A police intelligence officer fabricated reports about a terrorism informant in a highly classified database after allegedly being instructed to by superiors, The Times has learnt.
The rogue special branch unit, linked with MI5, that the detective constable worked for was disbanded after he retrospectively altered intelligence reports
Phil Moran, a counterterrorism agent handler at British Transport Police (BTP), claimed that he was ordered by his superiors to manipulate information on the National Special Branch Intelligence System to deceive the surveillance watchdog. BTP’s director of intelligence, Detective Superintendent Paul Shrubsole, was dismissed at a secret misconduct hearing and another senior officer retired before disciplinary proceedings were brought. Shrubsole denies any wrongdoing.
The ease with which Moran changed crucial details has caused alarm about the security of one of the country’s most sensitive databases and the reliability of information recorded by police. The special branch intelligence system holds “secret” information from police forces around the country about covert operations involving domestic extremism and counterterrorism.
Moran’s reports concerned “Large Win”, an informant who had infiltrated terrorist circles and was providing information about plots on the rail network to BTP’s special branch, which passed it on to MI5. Large Win’s information is understood to have been used in at least three operations by the Security Service.
The breach has also prompted concerns that a long-running inquiry into undercover policing has been examining tainted material for months. Special branch reports, placed on the database since 2001 by police officers whose misconduct included having sex with their targets, have formed the bulk of evidence at the inquiry.
Moran, who retired in 2014, said his changes included backdating reviews and risk assessments so that records about Large Win met compliance requirements that had previously been overlooked. The unit was preparing for an inspection and went on to mislead inspectors from the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC), a government watchdog which ensures that all covert police work is lawful.
When the OSC learnt of the alleged deception, the senior surveillance inspector said the matter was so serious that it would consider informing the prime minister. BTP conducted an internal investigation into Moran’s allegations without any independent oversight. It led to a gross misconduct hearing held in private in 2016 and the dismissal of Shrubsole. He argued at the hearing that Moran altered documents in an act of revenge because he was removed from handling Large Win when the informant was discovered to have lied on multiple occasions.
Win was formally registered on May 30, 2013. The Muslim man was a rail worker who had provided Moran with information about crime. He was willing to infiltrate mosques and cafés frequented by people MI5 knew or suspected of being involved in radicalisation and terrorist plots.
For £300 a month, a cost met by the Security Service, he passed on information that was recorded in “contact sheets” compiled by Moran, saved on the National Special Branch Intelligence System (NSBIS) and passed to spies.
The database, which has only recently been replaced by a newer model, was classified and could be accessed only by officers who had passed the highest level of vetting. It contained details of all police terrorism informants , as well as extremism suspects. Only detectives involved in a specific case could access the relevant details.
When within months the backslapping atmosphere within the special branch of the British Transport Police (BTP) turned to one of recrimination and hostility, the system had inherent weaknesses that Moran was able to exploit. Between May and September information from Large Win was used for at least three priority MI5 investigations but Detective Sergeant Dave West, Moran’s boss, became suspicious about the informant.
When Moran refused to re-vet his source, West ordered a secret report that discovered Large Win had lied about his living arrangements and financial position. There were concerns he was under financial pressure, which he had not disclosed, and could be “making false reports to receive funding”. West was concerned that Large Win’s debriefings were largely taking place in pubs, and also learnt of a potential risk of compromise when a rail worker saw him with his handlers.
West raised concerns with MI5, which decided Large Win was providing valuable information and should continue as an informant, albeit with more safeguards.
Detective Superintendent Paul Shrubsole, BTP’s director of intelligence and the authorising officer for special branch, removed Moran as handler for being “too close” to his informant.
By November special branch memos suggested that relationships between officers had descended into “civil war”. Moran believed he was being “sidelined” from the unit he had helped to establish. He complained that the firewall to protect informant identities and intelligence was regularly breached.
He made an official complaint that special branch was trawling for counterterrorism informants by examining every Muslim on BTP’s radar, even victims of crime. Moran and another handler, Detective Constable Jim Burgess, believed that it amounted to unlawful racial profiling.
Moran claimed that personal details were researched on the National Special Branch Intelligence System and other databases to see if the Muslim names had links to people of interest to MI5.
Even if no link could be found their names were still passed to the national domestic extremism and disorder intelligence unit or MI5 for “enhanced and detailed checks”, which Moran believed “breached human rights”.
Moran and Burgess claim BTP bosses ignored their concerns.
Internal BTP documents show that Moran complained about West and Blackburn to the MI5 liaison officer at G6 Section, which is responsible for agent running.
There is no suggestion MI5 knew of the methods being deployed and apparently sent a diplomatic reminder of the “benchmark” required of individuals they would consider potential informants, said Moran, who felt he had the spies’ support.
In February 2014, just before the unit’s first annual inspection by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC), Moran was called to a meeting to ensure that all documents authorising the use of informants complied with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act governing covert and intrusive police tactics.
Moran alleged that West had ordered him to backdate more than 35 daily contact sheets of his meetings with Large Win. He claimed that Shrubsole told him to create and backdate four reviews and risk assessments that had not been done, to deceive the OSC.
Moran, who retired on ill health grounds, said in a statement to the anti-corruption squad: “I feel sick about what I did. It’s destroyed my desire to be a policeman . . . I shouldn’t have done it at the time; had I been mentally able to, I should have just walked away. I have lost faith in [BTP’s] ability to manage national security sources and feel it is not fit to do so.”
Moran kept silent until after the OSC inspection on February 24 was passed. In April he contacted a friend on BTP’s anti-corruption squad, and the force’s largest corruption inquiry, Operation Muscle, was launched by Detective Superintendent Gareth Williams, the professional standards chief.
The OSC was not immediately alerted, however. Detectives in Operation Muscle waited almost two months after Sir Christopher Rose, the chief surveillance commissioner, had presented his annual report to the prime minister and parliament on September 4, 2014. It had concluded that BTP was “trying very hard to comply with the legislation”.
When Clare Ringshaw-Dowle, the chief surveillance inspector, finally learnt about Moran’s allegations, she told BTP it was the first time the OSC had been deceived and misled, an Operation Muscle log records. Rose, she said, would consider bringing it “to the personal attention of the prime minister”, then David Cameron.
West and Shrubsole were suspended and due to face a disciplinary panel, accused of gross misconduct. West resigned days before the hearing in February 2016, but still gave evidence, claiming that any “mistakes” made in tidying up documents on NSBIS were not intended to deceive the OSC.
Shrubsole denied ordering Moran to fabricate documents and told The Times he was “collateral damage” in a feud between West and Moran.
The disciplinary proceedings were told of various flaws in NSBIS that meant IT experts could never be absolutely sure of what Moran did.
Because Moran waited nine weeks to report his claims, the NSBIS backup tapes had overwritten his activity. The disciplinary hearing was told that despite its sensitivity, NSBIS had no audit system and it was hard to detect tampering with files and data.
In the absence of definitive computer evidence and amid conflicting testimony from special branch officers it came down to who the panel believed.
There were nearly two dozen character testimonials that showed Shrubsole was a capable and professional officer whose “honesty and integrity have never been doubted”. However, although the panel was by “no means satisfied” that everything Moran said was the truth, it “struggled to find” a compelling reason why he would lie to implicate Shrubsole falsely.
On February 26, 2016, it found that reviews and risk assessments were created by Moran retrospectively and signed by Shrubsole. West was described as “a dishonest witness” and Shrubsole sacked with immediate effect.
Even though the disciplinary panel concluded that the special branch unit was “dysfunctional”, the finding of a serious breach of one of Britain’s most sensitive databases was never made public.
Sir Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrats leader, wants a proper inquiry, saying Operation Muscle was a “cover-up”. Davey, Shrubsole’s MP, took up his case after he lost an appeal. He has raised concerns with Priti Patel, the home secretary, that BTP “misled” her department about the “insider cyberattack” on NSBIS. BTP told the Home Office there was no compromise of the database. Special branch sources say the counterterrorism source unit at BTP was quietly disbanded by 2019 and at least three informants taken over by MI5.
Alistair Sutherland, BTP’s deputy chief constable, said the force had taken the claims “extremely seriously”. The misconduct panel and subsequent police appeals tribunal found there was no compromise of NSBIS and “there is no evidence that anyone had access to any system without authorisation”. However, he acknowledged “they did find evidence of manipulation of specific documents and the then director of intelligence was dismissed from the force”.
He said: “We absolutely refute any allegation that BTP covered up criminality, presented false evidence in a discipline panel and appeal tribunal and misled a government minister, any individual or official body.”
The public understand that police and security services must sometimes work in the shadows (Fiona Hamilton writes).
The role of the Office of Surveillance Commissioners — since renamed the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office — is to check that intrusive police powers are not being abused.
But it has to rely on the honesty and openness of the police forces it inspects. It is disturbing, therefore, that a detective constable entered a sensitive informant database to create allegedly backdated reports, duping the office into believing strict compliance requirements had been met.
It is also worrying that, even after the breach was reported to the British Transport Police’s anti-corruption squad, there was a two-month delay before the office was informed.
There are serious questions about how such a sensitive database could have been altered without leaving a digital footprint. It contained crucial documents about the country’s most sensitive informants.
Transport police insist the database was not compromised but an independent inquiry into what went on at its counterterrorism unit is surely justified.
By Fiona Hamilton
December 16, 2021