Pubdate: Sun, 26 Apr 2009
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Authors: Isabel Oakeshott and David Leppard


The Panic Spread Fast When an Undercover British Officer Mislaid Key
Secrets in a Colombian Airport

AS the plane from Ecuador began its descent into the Colombian capital
of Bogota, Agent T must have felt a shiver of excitement about her new

She was being posted to the drugs capital of the world - where she had
secured a role gathering intelligence in the war against the global
cocaine trade worth UKP 50 billion a year.

An undercover customs officer with Britain's Serious Organised Crime
Agency (Soca), she would be responsible for dozens of undercover
agents providing vital information on Colombia's drugs cartels. The
job involved liaising with MI5 and MI6, the British security and
intelligence services, and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

In her handbag was a memory stick full of secret information that she
had personally downloaded from computer systems at her old office, the
Soca station in Quito, capital of Ecuador. On it, sources say, were
"Soca's crown jewels" - the names, code names, addresses and
operational details of dozens of Soca officers and confidential informants.

After the plane landed at Bogota's El Dorado international airport in
April 2006, Agent T boarded a transit coach to the terminal. She made
her way through immigration and then caught a bus heading for the
centre of the city and her new office at the British embassy.

For reasons still unclear, by the time she left the airport her
handbag - and the vital memory stick - were gone.

It was a blunder of potentially catastrophic proportions. In Colombia,
where the drug lords were always trying to keep one step ahead of the
authorities, such information was gold dust. Agent T knew that if the
data got into the wrong hands it would be a death sentence to those

According to insiders, there was "panic" at Soca's headquarters in
London when Agent T reported the mistake. Her boss, Paul Evans, a
former MI6 officer, ordered an internal inquiry, fearing his job was
on the line. Agent T was recalled to London to face the music.

A source claims the memory stick contained details of anti-narcotics
intelligence compiled over more than five years. The loss risked the
lives of undercover agents and informants who have now had to be
relocated. He said the total cost of aborted operations was UKP 100m.

"You are talking about years and years of efforts to recruit people
prepared to risk their lives to give information on the drugs trade.
For someone to have not only possibly compromised all that work, but
put many, many lives of individuals at risk, is as bad as it gets,"
said an intelligence source familiar with the case.

While officials guilty of similar blunders sometimes face court, Agent
T was dealt with behind closed doors at a disciplinary hearing.

With her career hanging in the balance, the agent might have been
expected to hire a lawyer. Instead, in a twist that will fuel concern
about the handling of the affair, it is understood she turned to an
old friend with no security clearance to represent her.

Inside Soca, rumours initially circulated that Agent T had sold the
memory stick to criminals - a theory that was soon discounted. The
Evans inquiry concluded the loss was a genuine mistake, a ruling
backed by those who know the agent well.

"She's a lovely girl but a bit daft and scatterbrained - the sort of
person you could imagine forgetting her handbag on a bus," said one
former officer who has worked with her.

Evans's anxiety to keep the affair out of the public eye is
understandable. There is already widespread criticism of Soca, some of
whose derring-do operations in hostile places are considered "frankly
amateurish" by more experienced agencies such as MI5, MI6 and the DEA.

When it was set up in 2006 Soca was heralded as "Britain's FBI", but
critics claim it has failed to deliver. They accuse Evans and Sir
Stephen Lander, the former MI5 boss who is Soca's chairman, of trying
to emulate MI5, using "intelligence-led" operations instead of
policing. Lower ranking police and customs officers question the focus
on Bogota rather than Birmingham.

One of the agency's sternest critics had been Terry Byrne, former
director-general for law enforcement at Customs and Excise, whose
proposals in 2003 led to Soca's creation. Byrne said the agency was
failing and its performance was dismal. It often claimed large
seizures but most of those were destined for America. "The agency is
claiming to have seized 84 tons of cocaine across the world, yet the
availability of cocaine in the UK is at an all-time high and street
prices at an all-time low," he said.

The loss of the memory stick will be seized on by Soca's critics as
further evidence of incompetence. Russ Corn, a former special forces
officer who is now deputy chief executive of Diligence, a commercial
intelligence business, said: "Soca does some good work but this
individual indiscretion is beyond belief. Sensitive intelligence
should be treated with the utmost respect. To download it on to a
memory stick and then lose it is incredibly stupid."

The incident will be acutely embarrassing for Jacqui Smith, the
under-fire home secretary, who is ultimately responsible for anti-drug

Soca reacted with alarm when The Sunday Times tracked down Agent T
last week to seek her version of events. In what appeared to be a
damage-limitation operation, it circulated a press release boasting
about seizing 600kg of cocaine in an undercover operation masterminded
by its South America drugs team. The operation was last July, although
Soca says the narcotics were publicly burnt "as a warning" to drug
traffickers last week.

The agency yesterday confirmed the data loss but said it had happened
soon after Soca had been set up "while staff were still working to the
data handling policies of precursor agencies".

A spokeswoman said: "Soca has introduced its own clearly defined data
handling and security policies. During the year to March 2009 - the
first year we have been required to report any breaches - there wasn't
a single breach of personal or sensitive data by Soca staff."

Insiders insist the incident was more recent. Significantly,
negotiations over Agent T's future are continuing. The Soca
spokeswoman said: "A mediation process is under way with the officer

Responding to messages left at her home in Slough, Agent T said in a
brief phone call that the claims about the extent of the damage done
were "ridiculous". She may remain on Soca's payroll for now, but it is
hard to imagine she will work in such a sensitive field again.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake