The flood of disclosures about close—and almost certainly corrupt—ties between Scotland Yard and British tabloids is not a shock to many senior American law-enforcement officials.
In fact, the FBI, U.S. Customs, and other American law-enforcement agencies have been wary for years about sharing details of some transatlantic criminal investigations for fear they would end up slapped on the front page of News of the World, The Sun, and other newspapers at the heart of the scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, several U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast.
That wariness is likely to grow in light of evidence revealed over the last week that Scotland Yard investigators may have been bribed or blackmailed for information, the Americans said.
“We’d have been foolish to ignore the possibility that what we share with the Brits might get leaked by some corrupt cop over there,” said a senior U.S. law-enforcement official in Washington.
“I don’t want to suggest this is a big hindrance to working with them,” he said. “On most investigations with the Brits, we still work hand in glove. But we know that some our counterparts in the police forces over there are much too close to the press.”
He declined to identify a major investigation in which criminal information had been withheld from Scotland Yard. “But if a celebrity’s name figures into it somehow, if there’s some element of scandal, we’d be very careful,” this source said.
The FBI and other American law-enforcement agencies work closely with their British counterparts on every sort of criminal investigation. The list of recent, notable joint investigations includes the global manhunt for Boston mobster Whitey Bulger—he turned up in California last month—and the search for accomplices of the British-educated “underwear bomber,” who attempted to bring down a Detroit-bound jet on behalf of al Qaeda in 2009.
Joseph King, a former senior U.S. Customs agent who worked closely with the British during his government career and is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said he believed there was mostly full cooperation between Washington and London on routine criminal cases and in terrorism and other national-security investigations.
“But if there was some kind of high-profile person involved in an investigation, then you’d worry that the danger of a leak was much greater” and that some details might be withheld from the British, he said. “If we knew someone was talking about trying to kill Prince Charles, that information would be handled a lot differently.”
American officials say their concern about leaks is directed at Scotland Yard, the name still commonly used for the Metropolitan Police Service of London, or “the Met,” and that there is no similar fear in Washington about information sharing with the British spy agencies MI5 and MI6. (MI5 focuses on domestic threats; MI6 is the British equivalent of the CIA.)
“I don’t think we’ve ever had better cooperation with MI5 and MI6, especially when it comes to counterterrorism, especially after 9/11,” an American law-enforcement official said, reflecting an increased partnership between the FBI and the British intelligence agencies, as the bureau shifted to a greater emphasis on prevention following the attacks. “Our anxieties focus on the Met. What we’ve learned this week just shows how right we were to be concerned.”
News reports in Britain and testimony before Parliament over the last week have suggested that Scotland Yard dragged its feet for years in investigating evidence of massive, illegal phone hacking by News of the World and other newspapers, and that several members of the Metropolitan Police were paid off by tabloid editors for information on major criminal cases.
To the alarm of American officials, some senior Scotland Yard officers at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal are the same officers they deal with routinely on high-profile terrorism investigations—notably Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who has been accused this week of misleading Parliament about the extent of the phone-hacking evidence. (Yates has expressed “extreme regret” for not reopening an initial probe of the scandal in 2009.)
“You hate to see Yates dragged into this, because on terrorism investigations he is terrific to work with,” an American official said.
The hesitation of some American law-enforcement agencies to share information with Scotland Yard would suggest a stark turnaround after years—if not generations—of the closest sort of cooperation across the Atlantic.
Lance Emory, a retired FBI special agent who served as the bureau’s representative in London from 1995 to 2003, told The Daily Beast that he never saw any hint of the sort of corruption at Scotland Yard that has been alleged in recent weeks.
He said he had worked with Yates and found him “a real professional” and that “we didn’t fear at all” about leaks from Scotland Yard. “We never had any problem with that at all,” he said. “We had very trusted lines of communication.”