EXCLUSIVE SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Man prosecuted for blackmail after finding 'sensitive' MoD
PROSECUTED: Mel Dawson was charged with blackmail after he asked about a reward (Jon Austin)
A MAN who tried to return a lost memory stick containing sensitive Ministry of Defence (MoD) files was prosecuted for blackmail after he asked about a reward, Essex News and Investigations can reveal. Mel Dawson, 53, now hopes to clear his name amid claims he was victim to an "unlawful entrapment operation" carried out by police with an MoD defence contractor. The CPS eventually withdrew the blackmail charge when a judge slammed the costly investigation and said it "smacked of entrapment" on day one of the trial. Yet, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of theft by finding, which he now hopes to appeal against, amid claims he was badly advised by his defence barrister. Mel, who had no previous convictions, is crowdfunding for legal fees after a series of complaints to police convinced him the operation was unlawful, because it was not authorised from above, and phone call evidence was "edited."
He believes a warrant to search his home could have been obtained by Durham Police, on behalf of Surrey Police, unlawfully - in the same way claims have been made about the legality of search warrants in the Met Police botched VIP child sex abuse investigation - if the magistrate who granted it was not informed the covert operation was underway.
SENSITIVE: The MoD and other data was on a Thales memory stick like this (Thales)
Paperwork shows the warrant only allowed the memory stick to be seized, but officers also took Mel's computer and passport, which he believes is also unlawful.
His partner was also arrested, but later released with no further action.
However, requests for a copy of the search warrant application have proved fruitless with both the court and Durham Police saying their copies have been "destroyed".
The officer who made the application's notebook has also "been lost."
Mel said: "I was like a rabbit in the headlights and pleaded guilty on advice of my lawyer. "With what I know now, I would never have gone guilty. I didn't even find it and never stole anything because I was going to return it." Mel was given the small device by his partner who was running their stall at Durham Indoor
Market after an elderly shopper found it nearby. Within a few weeks, he was placed under surveillance and taken into custody. The storage device belonged to Surrey-based Thales UK, one of the country's biggest defence contractors. The unencrypted device held classified MoD and Thales files that could be "commercially damaging, have effects on British military operations and relations with other Governments," including details of aircraft and Afghanistan War strategies.
LOST: The memory stick was found on the floor inside Durham Indoor Markets
After a covert sting carried out by Surrey Police with Thales, Mel was charged with blackmailing the firm for return of the stick. His mistake was seemingly to enquire about a reward before grilling Thales about its data security. He phoned Thales, but it asked him to post it instead of sending a courier to pick it up immediately. Mel asked about any reward and was told he would hear in a week. In the meantime, he googled data loss and learned the incident should likely be reported to the MoD and the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). On May 27 2011 he was phoned by Tony Aston, Thales head of security, who asked Mel "how much he wanted" with the latter saying it was for Thales to decide.
BLACK OUT: The MoD has refused to comment on whether the data loss was reported by Thales
A series of bizarre telephone conversations followed, during which the pair appeared to become equally frustrated. Mel probed about the ICO while Mr Aston pressed him on how much he wanted and how he wanted to be paid. In what he acknowledges was an ill-advised remark, he scoffed to Mr Aston: "What about £500,000? Stick that in your ballpark. That's the sort of fine you'd be looking at from the Information Commissioner." Mel said: "I never said I wouldn't give it back. I asked about a reward and could not get a straight answer. He was evasive about if it was reported. That's what put his back up." Mr Aston, who worked in police intelligence for nearly 30 years and has acted as a defence industry link to special branch officers, made his next call to special branch at Gatwick Airport. When Mr Aston next called Mel at 5pm on May 28, he was secretly with Surrey Police detectives, who were recording and used post it notes to guide him on what to ask.
GUIDED: Copies of post it notes passed by police to Tony Aston during the covert operation (Surrey Police)
One post it note told Mr Aston to say "I need to tell a manager what will happen if we don't pay" and another said: "But we don't want any fall out so how can we prevent that?" Mel was repeatedly asked what he would do if he was not paid and at no point said he would not return the stick. But, within an hour Durham Police officers raided his home.
ENTRAPMENT? A Surrey Police brief before the operation talks of 'engineering' an arrest
He gave them the stick, but was arrested, while computers, mobile phones, bank statements and his passport were seized. Five months later he was charged with blackmail. On the first day of the trial at Guildford Crown Court in June 2012 Judge Christopher Critchlow expressed concerns saying it had "an impression of entrapment." The CPS withdrew the blackmail charge the same morning. Mel took advice of his barrister and agreed to plead guilty to the lesser theft by finding charge.
SENSITIVE: Police notebook entries showing the nature of data on stick (Surrey Police)
Judge Critchlow said to the CPS barrister: "To suddenly drop a serious allegation at the moment of trial and accept a plea to a much lesser serious offence. Why have all these costs been incurred in overcharging this man for all this time?" Mel has been aided by former police officer Christopher John, 50, who is training to be a lawyer. He submitted complaints to both police forces, including allegations that transcripts and recordings of phone calls had been edited to fit the case and the "entrapment" was unlawful. In 2011 covert operations could only happen once a senior officer authorised it under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Surrey Police confirmed in response to complaints RIPA authorisation was never obtained before the covert operation.
NO COMMENT: NCA Director General Lynne Owens (Surrey Police)
However, despite the admission, then Surrey Police chief constable Lynne Owens, who is now in charge of the National Crime Agency (NCA), signed off a report clearing all officers involved. Mr John said: "The search warrant was likely unlawful due to the fact that it was either granted without the unlawful covert entrapment operation being disclosed to the magistrate, or he was deliberately misled by Durham Police who failed to mention the covert entrapment operation was not authorised."
Mrs Owens would not comment and referred us to Surrey Police. A Surrey Police spokesman said: "We received a number of complaints in relation to the investigation which have been fully investigated. "Mr Dawson subsequently made a number of further submissions to the Independent Office for Police Conduct that were not upheld."
INADEQUATE: Police report said operation didn't meet regulations, but Lynne Owens found no wrongdoing
A Durham Police spokeswoman would not address the missing warrant application.
She said: "We were granted a warrant and executed a search of a property at the request of Surrey Police. Any potential evidence found was passed over to Surrey Police, which carried out its own investigation.” A CPS spokesman said: “Mr Dawson’s file has been destroyed in line with retention policies so we are unable to comment on the decision-making. Charging decisions are made according to available evidence in line with CPS guidance.” A Thales UK spokesman said: “Thales UK takes the protection of data very seriously. We do not comment on individual incidents.” The MoD refused to comment on the data loss and if it was reported to it, while the ICO said there was no record of it being reported to it by Thales. Mr Aston was sent a letter asking why, rather than contact police, Thales did not send a courier immediately to collect the stick from Mr Dawson and be clear from the start on whether a reward was applicable or not.
He did not respond.
WHAT WAS ON THE MEMORY STICK?
THALES UK security chief Tony Aston warned police the memory stick held data that "potentially had national security implications." In an officer notebook detailing an interview with Mr Aston, it described the data as "commercially damaging" and "having an effect on UK operations in theatre." The officer added: "These operations involve other governments which could cause problems for our UK Government and governments from other countries ie Afghanistan." Among files on the stick seen by Mel Dawson was a document detailing a five-year plan for the War in Afghanistan. Drafted around 2011, it said top priority was supporting operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the next five years. It added there would be involvement for some years after until the Afghan Government had regional structures, a proper police force and an army size of 130,000 troops - 50,000 more than the 80,000 at the time of writing.
PLAN: The stick contained a five-year strategy for British operations in Afghanistan
There was also a restricted document looking at the future of the UK defence budget as a whole, which explored possible cuts to RAF Typhoon numbers. It also had details of a Thales Air Operations Strategy featuring work with the MoD. This included locations across the UK of Thales' mission support systems at UK military locations. The stick was dropped in Durham by Paul Copeland, at the time a Thales strategist, who was said to be visiting his son at university. It also contained personal details about his own pension. It did not become clear during the prosecution of Mr Dawson why Mr Copeland had the MoD and Thales date on an unencrypted stick together with personal files or if he was investigated over the loss of such sensitive data. Mr Copeland was approached him at his home in Wells, Somerset, and sent a letter asking why he had an unencrypted Thales stick on his person away from the office, that also contained details of his personal pension, but he declined to comment. An MoD spokesman said: "We have played an important role in supporting Afghanistan over the last 17 years and continue to do so through the NATO mission. "Our commitment to the Afghan security forces remains resolute as they move towards a peaceful political solution.”