A planned investigation into the leak of diplomatic memos by the UK’s ambassador to the United States will be a “large-scale”, government-wide inquiry, the head of the Foreign Office has said.
The department said yesterday that it would launch an investigation after confidential memos detailing Sir Kim Darroch's assessments of the Trump White House were leaked to the press. The emails, seen by the Mail on Sunday, included memos calling the administration “uniquely dysfunctional” and “diplomatically clumsy and inept”.
But appearing before parliament’s Public Accounts Committee yesterday, FCO permanent secretary Sir Simon McDonald said the Cabinet Office would lead the cross-government probe.
“Although all these emails and details originated from the Foreign Office – from the embassy in Washington – they were distributed across Whitehall so the readership was very wide, so this will be a large-scale inquiry in the first place led by the civil service,” he told MPs.
Depending on its findings, McDonald confirmed the investigation could lead to a police inquiry.
He told the committee the Foreign Office had yet to determine the extent of the damage the leak had caused but added that “there is clearly significant damage which we must assess over the days and I suspect weeks and months to come”.
Responding to a question about whether the leak could have been the result of the emails being hacked, McDonald said: “That will be in the scope of the leak inquiry but we’re on day one so I cannot or will not speculate.”
The perm sec said that although “the human factor is usually the most important” when it comes to preventing leaks, he had reminded Foreign Office diplomats around the world that “there’s more than one means to communicate especially sensitive material”.
But he rebuffed MPs’ suggestion that ambassadors should limit their communications to reduce the risk of them being intercepted.
“I believe that ambassadors need to be able to communicate instantly and honestly with head office, so how that is arranged technically and how that is handled is what we need to look at. I do not think we should ask ambassadors not to communicate essential information,” he said
He added that civil servants have access to secure communications systems, which are in the process of being upgraded. “We have a new system that’s coming onstream this quarter, so I hope that the systems will be even better in future,” he said.
Asked to give his view on whether Darroch should stay in his role, McDonald said: “Sir Kim is doing an excellent job for Her Majesty’s Government in Washington.”