NCA 'Encrochat' intelligence officer at centre of 'live intercept' legal challenge gets OBE


A NATIONAL CRIME AGENCY (NCA) officer at the centre of a legal challenge over the admissibility of Encrochat message evidence has been awarded an OBE.

Emma Sweeting, an NCA intelligence officer, was awarded the honour for services to law and order, but the agency chose not to name her in its press release celebrating the accolades.

It named two other officers who picked up New Year's Honours, including NCA Director General Lynne Owens (pictured above), and another intelligence officer.

The NCA release also did not name Operation Venetic - the agency's investigation into the use by suspected criminals of the now defunct Encrochat encrypted phone messaging system which was hacked by Dutch and French law enforcement in the spring.

However, it, instead, described the work of Operation Venetic as being responsible for Ms Sweeting's OBE.

It said: "The officer has been instrumental in combating criminal use of technology over several years. Her work has directly contributed to the seizure of tens of millions of pounds in illicit cash, multiple tonnes of class A drugs, and dozens of illegal firearms, as well as the dismantling of crime groups."

The NCA says Operation Venetic saw more than 1,000 people arrested, but the agency will not say how many have been charged as a result, directly in connection with the use of Encrochat devices.

A number of prosecutions are already underway, with some defendants pleading guilty in cases where other evidence such as drugs or surveillance was available.

However, several defendants have launched legal challenges either about the admissibility of Encrochat evidence or the strength of it, including former firearms criminal Miles Headley, whose case collapsed last month, as exclusively revealed by Essex News and Investigations.

The outcome is awaited of a crucial case over the admissibility of Encrochat messages and whether they should be considered as "live intercepts" which are not admissible in UK courts.

The outcome will have a significant bearing on any future Encrochat prosecutions.

During the case, which cannot be identified for legal reasons, Ms Sweeting was repeatedly accused by defence barristers of cutting corners to allow the messages, that were available to view in real time, to not be classed as live intercepts.

Lawyers for the prosecution and Ms Sweeting vehemently denied this and claimed she took all reasonable steps to check with European counterparts on the type of evidence and that it could be placed before a British court.

Several Encrochat prosecutions, where other challenges have been lodged, have been delayed while the judge rules on the case.

The NCA was asked why it did not name Ms Sweeting in its honours press release, but it did not respond.

Ms Sweeting was named in other official New Year's Honour releases.

The agency was also asked for an update on Operation Venetic, and other Encrochat investigations, including the total number of arrests and charges so far, how many Encrochat devices have been recovered and the amount of charges that directly relate to Encrochat messages.

An NCA spokesman refused to supply the information, adding that the agency was not currently giving any Operation Venetic updates."

Earlier this year Dutch and French investigators broke through the encryption of the supposedly secure Encrochat encrypted phone communication platform which was being used by around 60,000 people worldwide, including about 9,000 in the UK. They allowed police forces across Europe, including in the UK, access to real time messaging between Encrochat users, including organised crime groups. It led to hundreds of raids, arrests and seizures of drugs, cash and firearms.

Although, it has since emerged many of the investigations were already underway before the hack.

The NCA did name another intelligence officer, Pauline Evans, who was awarded an MBE for services to law enforcement and fighting crime. The release said: "Pauline leads multi-agency activity focused on maximising law enforcement impact against the most high-risk serious and organised criminals. "The increased capabilities delivered by this work have led to successes including the safeguarding of children, the removal of firearms from UK streets, and the identification of online offenders." Ms Owens was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath (DCB) for "exemplary and inspirational leadership in cutting serious and organised crime and protecting the UK public after multiple successes by the NCA." An NCA spokesman said: "Since taking up her position in January 2016, NCA activity has led to more than 5,000 arrests of the most harmful criminals with a combined total of more than 11,000 years in prison for those convicted of the most serious offences, including child sexual abuse, the trafficking of firearms and class A drugs, people smuggling and other criminality.

"In addition, Lynne Owens is also honoured for a career-long commitment to protecting the vulnerable in her more than 31 years in law enforcement. More than 8,000 children have been safeguarded as a result of NCA activity since 2016, while as policing lead on the Sentencing Council, Lynne supported work to reform sexual offences guidelines."

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Lynne is a dedicated public servant, spending years on the policing and law enforcement frontline, keeping the British public safe and delivering justice for victims of crime. I wholeheartedly congratulate her on receiving this prestigious honour.”

NCA Director General Lynne Owens said: “Like other recipients of these honours, I am sure, I was shocked but delighted to receive the notification.

"I have worked alongside so many dedicated, professional, determined and compassionate colleagues throughout my career in law enforcement but none more so than in the National Crime Agency.

“I am pleased to be able to celebrate today alongside two of my NCA colleagues and others in the wider law enforcement family – it continues to be my pleasure and privilege to serve as part of it.”

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