The UK's top anti-fraud agency has admitted it sent tens of thousands of sensitive documents from an investigation into arms giant BAE Systems to the wrong person.
The probe into multinational defence corporation BAE Systems ended after the aerospace firm paid a whopping $400m fine to the US relating to a violation of US rules across a number of countries (and £30m to the SFO over accounting issues in a Tanzanian radar deal) back in 2010.
After it closed the case, the Serious Fraud Office was then supposed to return 32,000 pages of documents and 81 audio tapes, as well as other assorted bits of electronic storage media, to 59 different people who supplied them as evidence during the investigation.
But the SFO mistakenly sent the huge cache to one unnamed individual – and three per cent of the data remains missing.
The SFO insisted none of the data related to national security and said it was making every effort to recover the missing information.
A Serious Fraud Office spokeswoman said: "The SFO is dealing with an incident of accidental data loss.
"The data concerned was obtained by the SFO in the course of its closed investigation into BAE Systems. The SFO has a duty to return material to those who supplied it, upon request, after the close of an investigation.
"In this instance the party requesting the return was sent additional material which had in fact been obtained from other sources."
The embarrassing data fumble took place between May and October 2012. It was only flagged up in May 2013 and the SFO rolled into action in June.
The affected parties were notified and an investigation has now begun. Alan Woods, a former senior civil servant, is leading the probe, which was was ordered by the SFO's director.
Emily Thornberry, Labour's shadow attorney general, said: "This is government incompetence of the first magnitude. The SFO has stumbled from shambles to shambles, with the attorney general completely failing to get a grip. Incompetence like this threatens to have an impact on the reputation of the UK and its relations overseas."
She added: "People will be wondering how many other skeletons there are in the SFO cupboard that the attorney general is aware of but is declining to make public. The government needs to get a grip, get to the bottom of this mess and come clean about exactly what went wrong and how."
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