Investigation into security lapses at Trident site ‘was bungled’

A restricted internal Ministry of Defence report has strongly criticised an investigation into major security lapses at a secret nuclear weapons site.

The report was produced following an investigation into allegations that MoD police officers protecting the Atomic Weapons Establishment’s site at Burghfield, Berkshire, where the warheads for the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent are assembled and maintained, were failing to conduct routine patrols and sleeping on the job.

It suggests that junior staff were made scapegoats for the lapses while senior managers avoided sanction and remained in their posts.

After the authorities were alerted by a whistleblower in 2013, the MoD claimed that “at no point was the security of the site or its nuclear assets compromised”. It set up Operation Pease, conducted by the MoD police force’s professional standards department, to investigate the incident.

But a report on how the operation was conducted, released under the Freedom of Information Act and titled “Review of MoD police professional standards department handling of misconduct at Atomic Weapons Establishment Burghfield”, confirms that the security lapses were deemed a “critical” incident by the MoD police.

Police officers at the site who were being investigated were placed on duties away from Burghfield, which meant that large numbers of officers had to be drafted in to provide cover. A special “gold cell” at the Defence Equipment and Support headquarters at Abbey Wood, near Bristol, had to be set up to handle operational issues arising from the affair.

In total, 66 officers were investigated at Burghfield, a high-priority terrorist target that is permanently protected by armed security. Six were found to have committed gross misconduct and were dismissed. A further 25 resigned and 19 more were required to attend misconduct meetings.

The review is highly critical of aspects of the investigation. Marked “Official sensitive – limited distribution” and written by Len Jackson, an independent member of the MoD police committee, it notes that Operation Pease took more than two years to conclude. It explains that poor communication and slow progress resulted in a “huge feeling of resentment” across the MoD police force.

It highlights concerns – expressed by many MoD police officers, and by the MoD police federation – that while scores of junior officers were sacked, no one above the rank of sergeant was disciplined over the matter.

Although the site management team at Burghfield had been “potentially under investigation”, the head of nuclear and physical security at AWE told Jackson that he felt Operation Pease had focused on “the low-hanging fruit” rather than addressing the root cause of the problems, and that there had been “a lack of supervision over a number of years”.

In his report, Jackson says that he agrees with this view and can see why targeting low-hanging fruit has created so much anger and frustration.

He notes that all the officers interviewed as part of the operation claimed to have been threatened with Special Case Procedures (SCP) “or as it is commonly known, a ‘fast-track’ [dismissal] process”. He adds: “They believe that this was designed to elicit mass resignations” – something that would have ensured the matter avoided potentially embarrassing tribunals.

The report details an incident, referred to as Black Tuesday, when officers were “gathered together in the parade room and made to wait for around 30 to 40 minutes until everyone had arrived”. They were then forced to listen while a duty inspector read out a list of names who were then served with disciplinary papers. This episode, the report notes, “created an atmosphere of resentment which still remains at Burghfield”.

Anti-nuclear campaigners said the failings identified in the report raised serious questions about the security at Britain’s nuclear weapons bases. “The number of officers involved shows there was obviously a culture of lax attitudes to security at AWE Burghfield,” said David Cullen, research manager at the Nuclear Information Service. “Instead of senior officers being held to account, there was a bungled investigation with no proper oversight. If the MoD police can’t even properly investigate wrongdoing in their own ranks, why should anyone trust them to guard nuclear weapons? They need to come clean about the failings of senior officers and give the public meaningful reassurance that this will not happen again.”

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