Ministers ‘try to cover up’ claims ambassador leaked intelligence to ‘secret lover’
Ministers are trying to use national security laws to keep secret evidence relating to a claim that Britain’s ambassador in Washington leaked intelligence to his alleged lover.
Court documents obtained by The Telegraph allege that a senior civil servant was arrested on suspicion of leaking diplomatic cables and his home raided by counter-terrorism police a day after Lord Darroch, the former UK ambassador to the US, was warned his alleged affair was being exposed by a tabloid newspaper.
The senior civil servant is suing two Cabinet ministers – Kemi Badenoch and James Cleverly, as nominal heads of the departments involved at the time – claiming his arrest “was part of a disinformation campaign to protect Lord Darroch and maintain diplomatic prestige”.
He also alleges that he “was harshly treated to ensure that the conduct of Lord Darroch is quietly and quickly forgotten”, according to the particulars of the claim lodged in the High Court. Lawyers for the civil servant allege he has been “used as a scapegoat” after Lord Darroch “endangered … diplomatic relations” with the US.
The case threatens to blow open a highly embarrassing episode in UK-US relations involving the leaking of diplomatic cables from Lord Darroch that had been circulated in Whitehall.
It has also been alleged that he had an affair with Michelle Kosinski, a CNN reporter. Ms Kosinski denies she had a relationship with Lord Darroch and that he was the source of scoops when she was CNN’s White House correspondent.
Next week, the High Court will begin a preliminary hearing at which government lawyers will seek more time to prepare their defence.
The Government will argue next month that the Justice and Security Act 2013 should be triggered, restricting access to sensitive material. If the Government is successful, then only a special advocate can examine the material and the civil servant and his legal team may never find out what it is.
The Act, which can be used in civil cases, is more commonly applied to cases involving terrorism.
If the High Court judge agrees to the request, lawyers for the civil servant will not even be able to see certain evidence and other material presented by the Government in its defence of the claim. Such a move will further provoke claims of a cover-up.
'Wholly inappropriate use'
David Davis, the Conservative MP, said: “This is a wholly inappropriate use of the Justice and Security Act.
“When Parliament passed this law, members expected the state to use it to deal with real cases of espionage and terrorism, not to cover up potentially embarrassing stories involving diplomats and civil servants.”
In a legal letter, sent on May 19 to the civil servant’s legal team, a government lawyer wrote: “Please find attached a letter notifying the court that the defendants in the above case intend to make an application under section six of the Justice and Security Act 2013 that the proceedings are proceedings in which a closed material application may be made to the court.”
The case is highly sensitive. The saga began in July 2019 with the resignation of Lord Darroch after diplomatic cables that were highly critical of Donald Trump, the then US president, were published in a Sunday newspaper.
Lord Darroch had suggested the president “radiates insecurity” and that his administration was “dysfunctional”, “unpredictable”, “faction-riven” and “clumsy and inept”.
In response, Mr Trump described Lord Darroch as a “very stupid guy” and with their relationship seriously damaged, Lord Darroch quit his post.
The Government announced a leak inquiry and drafted in counter-terrorism police to find the mole.
The arrest of the civil servant, under the Official Secrets Act, was terrifying for him. The court documents allege that “14 fully-armed officers from the counter-terrorism command forced entry” into the civil servant’s home in a raid at 5.50am on Oct 13 2020 – 15 months after the Mail on Sunday had first published details of the leaked cables. He was never charged.
The civil servant, who The Telegraph has agreed not to name, points out in his legal claim that at the time he “was severely ill and recovering from cancer surgery with a post-surgery infection, something he says his employers at the Department for International Trade knew “but failed to inform the police when they co-ordinated” his arrest.
According to the legal claim, an NHS assessment declared the behaviour of senior civil servants at the Foreign Office and the then Department of International Trade was “life-threatening”.
“The entire operation was violent, intimidating, designed to humiliate and cause damage to health and property,” states the claim.
But it is the timing of the arrest that the civil servant and his legal team insist is both suspicious and significant.
Following the revelation over the diplomatic cables back in the summer of 2019, a fresh story about Lord Darroch was about to emerge. This one threatened to be just as damaging. They had been told that Lord Darroch was under investigation by US authorities for allegedly leaking sensitive information to a CNN reporter, who, it is claimed, was in a relationship with him.
Ms Kosinski, who like Lord Darroch is married, has denied any such affair and denied that she has ever received classified or sensitive intelligence information from him.
On the day before police raided the home of the civil servant, The Sun, which was running the story, had approached Lord Darroch for a “right of reply” to the claims that The Sun planned to publish.
According to the particulars of claim, the very next day the home of the civil servant was raided as part of Operation Asperite, the police inquiry that had been launched in July 2019 to investigate the original leak.
The civil servant has always protested his innocence and says he believes his name was given to police by officials in the Foreign Office and Department for International Trade.
The legal claim states: “The police interrogated the claimant and asked him why his Civil Service colleagues would accuse him of leaking Kim Darroch’s official sensitive documents if he did not do it.
“The claimant was investigated twice, and the Crown Prosecution Service decided on both occasions that the police did not produce evidence to meet the evidential state of a full code test set out in the Code for Crown Prosecutors.”
A day after the arrest – according to the particulars of claim – the police contacted The Sun newspaper to inform the newspaper that the civil servant had been arrested.
“This was deliberate interference with the freedom of the press,” states the claim. A day after The Sun published its story, according to the claim, “the Defendants retaliated and informed media outlets that the Claimant had been arrested in an effort to take the attention off Lord Darroch. The story went viral around the world.”
Lawyers for the civil servant, who denies any involvement in the leaking of the diplomatic cables, say that in contrast to the investigation into their client, it is Lord Darroch’s alleged relationship with the journalist that “raises issues of national security for which the British authorities refuse to investigate”.
Instead, the lawyers argue, the former ambassador was rewarded with his appointment to the House of Lords on retiring from his post.
The ministers – as nominated heads of their respective government departments – are being sued for misfeasance in public office, which effectively accuses officials and politicians of abusing their positions in power.
Lord Darroch has never commented on the claims of a relationship with Ms Kosinski. In a Twitter post in October 2020, Miss Kosinski said: “There is a great deal wrong and simply false with what is being reported. A so-called leak investigation found no such leaking. Meaning for all those stories listed, that ‘sensitive’ information did not come from the former ambassador.
“Sounds like I had some good sources and did my job.” She denies any affair.
Paul Diamond, the civil servant’s barrister, told The Telegraph: “Our position is that national security must not be used as an excuse by the Government to conceal information and prevent public scrutiny.
“Protecting Kim Darroch, the Government and the Civil Service from public embarrassment does not justify concealing all of this on national security grounds.”
Call for 'maximum transparency'
Andrea Jenkyns, a former minister, said: “It is vital that ministers do not overreach in this way to hide potentially embarrassing information about diplomats and civil servants. The public and the press have a right to see the evidence involved in this case; we must have maximum transparency to get to the bottom of any allegations made.”
The case will be watched with interest in the US, with Republicans believing that authorities in the UK had attempted to undermine Mr Trump’s presidency, and concern that US intelligence was leaked by an ally.
Mike Howell, who runs the Oversight Project at the Heritage Foundation, an American conservative think tank, said: “Abusing intelligence and feeding it to the regime’s media to take down Trump – we’ve seen this scheme before. The global Left started running this play the moment Trump came down those golden escalators.
“Darroch’s name should be added to the long list of characters that have yet to be held accountable. Shining a light on this sordid affair is an appropriate thing for Congressional investigators to dig in to.”
He added: “It’s unfortunate that the British Government is keeping their hearings in secret as the people deserve to know if US intelligence secrets were once again traded away for partisan gain.”
The Department for Business and Trade, which replaced the Department for International Trade, said it did “not wish to provide a comment”.