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Sunday Times: illegal bugging of Muslim MP - Wilson Doctrine breached ?

The Sunday Times leads with an interesting scoop, involving two topics about which we have written about here on Spy Blog, namely the Wilson Doctrine executive administrative prohibition on tapping or bugging the communications of Members of Parliament, and the controversial attempt by the US government to extradite British Muslim IT technician Babar Ahmad to the USA, without presenting any prima facie evidence to a British Court.

From The Sunday Times February 3, 2008 Police bugged Muslim MP Sadiq Khan

Insight: Michael Gillard and Jonathan Calvert

SCOTLAND YARD’S anti-terrorist squad secretly bugged a high-profile Labour Muslim MP during private meetings with one of his constituents.

Sadiq Khan, now a government whip, was recorded by an electronic listening device hidden in a table during visits to the constituent in prison.

Sadiq Khan MP for Tooting has an almost perfect record of supporting and voting in the most repressive Labour legislation e.g. Terrorism, Extradition, and ID Cards etc.

A document seen by The Sunday Times shows there was internal concern about the propriety of bugging an MP, who was also a lawyer, but the operation nevertheless went ahead.

The disclosure will put further pressure on Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan police commissioner, who will be asked to explain why his officers apparently breached government rules by bugging the MP – and if he authorised it.

The bugging of MPs is a breach of a government edict that has barred law agencies from eavesdropping on politicians since the bugging scandal of Harold Wilson’s government. There was no suspicion of criminal conduct by Khan to justify the operation.

The original Wilson Doctrine only applied to to landline telephone conversation of Members of the House of Commons (mobile phones and internet email had net yet even been invented back in 1966).

However the Wilson Doctrine seems to have been extended slightly under Tony Blair in 2000 to also cover electronic surveillance i.e. "bugging", as well.

Written answers Wednesday, 27 September 2000

Lord Roper (Liberal Democrat)

asked Her Majesty's Government:


Whether they will extend the prohibition on tapping the telephones of Members of Parliament to the interception of any form of electronic communication.

Lord Bassam of Brighton (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office) |


Further, pursuant to the answers given to the Lord Balfour of Inchrye by The Lord Privy Seal on 22 November 1966 (Official Report, col. 122) stating that, exceptionally, the statement made by the Prime Minister extends to the House of Lords, the Government can confirm that the policy described in previous answers applies in relation to the use of electronic surveillance as well as to telephone interception.

See our Wilson Doctrine category archive for more blog articles and transcripts.


Last night Jack Straw, the justice secretary, said that he had ordered an immediate inquiry and added that it would be "unacceptable" for such a bugging operation to take place.

Jack Straw's Ministry of Justice is in charge of Prisons (see below), but he has no power of the Police, especially not over the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command, as they are now called.

There was no mention of this intrusive Directed electronic Surveillance of a Member of Parliament in the relevant Annual Reports of the then Chief Surveillance Commissioner, the Rt. Hon. Sir Andrew Leggatt, whose office is supposed to sanction each request to use such bugging devices.

If the bugging was done without informing the Office of the Chief Surveillance Commissioner, then it was illegal under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

Will the current Chief Surveillance Commissioner, the Rt Hon Sir Christopher Rose investigate these Sunday Times allegations ?

Will the Independent Police Complaints Commission conduct an investigation ?

Will the House of Commons investigate this breach of Parliamentary Privilege ?

Will anyone actually shoulder the responsibility for this scandal ?


The bugging operation recorded conversations with his constituent, Babar Ahmad, who is facing deportation to the United States under new extradition laws. Khan has been a friend of Ahmad since childhood and has been a prominent campaigner against his extradition. He met the home secretary to discuss the case and handed over a petition of 18,000 signatures calling for Ahmad’s release.

The US government has accused Ahmad of running a website that raised funds for Taliban and Chechen terrorists in the late 1990s. He faces no charges in Britain but is wanted in the United States because his website was registered there.

Neither the Chechen rebels nor the Taliban were illegal organisations in the UK at the time, and even today, scandalously, they are still not on the List of Proscribed Terrorist Groups under the Terrorism Act 2000 !

See also

Khan made two visits to Ahmad in 2005 and 2006 while he was on remand at Woodhill prison in Milton Keynes. Both meetings were secretly recorded. Ahmad’s family say he arranged the meetings because he was no longer free to go Khan’s constituency office in Tooting, south London, and wanted to see his MP.

Knowing that Khan was coming, the antiterrorist squad requested the bugging. Senior officers had already granted authori-sation to bug Ahmad’s guests before Khan first visited. The officers had previously recorded family members who were leading the campaign to free him.

On what grounds was the bugging of Babar Ahmad's family visits authorised by the anti-terrorism Police ?

The meetings took place in the main visitors’ hall where each inmate is allocated an identical wooden table. Underneath the tables is a solid wood partition that separates prisoners from their visitors.

However, The Sunday Times has learnt that at least six of the tables have had their panels hollowed out to hide bugging equipment. They are known as "talking tables" . Inside each panel is a microphone, a battery, an antenna and a transmitter.

Such is the secrecy surrounding these tables that even the prison officers are said to be unaware of them. They are operated and maintained by specialist detectives permanently based at the prison.

The second meeting between Khan and Ahmad took place on the Saturday morning of June 24, 2006, during a crucial period for his campaign and legal case. Khan bought cups of tea and chocolate bars and joined Ahmad who had already been seated at one of the "talking tables".

Every word was transmitted to a receiver in the domed ceiling above them and then routed to a nearby office. The digital recording was picked up by an antiterrorist branch officer the next Monday morning.

If there was nobody bothering to listen in to the conversations "live"", they cannot have suspected any sort of imminent criminal conspiracy such as a prison escape or some terrorist attack

During the conversation the two men discussed the latest developments in the campaign against extradition. Khan up-dated Ahmad on a meeting in the House of Commons against the 2003 Extradition Act.

The Commons gathering had drawn support from politicians of all parties who had objected to changes in the law that allowed the United States to extradite suspects without first testing the case in a British court.

The antiterrorist officers would have heard Khan and Ahmad discussing tactics for his appeal, which was due to start shortly. The two men also talked about the civil case he was taking against the police, alleging that he was physically assaulted by officers when he was first arrested in December 2003 and released without charge.


Meanwhile, Khan was promoted to assistant government whip in the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for prisons.

The Sunday Times told him about the bugging operation last week. A friend said the disclosure might further undermine the government’s attempt to "reengage" the Muslim community. He said: "If he was not a Muslim MP would they be doing this? If it had been some ordinary white middle-class MP, would they have been bugged?" He added that this was a violation of an MP’s relationship with his constituent: "If you have not got the confidence to see your MP and know it is privileged, then that raises serious questions. It is f****** outrageous."

The bugging is a probable breach of the Wilson doctrine that has protected politicians from eavesdropping by the security services for more than 40 years. It was introduced by Harold Wilson, then prime minister, and was reaffirmed in the Commons by Tony Blair as recently as March 2006.

That is poor research by the Sunday Time's supposedly elite investigative journalism Insight team. They should have mentioned that the Wilson Doctrine was also reaffirmed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown on 17th July 2007 and again on 12th September 2007

Yesterday a senior Scotland Yard officer said Khan’s work as a defence lawyer had generated “ill feeling” in the Metropolitan police and questioned whether the force had legitimate grounds for the bugging. The officer said: “To do this you have to suspect the MP of being involved in some sort of conspiracy.”

He added that the operation may have breached Ahmad’s legal privilege: “The officers in charge would have known that because Khan is an MP and a lawyer there was a grave danger that the legal professional privilege would be breached.”

Ahmad remains in jail having lost his appeals in Britain and is awaiting a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. He has also lodged a civil claim against Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan police commissioner. Ahmad’s wife Maryam has called for the home secretary to investigate the police bugging operation.

Last week an official report suggested that authorities, including local councils, were launching bugging operations against 1,000 people a day.


More poor research by the Insight team !

There is a big difference between "bugging operations" like the one described in this article, involving hidden microphones or video cameras and radio transmitters, and the interception of electronic or postal communications e.g. the contents of telephones calls or emails etc.

Last week's "official report" was the delayed Report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner for 2006 by the Rt. Hon. Sir Paul Kennedy.

That report does not make any such claim, it gives a figure for requests for Communications Traffic Data by local councils end other Government quangos and the Police and intelligence agencies, but the vast majority of these are for telephone number subscriber details, not for the contents of the conversations, - this is not "bugging".

Will the medium level (e.g. Superintendent) Police officers who authorised this bugging, or the junior operatives who carried it out, be made to take the blame for this scandal, or will someone senior actually do the honourable thing and resign ?


BBC tv News 24 are reporting that 10 Downing Street spin doctors are denying the receipt of a confidential letter to the Prime Minister Gordon Brown from the Conservative Opposition Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, asking him to look into this apparent breach of the Wilson Doctrine, dated 11th December 2007.

David Davis is now supposed to have released the text of this letter, which will probably appear online somewhere soon.

What is the No 10 Downing Street machine playing at ?

How can they claim to have not received a letter from a senior Opposition politician ?

What is the Home Office playing at ?

Presumably the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was also copied in on this letter ?

Jack Straw at the Ministry of Justice is not in charge of the Police, so what sort of alleged inquiry can he launch, except into the Prison Service which does come under his control, but who do not appear to have been involved directly in the bugging ?

The BBC News website has some quotes online now:

Shadow home secretary David Davis said he had warned the prime minister weeks ago a Labour MP was being bugged - but received no reply nor any indication action had been taken.

Mr Davis said he had been passed information that security services were tapping an MP's conversations and asked if it meant the "Wilson Convention" - a principle established in 1966 barring bugging of MPs - had been abandoned.

But a Downing Street spokeswoman denied ever receiving a letter from Mr Davis on the issue adding: "Consequently, the prime minister had no knowledge of the claims."

Is this more Downing Street incompetence or deliberate mischief ?

The letter from David Davis has been flashed up on the Sky News tv report, but is not available for download from the Conservative Party website nor on the BBC or Sky websites either- they really are not as slick at internet news as they would have you believe.

The text of David Davis' Letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, seems to be available courtesy of BOF2BS in the comments on Iain Dale's blog article on this topic.

This seems to tally with the fragments which were visible on the Sky TV news screen and with what David Davis said on air.

dated December 11 2007

Dear Prime Minister,

You will recall the Wilson Doctrine, first articulated by Harold Wilson in 1966, under which it was set out as a matter of public policy that Government would not tap the telephones of Members of Parliament.

Your immediate predecessor and other Ministers have, since 1997, consistently confirmed that this policy remains in place.

I have reason to believe that the policy has been breached in relation to communications between a constituent, arrested and detained as a terrorist suspect since 2003, and his Member of Parliament.

I would be grateful if you could review this serious matter and inform me of the outcome of your review.

In addition, I would be grateful if you could confirm that there has been no change in the Wilson Doctrine under your premiership, in light of your clear commitment, made on July 3 of this year, to 'restore power to Parliament in order to build the trust of British people in our democracy'.

I am writing on a confidential basis, in the first instance, given the nature of the subject, the related sensitivities and to afford you an opportunity to provide a briefing on Privy Council terms if you deem it appropriate on grounds of national security.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Davis

Please point out any errors in this text.

The Daily Telegraph website has now also published the Letter from David Davis

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