Thursday 17 May 2012

Operation Varec - The Forgotten Andy Coulson Phone Hacking Investigation

One police operation that was mentioned several times by various witnesses at the Leveson Inquiry was Operation Varec.  There’s very little information on Operation Varec online, so I’ve decide to put together what information I can find on it, mostly gathered from statements from the Leveson.
This New York Times article carried claims made by former News of the World entertainment journalist Sean Hoare that his former close friend and News of the World editor Andy Coulson "actively encouraged" him to hack phones.  At the time of Operation Varec Andy Coulson was Director of Communications for the government at 10 Downing Street.  It was reported that Hoare’s statement resulted in him being interviewed under criminal caution by Scotland Yard, meaning that his statements could be used against him in possible future prosecution.

DAC Sue Akers described Operation Varec in her witness statement to the Leveson Inquiry as a “review (of) claims made in the New York Times newspaper on 1 September 2010 that Andy Coulson had in fact known more about phone hacking than he had admitted publicly.”

DAC Akers went on to say that Operation Varec “had been undertaken by the Counter Terrorism Command in Specialist Operations. However, in view of their workload in early 2011 and the continuing severe terrorism threat level, it was decided that it would not be appropriate to divert that unit from its core business and responsibilities.”

Operation Weeting was then set up on 26 January 2011 to follow on from Operation Varec and the earlier Operation Caryatid, and DAC Akers was appointed lead within the Specialist Crime Directorate.

Sir Paul Stephenson provided more information at the Leveson Inquiry about Operation Varec, which took place during the period he was Metropolitan Police Commissioner

On 1 September 2010 an article was published in the New York Times, in which apparently fresh allegations were made about phone hacking. I understood that AC (John) Yates undertook a scoping exercise at this time and put a new team in place to complete this task. This was known as Operation Varec. In December 2010 I was aware that the results of this work were referred to the CPS. I am told that they concluded there was insufficient evidence to mount a prosecution. Again, there was no reason for me to think the issue had not been satisfactorily dealt with. However, it was in December 2010 that I took a leave of absence due to ill-health.  The investigation team, AC Yates or Tim Godwin, who was Acting Commissioner, would have had any further knowledge of the outcome of Operation Varec from this point onwards.

He goes on to say:

Although I was aware from these discussions and AC Yates’ public comments that a strategy for dealing with people who may have been exposed to the practice of phone hacking had been developed by the original investigating team and service providers, I was unaware that this strategy had not been implemented as expected. I was also unaware that there was substantial material that had not been satisfactorily dealt with by that original investigation. Indeed my belief, based upon discussions with, and assurances from, AC Yates, was that the original investigation and prosecution strategy had successfully tested relatively new legislation covering a somewhat technical and now illegal practice..

It was only after the reopening of the investigation through the establishment of Operation Weeting during my absence from office on sick leave that I became aware that there were issues of substance for further investigation. Up until this point I had no reason to suspect that the initial investigation was other than entirely successful.

I do not recall having any substantive or detailed discussions about phone hacking with anyone else during this period. Indeed, it is fair to say that set against the other issues facing the MPS (including counterterrorism issues, the investigation into the "night-stalker", the reinvestigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, very real budgetary challenges, the Olympic security preparations, Government proposals for significant changes to the governance arrangements for the police and national structures for dealing with serious and organised crime) phone hacking was not a matter which I prioritised. I was satisfied that it was being overseen by a highly experienced and very senior officer. I was reassured by the fact that to my knowledge the  case had been reviewed by the CPS and by counsel.

Keir Starmer QC also appeared at the Leveson Inquiry and submitted extensive evidence relating to Operation Varec.  First of all it reveals that Operation Varec covered more than just the New York Times article:

In addition to the "fact-finding exercise" in relation to matters raised in the article, there was a further case involving Kelly Hoppen, who claimed that her phone had been hacked by a NOTW reporter named Dan Evan.

He then talked about Sean Hoare’s evidence:

Amongst other things, D/Supt Haydon told Simon Clements that Sean Hoare had been interviewed under caution and had said nothing.

Later on in his evidence in a section dedicated to Operation Varec he goes on to describe what happened next:

The next development was the formal request from the police for advice as to the prospects of prosecuting anyone as a result of the "fact-finding" exercise conducted by them following the NYT Article. This was received on 12th November 2010. I attach a copy of the request prepared by D/Supt Haydon at annex 72. In it D/Supt Haydon makes clear: "I must stress that my task was not to re-open or re-investigate the R v Goodman and Mulcaire case but clearly there were links and crossovers or both."

I am unclear whether I was actually shown this document at the time or merely told of its content.

The request for advice concluded thus:

"I accept that the evidential position does not meet the threshold for a referral to the CPS but in view of the vast media, public and political scrutiny in this case and due to both the MPS and CPS involvement to date, 1consider a referral is appropriate in order to agree a joint current and future position in this case... "

On 10th December 2010, Simon Clements delivered his advice on Operation Varec to the police. He concluded that as no one had been prepared to provide evidence, the case did not pass the evidential stage of the test contained in the Code for Crown Prosecutors, namely that there must be sufficient evidence to establish that there is a realistic prospect of conviction. I attach a copy of Simon Clements’ advice as annex 74.

On 22nd December 2010 Simon Clements completed his second advice, this time in relation to Dan Evans. I attach a copy of that advice at annex 76. In it he states that officers have asked for clarification in relation to the law, and Mr Clements set out the advice detailed in my letter to the Home Affairs Committee. As far as further investigation of this allegation was concerned, he concluded that the evidence in this case fell far short of the threshold for prosecution, but the police should keep a watching brief on this and the other civil cases in case any further evidence should emerge.

This concluded the phone hacking case for 2010.

And so Operation Varec came to a close, and with Sean Hoare’s death in 2011 it seems we’ll never know if he could have proven his claims about Andy Coulson, and he certainly would have made an interesting witness at the Leveson Inquiry.  The question does remain of why he didn't appear to give the police any useful evidence they could have worked with when they interviewed him.

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