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Defence official suspended pending probe into Afghan interpreter data breach

·4-min read

A Ministry of Defence official has been suspended pending investigation following a “significant” data breach relating to interpreters in Afghanistan hoping to come to the UK.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace issued a House of Commons apology and told MPs he “immediately directed investigations” take place after being left angered by the error.

Initial findings show an email to more than 250 people eligible for the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) who remain in the country was copied to all applicants rather than blind copying them, MPs heard.

People were then advised to delete their email and change their addresses, Mr Wallace confirmed.

Watch: Defence secretary apologises after Afghan data breach

According to reports, some of those whose information has been released are in hiding from the Taliban after the militants took control of the battle-torn country last month.

Responding to an urgent question, Mr Wallace told the Commons: “I apologise to those Afghans affected by this data breach and with (the Home Office) we are now working with them to provide security advice.

“As I speak, the Minister for the Armed Forces (James Heappey) is in the region speaking to neighbouring countries to see what more we can do with both third countries and in-country applicants.

“It is an unacceptable level of service that has let down the thousands of members of the armed forces and veterans. On behalf of the Ministry of Defence, I apologise.

“I offer the reassurances that the scheme will continue to operate and bring people back to the United Kingdom for however many are eligible and however long it takes.”

Cabinet reshuffle
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in Downing Street (PA)

He added: “It was brought to my attention at 2000 hours last night there had been a significant data breach. To say I was angered by this was an understatement and I immediately directed investigations take place.

“Initial findings show that an email was sent at 1744 hours as part of a weekly contact we maintain with Arap currently remaining in Afghanistan. This was copied to all applicants rather than blind copying them.

“The email was immediately recalled on identification of the breach and then a subsequent email was sent advising people to delete their email and change their addresses, many of whom have done.

“So far one individual has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation and processes for data handling and correspondence processing have already been changed.

“I have directed extensive steps are taken to quantify the potential increased risk to individuals in order to take further steps to protect them.”

Mr Wallace later confirmed Admiral Sir Ben Key, the commander of joint operations who led the planning and evacuation from Kabul, is leading the investigation.

In response to SNP questions, Mr Wallace said he had “instigated changes to improve information security within the department” before noting: “The modern rules that govern information security are, I believe, fit for purpose, it’s really about the training and the following and the adherence of it that must be improved.”

He added: “Nevertheless, information security is not something western governments are good at, which is why our adversaries seem to be, we have to improve it and we have to stand by it.”

Watch: Boris Johnson acknowledges hundreds of eligible Afghans yet to be evacuated

For Labour, shadow defence secretary John Healey welcomed the Defence Secretary’s apology but told the Commons that “action” is now what matters the most.

He said: “These Afghan interpreters worked alongside our British forces and the Government rightly pledged to protect them. Ministers must make good on those promises now.”

Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the Defence Committee, said: “The Taliban haven’t changed, they seek to exact revenge on anybody that worked for Nato. We must get these interpreters out or they’ll be hunted and killed.”

Mr Wallace also told the Commons that the MoD believes there are 900 “credible cases” for Arap resettlement still in Afghanistan beyond the 311 the Government is currently speaking to.

Operation Pitting – where more than 1,000 troops, diplomats and officials were dispatched to Afghanistan to rescue UK nationals and Afghan allies after the seizure of the country’s capital by the Taliban – airlifted more than 15,000 people to safety across just over a fortnight.

In New York, Prime Minister Boris Johnson met the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and said “thanks for all your help with everything on Afghanistan”, referring to the flights leaving Kabul airport and landing in Qatar.

Watch: British and Afghan soldiers reunited during Kabul airport evacuation

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