Special Branch corruption and a plot to deceive the Prime Minister
A ROGUE Special Branch unit was quietly disbanded after falsifying reports about an MI5 informant on one of the UK’s most secret intelligence databases, The Upsetter can reveal.
The counter-terrorism unit, which worked with MI5 to neutralise threats to UK transport networks, became mired in corrupt and unethical practices around the “chaotic” recruitment and management of informants.
An informant handler in the unit admitted fabricating reports on the National Special Branch Intelligence System (NSBIS), which holds ‘SECRET’ information about domestic extremism and counter-terrorism.
He claimed bosses told him to manipulate the NSBIS database to dupe inspectors from the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC), a government watchdog ensuring all covert police work is lawful.
The fabricated reports concerned the unit’s prized informant, who was infiltrating radical Islamists that MI5 suspected of plotting terror attacks. The deception was so serious that the OSC felt the prime minister should be told.
Every UK police force has a Special Branch, which acts as MI5’s extra pair of eyes and ears on whatever they consider to be political extremism.
The Special Branch unit at the centre of this scandal was part of British Transport Police (BTP) based in London.
An internal inquiry lasting almost two years and with no independent oversight eventually led to the sacking in secret of BTP’s director of intelligence.
But he and others involved, including the original whistleblower, believe there has been a cover up to protect Special Branch from wider scrutiny of its malpractice.
This includes racial profiling by trawling secret databases for Muslim names to turn into informants.
These events took place against the backdrop of widespread concern in Special Branch over the setting up of the Undercover Policing Inquiry in 2014 following shocking revelations of widespread abuse of women by undercover officers.
Counter-terrorism units were on notice to retain all intelligence held on NSBIS. But almost immediately files were shredded or deleted.
BTP has not informed the public inquiry about the ease with which NSBIS could be manipulated.
Sir Ed Davey MP, the Liberal Democrat leader, has now taken the unusual step of writing to Sir John Mitting, chairman of the inquiry, which is still sitting.
In his email Davey warned that NSBIS “was capable of manipulation by serving officers [and] the creation dates of the files was not a reliable indicator of when the content of those files was actually written.”
The Lib Dem leader has also told Priti Patel that BTP “misled” ministers and wants the home secretary to launch an immediate independent investigation into the "cover up” surrounding an “insider cyber attack” on NSBIS.
The Undercover Research Group of academics and activists monitoring the public inquiry on behalf of the hundreds of victims of unlawful policing by Special Branch and other counter-terrorism units said:
“These new revelations throw more worrying doubt on the integrity of police material and the cover up of abuses. The Undercover Policing Inquiry needs to ask the police just how endemic the practise was otherwise it makes a mockery of the disclosure process to those affected by police abuses going back decades.”
BTP refused to answer questions about its internal probe. What follows is based on internal documents and interviews with former Special Branch detectives speaking out for the first time about this unique corruption scandal.
WHEN fifty-two people were blown up in London on 7 July 2005, British Transport Police (BTP) had no capability to infiltrate suspected terrorists planning attacks on the UK rail networks and London Underground.
Eight years later, Phil Moran, a detective constable in Special Branch, helped set up the first dedicated source unit in BTP to recruit and run informants for counter-terrorism work.
Moran refreshed his skills as an informant handler. He took the MI5 three-week UKP4 course in how to recruit and work with a counter terrorism or domestic extremist Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS).
MI5 was picking up the bill for the new BTP unit. It’s other role was in directing the informants that Moran and his experienced co-handler, detective constable Jim Burgess, recruited.
Burgess had completed the Metropolitan police source development unit course which he described as “a bit more psychological and looking at how to target specific individuals.”
Operating from offices in Blundell Street, behind Pentonville Prison in north London, in early 2013 the pair began trawling BTP databases of those working on the transport network and anyone arrested by the force who might make a good informant.
On 30 May, the new unit’s first counter-terrorism CHIS was formally registered under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).
The Muslim man was a rail worker who’d provided Moran with information in the past, but only about crime. Now he was willing to infiltrate mosques and cafes frequented by people MI5 knew or suspected of being involved in radicalisation and terror plots here and abroad.
The recruit was also assessed by MI5’s G6 section that deals with counter-terrorism sources, who gave the green light, otherwise known as ‘concurrence’ in spook speak.
The codename for the new informant was ‘Large Win’ – which in many ways is how Moran, then aged 52, saw his Special Branch career ending.
Instead, within six months the informant-handler relationship had caused the detective’s professional and mental undoing and led to a conspiracy to deceive the surveillance watchdog and ultimately the prime minister.
As Large Win’s lead ‘handler’, Moran answered to Special Branch detective sergeant Dave West, the recently appointed ‘controller’ of informants at the new unit.
West was no fool. He had done thirty years at Kent police, seven of which involved a secondment to the National Crime Squad, before joining BTP Special Branch in 2007.
As controller, West approved all meetings with informants and managed the new unit’s expenses. These included a monthly £300 payment to Large Win from MI5 funds.
The spies had several “priority ops” against individuals. Large Win was authorised to “show verbal enthusiasm” for any extremist activity that these targets discussed in front of him.
All intelligence collected this way was documented by Moran on the National Special Branch Intelligence System (NSBIS) database and sent to MI5 through a secure email system.
But after four months, West suspected Large Win might be lying about his personal life, in particular a trip the informant had made over the summer of 2013 to Egypt, apparently alone.
Moran, however, was less concerned and refused to carry out extra checks on his informant, claiming West’s order to do so was either unnecessary or amounted to surveillance and therefore needed higher authority.
West bided his time until late September, when Moran returned from a “training weekend” to improve Large Win’s tradecraft. A shopping centre in Reading was often used to train informants how to spot if they are being followed to and from a meeting with their handlers. The process is known as ‘dry cleaning’.
Back in the office, West confronted Moran. A report commissioned from a senior analyst proved his suspicions were correct. Large Win had lied about his financial problems and the trip to Egypt with a woman he had secretly shacked up with.
Moran felt humiliated by West but also had to accept he hadn’t probed his informant enough.
But Moran also pointed West to the bigger picture. Large Win must be providing good intelligence to MI5 otherwise the spooks would have said something by now, he argued at the office meeting.
Nevertheless, issues around the informant’s financial problems were hard to ignore because it made Large Win and Special Branch vulnerable.
When the informant was recruited back in May 2013 it was accepted within Special Branch and MI5 that his primary motive was money not politics.
But the new checks suggested the informant could be making up intelligence for cash, which would undermine any terrorism prosecutions based on his reports.
Separately, West was also armed with concerns about Moran’s closeness to Large Win. Special Branch colleagues had reported back that during the recent training weekend a considerable time had been spent in pubs.
Large Win, it emerged, liked a drink - despite being on medication for anxiety - and had tried to chat up local women in the pub.
It also emerged that on his way home, the informant was potentially compromised when a fellow rail worker saw him sitting with his handlers.
Ignoring Moran’s pleas to keep it all within Special Branch, West alerted MI5 to the prospect that Large Win might have to be “discontinued”. The controller wrote:
“It is unknown if the intelligence [he] has supplied is truthful. At this stage we have been unable to corroborate his intelligence or his attendance at various venues. This is an area where early testing would be beneficial.”
MI5 responded immediately that Large Win’s intelligence was still of value and he should remain an informant, albeit with more oversight.
That job was the responsibility of detective superintendent Paul Shrubsole, BTP’s director of intelligence, who authorised all of Special Branch’s covert activity.
Shrubsole, then 45, was experienced, busy and generally liked. He backed West for doing the extra checks on Large Win. MI5, he recalled, wanted “a more stable regular payment [of £300] so [the informant] is not incentivised to make things up to gather additional funds.”
But what was he going to do about Moran? Shrubsole decided to remove him as Large Win’s main handler. He felt he had become “too close” but did not believe Moran had acted corruptly.
The director of intelligence also recognised that Moran was an asset to the new unit so he allowed him to continue trying to recruit and handle any new counter-terrorism informants. At this stage Large Win was the new unit’s only one.
However, the day-to-day management was left to West, whose relationship with a defenestrated Moran was breaking down beyond repair.
By the end of 2013, the atmosphere in the BTP Special Branch office was verging on open “civil war”.
Matters came to a head in November 2013 when Moran and Burgess alleged serious malpractice in how handlers were expected to recruit new counter-terrorism informants.
An instruction had come down from West and detective inspector Sam Blackburn, the head of Special Branch, to find up to five potential new informants every week. Until then the unit was putting up maybe three a month for MI5’s consideration, said Moran.
Documents show he and Burgess were concerned on several levels about the push for increasing “productivity” of the new source unit, which by then had been running for eleven months.
Firstly, the handlers felt Blackburn should not have been so involved in intelligence matters. It was a well-established practise across policing that detectives who carry out operations should not know the source of the intelligence that led to those operations. This system of ‘sterile corridors’ is designed to avoid the inadvertent or corrupt leaking of an informant’s identity.
But as a young and ambitious head of Special Branch, Blackburn wanted to known what was going on in the new source unit. After all, it’s success or failure would blow back on him.
West, who was older but a rank below Blackburn, should have only been reporting to Shrubsole. But in Blackburn he had found an ally to push a more intrusive management style.
“The results of the previous 11 months and the lack of sources showed this to be necessary,” Blackburn wrote in a memo at the time.
The chain of command was breaking down. But more significantly, documents show that the recruitment drive for more informants had led to the racial profiling of Muslims.
According to Moran, every week Special Branch analysts compiled a list of Muslim men and women who worked for Transport for London and other rail networks.
Those with Muslim names who had been arrested by BTP officers were also added to the list. Even innocent victims of crime on the rail network were placed on these lists if they had Muslim names, he told The Upsetter.
The weekly lists were referred to in the Special Branch office as “trawl sheets” and handlers were expected to work through each name to assess their suitability for an approach to become an informant.
To make the assessment, Moran says personal details were researched on NSBIS and other databases to see if the Muslim names had any link to persons of interest to MI5.
Even if no link could be found their names were still passed to the National Domestic Extremism Intelligence Unit or MI5 for “enhanced and detailed checks”, which Moran believed was “breaching human rights.”
Moran, who is married to a Muslim BTP officer, was uncomfortable with the instruction. Documents confirm he complained about West and Blackburn to the MI5 liaison officer at G6 Section.
MI5 sent a diplomatic reminder of the “benchmark” required of individuals they would consider as potential informants, said Moran, who felt he had the spooks’ support.
Moran also told the MI5 liaison officer that West was not passing on intelligence in a timely manner. He cited an example of a National Security Report (NSR) containing intelligence from Large Win about someone working on the rail network who was of interest to MI5.
Moran claimed the NSR had sat for days in West’s e-folder on the NSBIS database so he took the initiative and forwarded it on to MI5 himself. The spooks came back with an "urgent tasking” for Large Win to find out more, he claimed.
By now, it could not have escaped MI5’s attention that after almost one year the new Special Branch source unit it was funding was in disarray: A lying informant, a handler removed for being to close to him, complaints that intelligence was not being passed on in time and now allegations of racial profiling.
As for Moran, going outside Special Branch was unlikely to improve his relationship with West and Blackburn. He says they told him and Burgess to get on with processing the trawl lists.
West wrote in a November 2013 memo:
“I felt resentment from both officers that I wanted more accountability than previously. Obstacles were put up when I was encouraging officers to use databases to identify potential recruitment opportunities. I became aware of hostility by DC Moran to my decision making.”
For his part, Moran was starting to feel “side-lined” for speaking out. His suspicions grew over Christmas when Burgess showed him a notebook in which Blackburn had apparently described Moran as “poisonous” and “disruptive”.
The National Special Branch Intelligence System (NSBIS) is a database used since the early 2000s to manage all dealings with informants, undercover operations and MI5. Only those with DV (developed vetting) top clearance can access it via a personal log on.
Each force or counter-terrorism unit has a NSBIS database for inputting ‘SECRET” intelligence, some of which is harvested and stored on the national system NSBIS-N.
When it comes to informants there are two key figures who input intelligence on NSBIS: the ‘handlers’ do most of the writing and the ‘controller’ ensures the contact with the informant is done correctly and actioned in a timely manner.
The ‘authorising officer’ has no personal log on to NSBIS but must be satisfied everything is ‘proportionate and necessary’ under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).
The NSBIS database at BTP Special Branch used template Word documents for different stages of dealing with an informant. There were forms for permission to meet, for any contact in person or by phone and for the intelligence provided, both in raw and sanitised versions.
Once filled in by the handler these various forms were then passed to the controller’s e-folder on NSBIS for consideration and, in the case of intelligence, forwarding on to MI5 for further direction.
Additionally, there were other more lengthy Word template documents such as the original authorisation for an informant and regular reviews and risk assessments of the informant’s activity. These documents were supposed to be printed off and ‘wet signed’ by the handler, controller and authoring officer upon completion.
The controller would keep the printed version in a secure desk file for each informant, which would be made available to the Office of Surveillance Commissioners during their annual inspection. The digital version remained in e-folders on the NSBIS database, which were regularly backed up.
The new Special Branch source unit was due its first annual inspection by the OSC in February 2014.
Everyone would have to pull together, but the unit was in chaos and divided into two camps: Those supporting Moran and Burgess (who had gone sick) versus those who supported West and Blackburn.
Shrubsole was by now aware of the breakdown. He had supported Moran’s complaint that Blackburn should not be involved with intelligence matters and made West aware of this, he told The Upsetter.
Shrubsole had also insisted on Moran and West trying to resolve their differences. But this had failed. Especially as Moran was now questioning West’s credentials, which the controller took as an attack on his integrity.
On 10 February 2014, an important date in this scandal, Moran was called to a crucial meeting with West and Shrubsole at BTP headquarters in Camden, north London.
The purpose was to ensure all documentation would satisfy the OSC’s inspection in two weeks.
Over the following three days a conspiracy was hatched to deceive the surveillance watchdog by exploiting a fundamental weakness with the NSBIS database.
This is Gonna Costa
Moran says he thought the 10 February 2014 meeting with Shrubsole and West was to finally talk through his complaints as well as to prepare for the OSC inspection.
He recalls walking into the office and seeing piles of printed documents waiting for his signature. West, he claims, ordered him to backdate over 35 daily contact sheets of his meetings with Large Win from September 2013.
Shrubsole, he claims, told him to access the NSBIS database and create and back date reviews and risk assessments for Large Win, which had not been done in August and November 2013.
When his bosses left the room, Moran started signing and dating the contact sheets knowing he was now engaged in a conspiracy to deceive the OSC. On the 10 and 12 February 2014 he logged on to the NSBIS database and admits fabricating two reviews and two risk assessments from scratch then saving them with backdated file names.
On 13 February, Moran called West’s deputy. He did not blow the whistle on what he had just done, but reported sick and did not return to work for the next five months.
Given Moran’s antipathy towards West and his willingness to go above him and outside BTP when he felt things weren’t right, his reaction was out of character. Why didn’t he simply refuse what was clearly a corrupt order and immediately raise the alarm?
Moran maintained he was too depressed, even to tell his wife, who was already a confidant. Months later he offered this explanation to investigators:
“I feel sick about what I did. It’s destroyed my desire to be a policeman. Seriously, I don’t say that lightly. That’s why, around this time, even prior to this, I was just talking to my wife and sitting there and saying I’m fed up with this. I’m not sure I want to do this anymore. I don’t want to be part of what’s going on in this department. I said, you know, I hate it and this was all part of the stress and pressure that I was under at the time, knowing everyone involved in this work should have the utmost integrity.
We were going down a road which was so far removed from what it should be … I shouldn’t have done it at the time, had I been mentally able to I should have just walked away.
The whole of this process has destroyed my police career. I’ve got no love of the job anymore. I’m quite embarrassed and almost ashamed to say I’ve been part of this Special Branch department.”
On the evening of 17 February, after telling his doctor he couldn’t function and being formally signed off work, Moran did however email West one last time. For good measure, he copied in Burgess, Cameron Knox, the detective constable who’d replaced him as Large Win’s main handler, and Richard Lee, the deputy controller.
Moran wrote that his “stress and anxiety” meant he would miss the OSC inspection and pointed out he had been “unable to complete and sign the retrospective reviews for [Large Win] as there were inconsistencies with the information and risk assessments which has confused things for me.”
In one sense, the email was another missed opportunity to clearly express his outrage at the unlawful order to fabricate documents and deceive the watchdog. Moran said his oblique email was a signal to West and others. “It was like giving them another opportunity to sit there and say do not do this.”
But by his own account, none of the recipients contacted him to say - what the fuck is going on Phil? In fact, West responded to everyone the following morning as if it was all normal. He said he would check for any inconsistencies and wished Moran better.
The OSC inspection took place over four days ending on 28 February 2014. Moran told The Upsetter he looked into contacting the surveillance watchdog at the time only to discover he would have to go through BTP. He chose not to. Nor did he raise the alarm with anyone else.
In fact it was not until early April 2014 that he contacted a friend on BTP’s Counter Corruption Unit. And that was on the initiative of his Police Federation representative, who was looking after Moran’s welfare while he was on sick leave.
Moran met the anti-corruption detective at a Costa Coffee in Kent on 11 April, where he handed over a typed 10-page statement. It laid out in crushing detail the fall out with West and Blackburn over Large Win, the drive to recruit sources for MI5 and an alleged “cover up” over his complaint.
Moran was less detailed about the events a few months earlier in February but admitted fabricating the reviews and risk assessments to deceive the OSC inspectors. He ended the statement signalling his intention to resign and then this:
“I have lost faith in [BTP’s] ability to manage National Security Sources and feel it is not fit to do so.”
A further meeting with a more senior anti-corruption detective took place in the same Costa Coffee one month later on 14 May. Then, extraordinarily, nothing happened for another two months.
In that time it would have have been clear to BTP’s top brass that Moran’s explosive allegations about the director of intelligence, the head of Special Branch and the controller of a new dedicated source unit were not just embarrassing in front of MI5 and the OSC, but also highly significant given events that were unfolding in Parliament.
Protecting the US Embassy from the great unwashed during the 1968 demo against the Vietnam War spurred Special Branch into setting up a secret squad to infiltrate future political movements.
The Special Demonstration Squad deployed undercover cops - known internally as the Hairies - who embedded, sometimes literally, with men and women on the left looking to protect the environment, halt nuclear proliferation, stop the dirty war in Northern Ireland and other single issue campaigns.
By the 1980s, Special Branch had infiltrated a dazzling array of grassroots protest groups with undercover officers (UCs) who went on to form relationships, overwhelmingly with woman, and in some cases father children as part of their cover.
These UC deployments went on for years and the usual method of extraction was to feign mental breakdown and disappear overnight, sometimes back to their real wives and families.
Protest groups were aware they were open to infiltration, but proof was hard to find as these were not hardened revolutionaries with internal security departments willing to kneecap informers, but more often young men and women armed with lentils and hope.
All that changed with the unmasking in 2010 of UC Mark Kennedy by the environmental campaigners he had embedded with as 'Mark Stone’ for seven years.
By then Kennedy had slept with as many as ten female activists, including a two-year sexual relationship that was sanctioned by the UC’s bosses, but probably not his wife.
In 2011, the police launched an internal inquiry overseen by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which was stuffed with ex-cops.
By then the Special Demonstration Squad had been replaced by other covert counter-terrorism units. Kennedy was part of one of them - the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. But in 2012 it merged with two other units until May 2013 when a new National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU) was formed.
One constant was that all these units had fed intelligence into the NSBIS database by the time Moran admitted fabricating informant reports in early February 2014.
A little over three weeks later, on 6 March 2014, then home secretary Theresa May announced a judge-led public inquiry into the spycops scandal. She did not trust the police or IPCC to investigate properly.
Writing in The Guardian, which has also played a key part, Kate Wilson, one of the victims, said:
“The wide questions for society here are massive, this is about institutional sexism, senior police officers sanctioning sexual abuse, and the systematic violation of political beliefs, and we still don’t have the whole truth.”
The scandal could not have escaped the attention of BTP’s Counter-Corruption Unit, who had received Moran’s allegations about the gaming of NSBIS and deceiving the OSC one month after the public inquiry was announced in Parliament.
And on 12 May, two days before anti-corruption detectives went to see Moran for a second time at the Costa Coffee, counter-terrorism units had been ordered to preserve all files that might be relevant to the public inquiry.
Nevertheless, NDEDIU whistleblowers came forward to say files were being shredded and destroyed, including one held on Jenny Jones, the former deputy mayor of the Greater London Authority and Green party representative.
It was in this murky atmosphere that BTP started a corruption probe codenamed Muscle into Moran’s far-reaching allegations.
On 28 July 2014, Moran returned to part time work after five months off sick. He was still unwell and told occupational health he intended to retire in November, which meant September because of holiday due.
For now, his main concern was that his complaint in April appeared to have gone nowhere. After the two Costa Coffee meetings in April and May he’d heard nothing from the anti-corruption squad.
So Moran popped in to see Matt Wratten, the detective chief superintendent with oversight of complaints at BTP, and had “a little bit of a meltdown” in his office.
Days later, on 5 August, Wratten bumped into detective superintendent Gareth Williams, the newly appointed head of the anti-corruption squad, and asked him for an update.
Incredibly, Williams knew nothing about Moran’s explosive allegations. He did, however, know Moran. They had been work mates for 20 years. In fact, Williams had gone to Moran’s wedding in 2008, they’d dined together as married couples and Moran told The Upsetter he’d even done some DIY at Williams’ home.
Williams took charge of Operation Muscle but did not consider this a conflict of interest. He simply and belatedly recorded in a log that Moran was “an individual I have known personally for 20 years.”
The top brass also seemed unbothered even though, as one internal report put it, “this investigation will attract a lot of interest and be scrutinised in detail.”
On 20 August Williams visited his old mate to discuss the complaint. Moran told The Upsetter they had a “full conversation”.
Two days later Williams summarised the issues as ranging from “poor performance and flawed process to serious misconduct”. The new anti-corruption boss added: “It must be established exactly what the allegations are and what they might mean for BTP.”
Burgess had retired in March. He was interviewed by Operation Muscle detectives on 26 August and corroborated Moran’s claims about the fall out with West over Large Win and Blackburn’s involvement in source issues.
He also added a new claim that a Muslim informant recruited after Large Win was “paid money prior to recruitment”.
Three days later Moran was also interviewed on tape. He repeated his claims about West and Blackburn breaking the intelligence sterile corridor and the “trawl of the force systems” for potential Muslim informants to refer to MI5. He too alleged that payment was made to “induce” people to become informants.
Moran then went into detail about West’s order to backdate Large Win’s contact sheets and Shrubsole telling him to falsify the informant’s reviews and risk assessments on NSBIS.
This time, Moran firmly put the director of intelligence into the conspiracy to deceive the surveillance watchdog. He recalled Shrubsole saying at the crucial 10 February 2014 meeting: “Thank God we’re doing it this way because it won’t show.”
Moran also directly implicated himself:
“I knew I shouldn’t be doing this. I didn’t even know why I did it. I was totally confused and feeling sick about what was going on. I submitted them to [West’s] folder and I know that there was a lot of errors in the form because I just couldn’t get my head round what I was typing.”
At the end of the tape recording Moran mentioned that the anti-corruption squad had given him an assurance that by fabricating reports on NSBIS he was not “party to any criminality.”
Appraised of what Burgess and Moran were alleging, Williams discussed the case with the deputy chief constable David McCall. It was agreed that if proven the case would have “significant ramifications” for BTP.
In a later statement, Williams put it this way:
“The allegations are very serious as they refer to the falsification of Special Branch records pertaining to a national security covert human intelligence source. I became the Investigating Office in this case predominantly due to the serious nature of the allegations, but also the potential reputational damage to BTP should they be proven.”
Documents show BTP wanted to handle matters internally. But because the director of intelligence was a suspect it was felt the police watchdog needed to approve this.
In September, the IPCC’s Adrian Tapp, a former detective, agreed BTP could keep it all in house. In other words, Operation Muscle would be conducted entirely behind closed doors and without any independent oversight.
BTP’s anti-corruption squad recorded in a report that the IPCC had “clarified that the investigation should remain a local investigation and agreed that whilst the allegations are very serious that this was not an issue of corruption that should be managed by IPCC and/or referred to the Crown Prosecution Service.”
It was an extraordinary decision given the IPCC was at the same time overseeing the police investigation into the spycops scandal and assisting the public inquiry.
BTP did not alert the Office of Surveillance Commissioners until October, almost two months after Sir Christopher Rose, the chief surveillance commissioner, had presented his annual report to Prime Minister David Cameron and Parliament.
The report had concluded that BTP was “trying very hard to comply with the legislation.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
And when Clare Ringshaw-Dowle, chief surveillance inspector, finally learned from Operation Muscle detectives about Moran’s admissions, she said it was the “first time” the OSC had been “deceived and misled”.
Sir Christopher, she added, would consider bringing it “to the personal attention of the prime minister”.
Shrubsole and West were notified in late September 2014 that they were suspected of gross misconduct and subsequently suspended.
Shrubsole already had an inkling something was going down in July when an anti-corruption detective asked for copies of Large Win’s printed reviews and risk assessments.
During his first Operation Muscle interview, Shrubsole confirmed there has been a fall out between Moran and West after Large Win went “a little bit rogue”. But he denied ordering Moran to fabricate the informant’s reviews and risk assessments.
The director of intelligence had no log on for the NSBIS system and would pass his comments to West to input into any document. Shrubsole was emphatic the August and November 2013 reviews and risk assessments were done at the time they were dated, printed and signed.
Operation Muscle had an anomaly when it came to the case against Shrubsole. Special Branch witnesses, including Moran and Burgess, confirmed that he had insisted on quarterly reviews of Large Win and other quality controls.
Furthermore, after Moran and Burgess had complained in November 2013 about West not processing source documents on time, it was Shrubsole they said who introduced an extra layer of protection by ordering the new source unit to also record activity on another parallel secret database used by detectives, the ABM Pegasus IT system, so there was no ambiguity over who did what and when.
Burgess put it this way in his interview with Operation Muscle:
“Every single source gets put on [NSBIS], registered on there. It’s allocated a number and they’re usually just referred to by that number. The other handlers, if you are not handling that source, you’ll just be aware of a number. You have no involvement. In November, Mr Shrubsole made a decision that he also wanted contact sheets, meeting requests, basically everything apart from intelligence recorded on the Pegasus system. The good thing with Pegasus is it’s timed and dated and once you’ve submitted a document you can’t make any sort of changes to it.”
West also denied the allegation of ordering the backdating of any documents. His defence preparations were assisted by Blackburn, whom Operation Muscle were treating as a “witness”. The racial profiling allegations didn’t even form part of the case against West.
In January 2015, the OSC and MI5 were separately briefed on progress. Operation Muscle recorded that the spooks had “no concerns about any previous operational activity or the continued activity” of Large Win or two new informants recruited by the BTP Special Branch dedicated source unit.
Shrubsole told The Upsetter it was “highly probable” that prosecutions were taking place based on the intelligence provided by these informants. The corruption probe into their source handling unit would clearly be of interest to defence lawyers, but everything was buried in secrecy so the chances of finding out were zero.
Documents also show that MI5 declined to review the BTP unit’s files and opted instead for an internal “review” - the results of which remain unknown because the spooks only talk to nominated national media journalists.
BTP’s anti-corruption squad lacked the technical expertise to establish if Moran was telling the truth.
An early digital fumble by BTP staff and an engineer from Serco, the outsourcing company with the contract to install and maintain NSBIS, in effect trampled over the digital crime scene.
BTP turned to the UK National Authority for Counter Eavesdropping (NACE), a part of the Foreign Office based in Milton Keynes. NACE sent Dave Edwards, a Cyber Countermeasures Officer, to mirror the NSBIS server and see if Moran’s version of events could be supported by a digital footprint. This exercise was codenamed Ruby Star.
Realising his future could turn on geek speak that no one in charge of Operation Muscle understood, Shrubsole got his own expert. Steve Shepherd MBE had worked at many spooky UK government outfits but retained a high-level clearance in the private sector.
Based on Shepherd’s report, which rubbished the NACE one, Shrubsole, with the backing of the Superintendents’ Association, went on the offensive in December 2015.
Privately, he believed he was “collateral damage” in the clash between Moran and West. Publicly, he accused Operation Muscle of lacking integrity and suggested that “DC Moran’s actions in February 2014 may have caused the deletion or obscuration of material document content or metadata.”
In other words, that Moran’s “mental disorder” could mean he maliciously created the reviews and risk assessments by cutting and pasting from the originals, which were then deleted to hide his tracks.
“It is significant that Moran waited nine weeks, the time it took for the NSBIS backup tapes to overwrite activity on 10 February 2014, before reporting his claims to the anti-corruption squad on 11 April,” Shrubsole told The Upsetter.
The suspended director of intelligence was emboldened to make these assertions because both computer experts had by now agreed there was no conclusive evidence to support Moran’s version of events.
The content of the documents Moran says he created in February 2014 existed previously on the NSBIS database but could no longer be found, the experts agreed.
Separately, Shepherd was surprised to discover that the BTP Special Branch NSBIS database had “no audit system”. Either that or it wasn’t activated at the time of these events. This made it harder for experts like him to detect tampering with files and data from a detective’s log on details.
The computer evidence, therefore, was not conclusive because of the way NSBIS and its back up system was managed at BTP.
It was possible to access one of the UK’s most secret intelligence systems, fabricate informant files and leave almost no digital footprint.
Whistle(blowing) in the Wind
Concerns about the relationship between Moran, the complainant, and Williams, the top cop in charge of Operation Muscle, led to a flurry of activity.
Williams made a statement for the first time detailing his "established relationship” with Moran and his wife, who was still serving at BTP.
“I have seen both in a social setting on numerous occasions but not on a frequent basis,” he said, claiming he hadn’t disclosed this when he took over the case because, “I didn’t believe it was relevant.”
Williams had to disclose his work and personal mobile phones, which revealed undocumented texts and calls with Moran in the lead up to and during Operation Muscle. Some calls lasted between seven and thirteen minutes and occurred when Williams was taking a statement from his star witness.
Moran has told the The Upsetter that Williams bumped into his wife on a train station and told her to tell him to concentrate his statement on Shrubsole and not get “side tracked by the Blackburn issue.”
Moran further claims that he asked Williams why his allegations against Blackburn were not being investigated. The anti-corruption boss tried to “deflect” the question, Moran recalls, and said Blackburn would be investigated after the discipline hearing of Shrubsole and West.
“I had a list of expectations of what was to be looked at,” Moran said. From Williams’ response he knew “it was going tits up”. He now believes a “clique” of possibly Masonic BTP officers were protecting the head of Special Branch and the force from further embarrassment.
Blackburn was never investigated by Operation Muscle. He was promoted to detective chief inspector and is still serving. He declined to comment. So did Williams, who is now in charge of BTP County Lines operations.
With just weeks to go before his and Shrubsole’s gross misconduct hearing in February 2016, West surprised everyone by retiring.
He wrote to the panel, having sacked his legal team, with what looked like an admission. On the issue of Large Win’s backdated contact sheets, West said over twenty had been signed retrospectively as part of a “housekeeping” exercise ahead of the OSC inspection.
He also offered a complex explanation of how he had prepared the informant’s reviews and risk assessments. He said any “mistakes” tidying up the documents on NSBIS was not intended to deceive the surveillance commissioner.
“Due to the financial cost of the investigation I have been forced to retire earlier than I had planned and very much against my will. I am totally innocent of this allegation,” he wrote.
Operation Muscle had for some time been coming to the view that West “may be the architect of the exercise.” Now he was gone.
When Moran learned only Shrubsole was in the dock he says he contacted the police watchdog to complain. But he recalls that the IPCC “clearly weren’t aware of all the allegations - otherwise why wasn’t Blackburn there?”
It was hardly surprising as the watchdog had left Operation Muscle to its own devices.
On 15 February 2016, two years since Moran fabricated reports on NSBIS, the discipline tribunal was held in secret over seven days.
As the computer evidence was inconclusive it came down to whose story the panel preferred - Moran or Shrubsole.
Moran was presented by BTP as a “whistleblower” of a conspiracy the OSC deemed so serious it thought the prime minister should be alerted.
BTP wholly invested in Moran’s version of events - that he had fabricated Large Win’s reviews and risk assessments on the instructions of West and Shrubsole and as a result the OSC had been deceived.
However, in front of the panel Moran voiced his displeasure at Operation Muscle covering up other aspects of his whistle-blowing. On the main allegation against Shrubsole his recollections were sometimes patchy and vague and at other times contradictory.
It emerged that Moran never mentioned the Shrubsole allegation to the counsellor he saw while off sick. Instead, he attributed his “mental and physical breakdown” to the issues he had with West and Blackburn.
Nevertheless, in the witness box Moran repeated that Shrubsole had ordered him to fabricate the August and November 2013 reviews and risk assessments for Large Win.
But that account was contradicted by Burgess, his now retired co-handler, and DC Cameron Knox, who was still serving as a Special Branch counter-terrorism CHIS handler.
Burgess told the panel he believed "with certainty” these reports were done at the time by him and Moran on NSBIS and then printed and signed by West and Shrubsole. He repeated that view when interviewed for this article.
Burgess said Shrubsole was “the wrong guy” in the dock. West and Blackburn should have been there. Shrubsole was “the fall guy”, he told The Upsetter.
On 26 February, the panel found on the balance of probabilities that Moran had been ordered to back date contact sheets by West, who had voluntarily given evidence but was described as “a dishonest witness”.
The panel also found that Shrubsole had ordered Moran to create false informant documents on NSBIS. The director of intelligence was sacked with immediate effect.
“It is apparent that by late 2013 the BTP Special Branch could best be described as dysfunctional,” the panel concluded.
Sources says that the counter-terrorim source unit was quietly disbanded and by 2019 its informants taken over by MI5’s G6 Section.
After Shrubsole lost an appeal, Sir Ed Davey, his MP, took up the case. He told The Upsetter:
“When I see cases where I feel justice hasn’t necessarily been done, where I feel questions remain unanswered it’s an MP’s job to push for answers. Overall [my constituent] is a reasonable, intelligent and plausible person and his concerns that the National Security computer can in some way be altered did also ring alarm bells.”
Davey first wrote to former security minister James Brokenshire and more recently to home secretary Priti Patel.
The Home Office says it has received “assurances the (NSBIS) system was not compromised” and that this was also the finding of an independent discipline panel. It wasn’t. The discipline case found NSBIS had been compromised and the OSC misled.
Davey told Patel that BTP “misled” her department and NSBIS was subject to an “insider cyber attack” by Moran. The Lib Dem leader called Operation Muscle a “cover up” and wants the home secretary to order an independent investigation.
“It’s the only way you will get this cleared up once and for all. It’s the only way to seed the justice, which has been my objective all along. And if she is not prepared to then she should explain why. I find that the Home Office can sometimes be very complacent and given how frequently government security had lapsed I would have thought they would have been rather more humble.”
Davey also raised these issues with BTP. Adrian Hanstock, who became deputy chief constable in 2014 when Operation Muscle started, told Davey it was “one of the most complex investigations undertaken” by BTP’s anti-corruption squad, which came under his command.
Undoubtedly, Operation Muscle was knotty, but it wasn’t independent and has ignored key allegations of gross misconduct, such as racial profiling, from its own star witness.
Furthermore, while Hanstock was assuring Davey of the integrity and competency of his anti-corruption squad, three of its detectives were under investigation for failing to properly investigate corruption by a civilian staff member working for BTP’s senior management team.
The senior civilian staff member was secretly sacked for gross misconduct this September for trying to fix job applications. The three anti-corruption officers were mildly disciplined with “management action”. BTP and the police watchdog refuse to answer questions or identify if those concerned were involved with Operation Muscle.
In his exchange with Davey, Hanstock also relies on the independence of the panel that sacked Shrubsole. However, that panel was held in secret and chaired by Commander Julian Bennett from the Met.
Bennett, who was involved in drug enforcement strategy, had a reputation for being a bit of a Judge Dread when deciding on the honesty and integrity of fellow officers. So it is deliciously ironic that last week it was announced he will face a gross misconduct hearing for refusing to take a drug test after a tip off that he enjoyed getting high on weed.
Deputy chief constable Hanstock’s third defence of Operation Muscle relies on reassurances from the National Counter-Terrorism Policing Headquarters (NCTPHQ). This is the new umbrella organisation co-ordinating the police response to the spycops scandal and Undercover Policing Inquiry.
NSBIS, they told Davey, has been replaced by the “Apollo Project which introduced a nationally accredited and controlled National Security Network using an intelligence application called National Common Intelligence Application (NCIA).”
It is correct that since 2011 UK police forces have been migrating the intelligence held on NSBIS to the NCIA, a one-stop integrated and unified counter-terrorism database under the control of NCTPHQ and hosted by the Met.
It is also true that as part of the migration from NSBIS to NCIA there has been a “weeding” process of old intelligence files no longer deemed relevant and a destruction of files that would embarrass Special Branch and counter terrorism units in front of the Undercover Policing Inquiry.
In his correspondence with Davey, the BTP deputy commissioner did not mention that an inquiry found the Met has been shredding files since 2014.
The Undercover Policing Inquiry is now in its seventh year. There’s been a concerted effort by the police establishment to prevent disclosure of documents and protect undercover officers and their bosses from detailed cross-examination.
Just nineteen days have been spent on hearing evidence from undercover officers. Eighteen days have been spent on legal arguments. The inquiry has so far cost the taxpayer £43m - largely in legal fees - and is unlikely to report for another five years.
Some justice has been already delivered following an important ruling this September that the rights of Kate Wilson, the environmental activist deceived into a two-year sexual relationship with Mark Kennedy, were wholly violated by the police.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal said:
“We are driven to the conclusion that either senior officers were quite extraordinarily naive, totally unquestioning or chose to turn a blind eye to conduct which was, certainly in the case of [Kennedy], useful to the operation."
Sir Ed Davey felt the Undercover Policing Inquiry chairman Sir John Mitting needed to be made aware of what happened at BTP Special Branch and also given the opportunity to reconsider the integrity of NSBIS documents so far provided by the police.
In a letter to the chairman on 12 November 2021, Davey wrote:
“The data held on the NSBIS was capable of manipulation by serving officers. I have seen agreed expert evidence that the creation dates of the files held on the system was not a reliable indicator of when the content of those files was actually written.”
Moran denies he acted alone. Shrubsole maintains he is a fall guy for BTP. Both men believe there has been a cover up.
A spokeswoman for Police Spies Out Of Lives, a campaign group run by affected activists, said:
“The latest revelation of deleted or altered police records is yet
another example of why people like us have no trust in the police. With
each of these discoveries it becomes more difficult to trust that the
police place any value on transparency or accountability. Despite
seemingly earnest protestations by senior officers, there is clearly no
willingness to learn from past ‘mistakes’. To us these ‘mistakes’ appear
This is especially concerning for those of us involved in the Undercover Policing Inquiry [into] large-scale abuses of the human rights of thousands of members of the public by undercover policing units over the past five decades. The Inquiry Chair has refused many applications for those spied on to become part of the Inquiry. He has withheld from public view the names of a large number of officers from the police units under investigation, for reasons of their personal safety and privacy, and believing in the integrity of the police's evidence as a means of 'getting to the truth'.
In this situation, where the police are under investigation, yet are tasked with guiding the Inquiry in the direction of the ‘relevant’ evidence, this story makes for disturbing reading.”
And so it goes.
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