Hacking: UK police say terror was bigger priority

LONDON Tue Jul 12, 2011 12:35pm EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - At a stormy hearing on Britain's phone hacking scandal, top serving and retired policemen told skeptical lawmakers on Tuesday they had been too busy trying to prevent terrorism to investigate the abuse adequately.

Lawmakers reacted with ridicule, disbelief and open hostility to testimony by senior Scotland Yard officers about their handling of an affair that has led to the closure of a leading newspaper.

All the officers pointed the finger at News International, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp media group and publisher of the now-defunct News of the World weekly at the center of the scandal, for obstructing their investigation.

The MPs did not contest that assertion but queried why police were not more determined about getting to the truth.

"All of this sounds like Clouseau rather than Columbo," said Keith Vaz, a Labour party politician who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee.

London's Metropolitan Police has been under fire for failing to follow up inquiries into phone hacking by the top-selling Sunday tabloid after its royalty correspondent was jailed in 2007 for conspiring with a private investigator to listen in to the voicemails of figures in the royal household.

One serving and two former senior officers denied accepting money from journalists and the current head of the Scotland Yard investigation, Sue Akers, pledged to widen the probe beyond the News of the World if new information came to light suggesting other media companies were involved.

"We will go where the evidence leads us," she told the MPs.

HOSTILITY

Much of the legislators' hostility was reserved for John Yates, an assistant commissioner, who said he was "99 percent certain" he had been the victim of phone hacking but denied a suggestion that this had intimidated him.

Yates has been criticized for concluding in 2009 there was not enough evidence to reopen the London force's original investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World after claims the original probe had not gone far enough.

As lawmakers took it in turns to take a pop at his decision and express their derision, Yates admitted he had probably done only the minimum work required before his flawed decision.

Yates said he was never contacted by News International about his private life or put under any pressure by the newspaper group on that front.

"I categorically state that was not the case," he said. But he admitted corruption in the Met was inevitable.

"...We're an organization of 50,000 people, we have always said from time immemorial that some of those 50,000 people will be corrupt and accept payments," he said.

The phone hacking scandal has spread from celebrities to victims of crime, casting a shadow over News Corp's operations and raising questions about ties between reporters and police officers, some of whom appear to have provided confidential telephone numbers to people working for some newspapers.

Peter Clarke, the former head of the counter-terrorist branch who was in charge of the original investigation, attacked News International for impeding his detectives.

"News International were not cooperative at the time. If there had been any meaningful cooperation at the time we wouldn't be here today. It's as simple as that."

He said he had run a narrow investigation because of pressure on resources, because he did not want the probe compromised by leaks from potential victims, and because he believed it would put an end to the hacking practice quickly.

There were 70 live anti-terrorism investigations being run at that time, the aftermath of al Qaeda attacks on London transport in July 2005 that killed 52 people.

He said the hacking probe was lower in priority than an inquiry where there was a threat to life. The only way the police could have done more was through an exhaustive analysis of the 11,000 pages of evidence, he said.

"I took the decision this didn't justify it," he told the committee but agreed he suspected News of the World of greater wrongdoing. "I was as certain as I could be they had something to hide."

NOTHING TO HIDE

Andy Hayman, the officer who oversaw the initial hacking inquiry and the man who led the inquiry into the 2005 bombings, obtained a job writing regular columns for News of the World stable-mate, The Times, after he retired.

During an extraordinary exchange with the committee which had them shaking their heads in disbelief and laughing in equal measure, he dismissed suggestions that it had been improper for him to meet News International executives for the occasional meal while the phone hacking probe had been taking place.

He said meeting News International was part of his job and said claims about "cozy or candle-lit dinners" were "absolute rubbish." One MP suggested he was seen by the public as a "dodgy geezer" before asking if he had ever taken a bribe.

"Good God. Absolutely not. I can't believe you suggested that. I can't let you get away with that," he said angrily.

Sue Akers acknowledged the police service would pay a heavy price if it did not do a better job this time.

"I don't doubt if we don't get this right it (the Met's reputation) will continue to be damaged. I guarantee it will be a thorough inquiry," she said.

(Editing by Robert Woodward)

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