Secret Defense Ministry documents containing operational details of the Royal Navy that sparked a dispute with Russia last week were discovered at a bus station in Kent.
The stack of papers, running to nearly 50 pages, was found by a member of the public last week Take them to the BBC. The Ministry of Defense confirmed that the documents were reported lost at the time by a staff member and that the department has now launched an investigation into the security breach.
This discovery comes at a time when British military operations are under special scrutiny. A British destroyer, HMS Defender, passed through disputed waters off the coast of Crimea on Wednesday, prompting Backlash from Moscow.
Russia has sent 20 planes and two coastguard ships to warn the British ship about the waters it has claimed since its annexation of Crimea seven years ago. The Russian Defense Ministry said warning shots were fired at the British destroyer and the bombs thrown in its path, but the UK denied this account.
According to the BBC, the document identified two possible routes to wire the HMS Defender from Ukraine to Georgia. One route was described as a “safe and professional direct crossing from Odessa to Batumi,” including a short stretch through the “traffic separation scheme” near the southwestern tip of Crimea.
The documents said that this route “will provide an opportunity to engage with the Ukrainian government . . . in what the United Kingdom recognizes as Ukrainian territorial waters.”
The papers then outlined a range of potential Russian responses, from “safe and professional” to “unsafe nor professional.”
More sensitive documents marked “UK Secret Eyes Only” discuss plans for a possible British military presence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US-led NATO operation, which is due to be completed by September.
While the BBC said it had refrained from releasing details that could jeopardize the security of British and allied forces, it said the papers address the question of whether any British special forces will remain in Afghanistan once the withdrawal is complete.
No British footprint in Afghanistan remains. . . It is assessed as being vulnerable to being targeted by a complex network of actors,” the document states, with the addition that “the option to opt out completely remains.”
In response to the discovery of the documents, the Department of Defense said it takes information security “very seriously” and that an investigation has been opened. “The concerned employee reported the loss at that time. She said it would be inappropriate to provide further comments.
On disclosing specific details about the HMS Defender, the Defense Department said it “is, as the public expects, carefully planning.”
“As a routine procedure, this includes analyzing all potential factors influencing operational decisions,” she added.
But John Healy, Labour’s shadow defense secretary, said the breach was “as embarrassing as ministers are concerned”.
“It is critical that the State Department’s internal investigation immediately determines how to get highly classified documents out of the Department of Defense in the first place and then leave them that way,” Healy said.
“Ultimately, ministers must be able to assure the public that national security has not been undermined, that no military or security operations have been affected, and that appropriate measures are in place to ensure that nothing like this happens again.”