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The Quick - and the Dead in the Water

Met Assistant Commissioner resigns following security breach

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Comment Quick by name, and for once, quick by nature. The speedy resignation of assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, following his inadvertent public exposure of secret documents detailing a highly sensitive counter-terror operation, has probably saved the Police and Home Office an Easter of recriminations and back-biting.

As a result of his gaffe, a series of raids by MI5 and police counter-terror units had to be brought forward and carried out in a hurried and potentially dangerous manner. Twelve people were arrested yesterday, including 10 Pakistani nationals on student visas, at a time and at locations that experts have suggested posed a far greater risk than normal to the public.

This morning, London Mayor Boris Johnson spoke of his "sadness" at the sudden turn of events, whilst Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, acknowledging that his position had become "untenable", expressed her appreciation for the work he had done in protecting the public from terror throughout his career.

The saga began yesterday, when Bob Quick walked up Downing Street for a meeting with Gordon Brown, openly carrying a document which revealed the number of terrorist suspects that were about to be arrested, as well as the cities in which they were located.

The photograph was obtained by Getty Images, who almost immediately put it up on their website. As soon as they became aware of this gaffe, the Ministry of Defence issued a D-notice (strictly, a DA notice, under the Defence Advisory system) asking UK media not to publish this photograph.

D-notices do not have the force of law, and obeying them is voluntary. However, on the rare occasions that they are issued, the UK media generally adhere to them in order to avoid potentially serious breaches of national security.

Although they are based abroad, Getty also agreed to take the photo down from their website. However, the damage was done, as every news organisation with a contract to receive Getty material, both in the UK and abroad, had already done so.

Police and MI5 reacted by bringing forward the timing of the raids – and appear satisfied that no lasting harm has been done. Whether this will remain the verdict when these cases are brought to trial remains to be seen.

It is tempting to place this incident in a long line of security breaches, in which members of the police and intelligence services have managed to leave laptops, papers and memory sticks on trains, at cafés or out in public at almost any conceivable location where the material should never have been taken in the first place – let alone left behind.

In fact, this story exemplifies a very specific sort of security breach that has far more to do with a lack of simple common sense on the part of those individuals caught out by photographers.

Last year, two government Ministers were caught out in this fashion in one day: housing Minister Caroline Flint was in trouble when she marched past the photographers outside Number 10 with a downbeat report about house prices clearly visible through the clear plastic folder in which she was carrying it.

Later on, Communities Secretary Hazel Blears was snapped carrying an e-mail detailing the prime minister’s intended participation in an Apprentice-style TV programme.

What all of these incidents have in common are the ease with which they could have been avoided by the use of low-tech document storage and transportation solutions: in common parlance, a "briefcase".

It is believed - and police sources confirm - that this technology is available within the Met and to other government departments. ®

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