Times : Oops! Building firm blurts out secrets of hush-hush MI5 HQ

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Oops! Building firm blurts out secrets of hush-hush MI5 HQ

David Leppard | June 14, 2009

DETAILS of one of Britain’s most sensitive spy bases have been revealed after they were posted on the internet by the company that built it.

In a security blunder that has irritated MI5, a publicity brochure placed online contains the address and full-colour pictures of its northern operations centre.

The building was opened amid great secrecy last year. It was used as a base for Operation Pathway, when 12 terror suspects thought to have been planning attacks on shopping centres in Manchester, were arrested. They were later released for lack of evidence.

In recent years MI5 has been happy to acknowledge the existence of its headquarters in London and Northern Ireland. They are large and located in cities, so spy chiefs considered it impractical to pretend they did not exist. By contrast the agency had been hoping to keep the existence of its £20m northern headquarters a secret.

MI5 decided to build the spy base after a review of the intelligence failures leading up to the suicide bombings in London on July 7, 2005.

Three of the four bombers came from the Leeds area and MI5 realised its coverage of regions outside London was inadequate.

Jonathan Evans, the director-general of MI5, disclosed the existence of the centre in secret testimony to the parliamentary intelligence and security committee last year.

Evans said it would have helped to speed up its response to incidents such as the Glasgow airport attack in June 2007. “If we had forward-mounted some of the equipment and surveillance in the north . . . our response would have been considerably quicker in getting to Scotland, particularly some of the equipment, because we had to find some way of getting the stuff up to Glasgow,” he told the MPs.

The committee’s report omitted the cost of the building on the grounds that it was a secret. The builders’ website reveals that it cost £20.2m.

The company describes the development as “a high specification state-of-the art commercial office” completed in February last year. “It’s a very nice building,” a senior Whitehall security official said this weekend.

That view is not shared by local residents who objected on the grounds that it was “an eyesore”. Planning files at the local council, which The Sunday Times has agreed not to name for security reasons, show that more than 60 local people raised objections.

A council official said information about the project was “classified” and it had no record of the plans. In fact, they were withdrawn from the council last year after MI5 discovered they had been publicly available for several months.