The UK Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, told MPs today that the alleged bugging of a prominent Muslim MP's conversations with a constituent had not been authorised by the cabinet.
But Straw also said the alleged snooping would not have breached the Wilson doctrine banning the security services from bugging MPs, if it emerged any operation had been carried out by police.
Yesterday's Sunday Times alleged that conversations between Sadiq Khan MP and Babar Ahmad were taped during 2005 and 2006 by police officers. Ahmad is being held in Woodhill prison pending appeal against extradition to the US, where prosecutors intend to try him on terror-related charges. In particular, Ahmad is alleged to have run a website promoting terrorism which was hosted in America.
Responding to the Sunday Times report Straw told the commons today that the allegations related to a type of "intrusive surveillance" operation which can be carried out by British police under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Unlike the intelligence and security services, the police are not required to seek a ministerial warrant for such eavesdropping, and Mr Straw was at pains to emphasise that no member of the Cabinet had issued one. Thus it came about, he said, that he had been unaware of the allegations until Saturday.
Mr Straw said that the so-called "Wilson doctrine", under which various kinds of eavesdropping against MPs have been forbidden by successive governments, actually applied only to intelligence/security operations requiring a ministerial warrant. Strictly speaking, intrusive surveillance by police under RIPA was not forbidden.
Operations of this type can be authorised by "a chief officer of police", meaning the head of a given force, Straw said.
Nick Robinson, the Beeb political reporter, says he has been told that in fact the alleged operation was run by the Thames Valley police, not the obvious suspects - the secretive, specially-empowered Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command.
Robinson's unnamed source also indicated that the Thames Valley officer in charge of the bugging will claim that he had approval from his chief constable, and that the operation was targeted at Mr Ahmad, not Mr Khan. When contacted this afternoon by the Reg, the Thames Valley force HQ had no comment to offer.
The Tories responded to Mr Straw's speech by saying that the alleged operation was in breach of "the spirit if not the letter" of the Wilson Doctrine, and demanded to be told whether the eavesdropping on Mr Khan had been premeditated.
Mr Straw had said that the allegations would be investigated by Sir Christopher Rose, the Surveillance Commissioner and a former Appeal Court judge of great experience, "thoroughly... but quickly". He said that Sir Christopher would report in two weeks' time.
As Mr Khan was a practicing lawyer before entering Parliament, and was said to have provided legal advice to Mr Ahmad, the taped conversations might also have been protected by legal privilege separately from the MP-shielding Wilson Doctrine.
Razi Mireskandari, a partner at Simons Muirhead & Burton, which also does legal work for The Register, said that the possible violation of client privilege would only be authorised by the police if they thought they had excellent reason.
"Sadiq Khan is a good, experienced lawyer," he told the Reg, adding that only solid evidence of wrongdoing by Mr Khan could retrospectively justify eavesdropping on a solicitor's conversation with a client, quite apart from an MP's with a constituent. ®