear that the new intelligence chief - who will be codenamed 'C' once he takes up his post - had considered the potential risks of what his family was revealing to the world.
Foreign Office staff are warned about their use of social networking sites when they join the department but MI6 expects its agents to maintain an even tighter secrecy, telling them not to reveal their true role to all but their closest family.
Sir John Sawers, currently Britain's Ambassador to the United Nations, where he sits on the highly sensitive Security Council, began his working life in MI6 but has spent the past 20 years building a career as a diplomat rather than a spy.
Senior politicians said the security lapse raised serious doubts about Sir John's suitability to head the intelligence service - and raised questions over whether an outsider should have been appointed to such a sensitive role.
Despite the security implications, Lady Sawers revealed on Facebook the location of the London flat used by the couple and the whereabouts of their three children and of Sir John's parents.
On June 16, the very day Sir John's MI6 appointment was announced, she posted 19 pictures of the couple on holiday with their friends in the West Country earlier that month.
The following day, she added a further 26 pictures, including one of Sir John playing on the beach in his swimming trucks, posing with his wife and children and chatting with friends and his mother.
Among those who joined the Sawers on the break were actors Moir Leslie, who plays both Sophie Barlow and vicar Janet Fisher in Radio 4 soap opera The Archers, and Alister Cameron, a character actor who has appeared on The Bill and Footballers' Wives.
Lady Sawers' Facebook 'friends' have also used the account to send messages of congratulations to Sir John on his new job, with one relative joking that he will now be known as 'Uncle C'.
On the day his appointment was announced, she wrote: 'Congrats on the new job, already dubbed Sir Uncle "C" by nephews in the know!'
Over the past year, Lady Sawers has been regularly updating anyone who cared to read her page - which could be found via internet search engines - on everything from family parties and holidays to the health of their pets and her views on the crisis in the Congo.
She also posted 22 photographs from Sir John's mother's 80th birthday party, showing the future spy chief with his closest friends and extended family, including his 86-year-old father, his two sons, aged 25 and 24, their girlfriends, and the couple's daughter Corinne, 22, a recent Oxford University graduate who is now an aspiring actress.
Corinne recently began touring with Jenny Seagrove in the play Pack Of Lies, coincidentally about a middle-class household suddenly at the centre of an espionage drama when an MI5 spy turns up at their house.
Among those featured in family photographs on the website is Lady Sawers' half-brother Hugo Haig-Thomas, a former diplomat. Lady Sawers met her husband after visiting her brother when he was posted to Yemen in the late Seventies. She liked the country and decided to stay, landing a secretarial job at the Embassy, where Sir John later succeeded Mr Haig-Thomas.
Mr Haig-Thomas is an associate and researcher for revisionist historian David Irving, who was jailed for three years in Austria in 2006 for 'glorifying the Nazi Party' because he questioned whether the Holocaust took place. The historian describes Haig-Thomas as 'a researcher who has done fine work for me'. His work includes examining the papers relating to the capture of Heinrich Himmler, the man behind Hitler's plan to exterminate the European Jews.
A recent post by Mr Haig-Thomas on Irving's website includes a translation of the testimony of a German officer who claimed to have built fake gas chambers at Sachsenhausen concentration camp on Soviet orders.
But Mr Haig-Thomas said he had never considered his views controversial, nor did he regret his connection with Irving.
He said: 'We are not close friends. I am interested in history,particularly German history, and I was engaged to carry out researchfor Irving. I have also attended several of his talks, but I do notnecessarily share his views.
'In my experience, the Foreign Office are very sensible about these things and will see that our connection does not amount to much.'
Edward Davy, the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesman, called on Gordon Brown to launch an inquiry into whether the Facebook disclosures had compromised Sir John's ability to take up his MI6 post.
He said: 'Normally, I would welcome greater openness in Government for officials or politicians but this
type of exposure verges on the reckless.
'The Prime Minister should immediately commission an internal inquiry as to whether this has breached the security of the incoming head of MI6 too seriously to allow him to take up the post.'
And Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, an adviser to Government Security Minister Lord West, said the MI6 chief had left himself open to blackmail.
He said: 'Sir John Sawers is in a very sensitive position and by revealing this sort of material his family have left him open to criticism and blackmail.
'As a long-serving diplomat and ambassador, his whole family have been involved in his line of business for decades. I would have hoped they would have been much more sensitive to potential security compromises like this.'
The Foreign Office refused to discuss the affair and declined to answer questions, including whether the department warned Ambassadors and other staff about social networking sites; whether the details Sir John's family published on the internet had come up in security checks before he was appointed as head of MI6; and whether he had made officials aware of his brother-in-law's links to David Irving.
But Foreign Secretary David Miliband today dismissed allegations of recklessness.
He told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: 'It is not a state secret that he wears Speedo swimming trunks.'
He added: ‘He was appointed 10 days ago to be the head of MI6; he’s an outstanding professional who will do a really good job in an outstanding organisation that does a huge amount for this country'