Scotland Yard’s antiterrorist squad secretly bugged a high-profile Labour Muslim MP during private meetings with one of his constituents.
Sadiq Khan, now a government whip, was recorded by an electronic listening device hidden in a table during visits to the constituent in prison.
The bugging of MPs is a breach of a government edict that has barred law agencies from eavesdropping on politicians since the bugging scandal of Harold Wilson’s government. There was no suspicion of criminal conduct by Khan to justify the operation.
A document seen by The Sunday Times shows there was internal concern about the propriety of bugging an MP, who was also a lawyer, but the operation nevertheless went ahead.
The disclosure will put further pressure on Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan police commissioner, who will be asked to explain why his officers apparently breached government rules — and if he authorised it.
Khan discussed sensitive personal and legal matters during the recorded meeting. The MP was said to be “outraged” yesterday. “From what you have told me, this is an infringement of a citizen’s right to have a private meeting with his MP,” he said.
Last night Jack Straw, the justice secretary, said that he had ordered an immediate inquiry and added that it would be “unacceptable” for such a bugging operation to take place.
Andrew Mackinlay, a Labour colleague, said: “The bugging of Sadiq Khan is very dangerous indeed. It is totally unacceptable that MPs’ conversations with constituents are bugged by the security services or the police.
“It is an affront to democracy and has all the hallmarks of a totalitarian regime. No one is suggesting that MPs should be above the law, but when behaving as MPs and dealing with people’s liberty that must be sacrosanct as it is with lawyers.” Khan, 37, is a rising star in the Labour party and is seen as a key figure in Gordon Brown’s drive to win the hearts and minds of Britain’s Muslims. He is a former chairman of Liberty, the human rights group, and used to be a legal adviser to the Muslim Council of Britain. As a lawyer he was a thorn in the side of the Metropolitan police, taking a series of controversial malpractice cases against them.
The bugging operation recorded conversations with his constituent, Babar Ahmad, who is facing deportation to the United States under new extradition laws. Khan has been a friend of Ahmad since childhood and has been a prominent campaigner against his extradition. He met the home secretary to discuss the case and handed over a petition of 18,000 signatures calling for Ahmad’s release.
The US government has accused Ahmad of running a website that raised funds for Taliban and Chechen terrorists in the late 1990s. He faces no charges in Britain but is wanted in the United States because his website was registered there.
Khan made two visits to Ahmad in 2005 and 2006 while he was on remand at Woodhill prison in Milton Keynes. Both meetings were secretly recorded. Ahmad’s family say he arranged the meetings because he was no longer free to go Khan’s constituency office in Tooting, south London, and wanted to see his MP.
Knowing that Khan was coming, the antiterrorist squad requested the bugging. Senior officers had already granted authorisation to bug Ahmad’s guests before Khan first visited. The officers had previously recorded family members who were leading the campaign to free him.
The meetings took place in the main visitors’ hall where each inmate is allocated an identical wooden table. Underneath the tables is a solid wood partition that separates prisoners from their visitors.
However, The Sunday Times has learnt that at least six of the tables have had their panels hollowed out to hide bugging equipment. They are known as “talking tables”. Inside each panel is a microphone, a battery, an antenna and a transmitter.
Such is the secrecy surrounding these tables that even the prison officers are said to be unaware of them. They are operated and maintained by specialist detectives permanently based at the prison.
The second meeting between Khan and Ahmad took place on the Saturday morning of June 24, 2006, during a crucial period for his campaign and legal case. Khan bought cups of tea and chocolate bars and joined Ahmad who had already been seated at one of the “talking tables”.
Every word was transmitted to a receiver in the domed ceiling above them and then routed to a nearby office. The digital recording was picked up by an antiterrorist branch officer the next Monday morning.
During the conversation the two men discussed the latest developments in the campaign against extradition. Khan updated Ahmad on a meeting in the House of Commons against the 2003 Extradition Act.
The Commons gathering had drawn support from politicians of all parties who had objected to changes in the law that allowed the United States to extradite suspects without first testing the case in a British court.
The antiterrorist officers would have heard Khan and Ahmad discussing tactics for his appeal, which was due to start shortly. The two men also talked about the civil case he was taking against the police, alleging that he was physically assaulted by officers when he was first arrested in December 2003 and released without charge.
Khan noticed nothing untoward. About a month later, Ahmad claims that he was approached by MI5 officers who offered him his freedom if he agreed to become their informant. He declined.
Meanwhile, Khan was promoted to assistant government whip in the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for prisons.
The Sunday Times told him about the bugging operation last week. A friend said the disclosure might further undermine the government’s attempt to “reengage” the Muslim community. He said: “If he was not a Muslim MP would they be doing this? If it had been some ordinary white middle-class MP, would they have been bugged?” He added that this was a violation of an MP’s relationship with his constituent: “If you have not got the confidence to see your MP and know it is privileged, then that raises serious questions. It is f****** outrageous.”
The bugging is a probable breach of the Wilson doctrine that has protected politicians from eavesdropping by the security services for more than 40 years. It was introduced by Harold Wilson, then prime minister, and was reaffirmed in the Commons by Tony Blair as recently as March 2006.
Yesterday a senior Scotland Yard officer said Khan’s work as a defence lawyer had generated “ill feeling” in the Metropolitan police and questioned whether the force had legitimate grounds for the bugging. The officer said: “To do this you have to suspect the MP of being involved in some sort of conspiracy.”
He added that the operation may have breached Ahmad’s legal privilege: “The officers in charge would have known that because Khan is an MP and a lawyer there was a grave danger that the legal professional privilege would be breached.”
Ahmad remains in jail having lost his appeals in Britain and is awaiting a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. He has also lodged a civil claim against Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan police commissioner. Ahmad’s wife Maryam has called for the home secretary to investigate the police bugging operation.
Last week an official report suggested that authorities, including local councils, were launching bugging operations against 1,000 people a day.
The Metropolitan police declined to comment yesterday. Insight: Michael Gillard and Jonathan Calvert