Terrorism overload meant phone hacking wasn't pursued
Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Peter Clarke leaves the Leveson Inquiry into media standards at the High Court in London, Thursday March 1, 2012. (AP / Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Published Thursday, March 1, 2012 9:15AM EST
LONDON - The official who oversaw the much-criticized initial police inquiry into Britain's phone hacking scandal said Thursday that a crush of terrorism cases meant his force had no choice but to curtail the investigation.
Former Scotland Yard counterterrorism chief Peter Clarke testified that police were so badly stretched by the threat of al Qaeda attacks in 2005 that the London force had to enlist 1,000 officers from other bodies. In that context, the investigation into phone hacking had to take the back seat.
"Invasions of privacy are odious, and sometimes illegal, but to put it bluntly they don't kill you," he said. "Terrorists do."
The London transit system was hit by bomb attacks on July 7, 2005, that killed 52 commuters.
Clarke spoke at Britain's official inquiry into media ethics, set up by Prime Minister David Cameron after the unveiling of widespread phone hacking at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, which spent years breaking into the phones of prominent people to get front-page scoops. Murdoch shut down the tabloid in July after advertisers and readers were outraged.
The initial U.K. police investigation into the phone hacking scandal uncovered thousands of pages of evidence suggesting that several senior journalists at the now-defunct tabloid had ordered private detective Glenn Mulcaire to hack into phones of hundreds of victims. Those victims included members of the royal household, the then-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, and other high-level figures.
But Scotland Yard failed to follow leads, interview suspects or notify victims, closing its investigation with the conviction of Mulcaire and only one journalist, The News of the World's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman.
Clarke said part of the problem was that Murdoch's News International, the paper's publisher, had stonewalled investigators. Clarke pushed back against allegations that his police force had helped Murdoch's company cover up its crimes.
But he acknowledged overlooking details "which, with hindsight, were very important."
Clarke said, given the huge number of terror cases which the force was dealing with, he stood by his decision not to pursue the initial investigation any further.
"I haven't seen anything that would cause me to take a different decision than I took then," he said.
In a separate development, police said Thursday they have arrested a 32-year-old woman as part of their investigation into media misdeeds. News International's corporate affairs office said it had no immediate information on the arrest, but a person briefed on the investigation identified the woman as Virginia Wheeler, The Sun newspaper's defence correspondent.
The person said Wheeler had been on sabbatical abroad but had agreed to present herself to police on her return. He spoke anonymously because he wasn't authorized to give details about a police inquiry.
Scotland Yard said the arrest is the 23rd in its investigation into allegations that police were bribed for information by journalists. The investigation, dubbed Operation Elveden, is running parallel to investigations into phone hacking and computer hacking.
Wheeler is one of several senior Sun journalists to be arrested in recent weeks, raising questions about the Murdoch tabloid's future.