Britain has launched an official inquiry into allegations that police officers eavesdropped on meetings between a Muslim member of Parliament and a detained suspect sought by US prosecutors on terror-related charges. A former police officer has admitted bugging Sadiq Khan, a member of the ruling center-left Labour Party, during a prison visit with Babar Ahmad, a terrorist suspect, on orders from London's Metropolitan Police. The officer's admission has raised questions about the government's oversight role.
In the 1960s, Britain banned police from secretly monitoring MPs, but subsequent amendments have widened the scope of permitted surveillance – especially of ordinary citizens.
Mr. Ahmad, a Briton, faces US extradition charges over his alleged recruiting activities for Al Qaeda and other foreign militant groups, but isn't accused of breaking any British laws. Mr. Khan is a human rights lawyer and a prominent advocate for civil liberties.
Mark Kermey, an intelligence officer at the prison outside London where Ahmad has been detained, said he was under "significant pressure" from the Metropolitan Police to bug the suspect's private meetings with Khan, The Independent reports. The prison meetings between the two men, who were childhood friends, took place between 2004 and 2006. A bug was allegedly placed inside a wooden table in the meeting room.
Justice Minister Jack Straw told parliament Monday that ministers had played no part in any eavesdropping, the Financial Times reports. Mr. Straw, who was foreign secretary during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said the official enquiry would determine who ordered the alleged bugging and report its findings within two weeks, if possible.
London's The Herald says Straw told MPs that government approval was required to listen in on private phone calls, but that "intrusive surveillance operations" by law enforcement officers were subject to additional levels of approval. A chief police officer has the authority to permit such eavesdropping, Straw said.
The Daily Mail reports that a former assistant police chief authorized the bugging of Ahmad in 2004 before Khan was elected to parliament in 2005. Their meetings continued to be taped, but Khan wasn't the surveillance target, according to anonymous sources cited by the Mail, a conservative daily.
The BBC reports that opposition Conservative MPs have accused the government of failing to take heed of earlier warnings that Khan was being bugged. The Ministry of Justice has confirmed that officials knew last December about the alleged eavesdropping. Conservative MPs also produced a letter sent in December to Prime Minister Gordon Brown that raised the issue, but Mr. Brown's office denied receiving it.
The prohibition on wiretapping British politicians began in 1965, under former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and is known as the Wilson doctrine, the BBC reports in a guide to the bugging row. The prohibition was aimed at calming fears that military intelligence was tapping the phones of MPs. This was later widened to include all forms of communication.
The Associated Press reports that while lawmakers should have exemption from bugging, police occasionally monitor ordinary Britons' phone calls, e-mails, and mail. The British government says such practices have thwarted terrorist attacks, even though evidence obtained from wiretaps is inadmissible in court.
Khan grew up in London and studied law before becoming one of only a handful of British Muslim MPs, reports The Daily Telegraph in a profile. In 2005, after the July 7 bombings in London, he warned of concerns in the Muslim community over proposed antiterrorism laws. In 2006, he signed an open letter from three Muslim MPs to former Prime Minister Tony Blair that suggested British foreign policy was putting civilians at risk.