British Foreign Office admits to losing thousands of sensitive documents

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Government loses thousands of national archive papers. Photo Source: The Guardian.

Fionnbharr Rodgers, Contributor. 

While the majority of people were distracted by visions of sugar plums dancing around them and Jack Frost (committing acts which would be deemed wholly inappropriate in the workplace) the British government admitted that almost a thousand files relating to the Troubles, the Falklands War, and the Zinoviev letter (a document forged by MI6 officers, as part of a plot to bring down the first Labour government in 1924) were ‘nowhere to be found.’

Thousands of government papers have been removed in the last six years from the National Archives in Kew, where over eleven million documents are stored, and returned to Whitehall. Although many files are formally said to be on loan from the national archives which says that government departments are ‘strongly encouraged’ to return them, the government is under no legal obligation to do so. A Freedom of Information request, submitted in 2014, found that 9,308 files had been removed from the archives and returned to government departments in 2011; 7,122 files in 2012, and 7,468 in 2013.

This week it appeared that just under a thousand files, each containing dozens of documents, had gone missing whilst in the government’s possession. The foreign office told the Guardian that they had managed to locate some files, but others remained missing. In most cases the entire file has been ‘mislaid,’ as it was removed from the public eye and taken back to Whitehall. However, there are also cases where individual documents have been removed from the file and subsequently disappeared.

One file which has disappeared in its entirety was that which contains and relates to the Zinoviev letter, which was published by the Daily Mail four days before the election of 1924 after being leaked by MI6 officers to the Conservative Party. The letter, purportedly written by George Zinoviev, President of the Comintern at the time, called on the British Communist Party to mobilise sympathetic forces within the Labour Party, in order to encourage stronger relations between Britain and the Soviet Union which would ultimately encourage an ‘agitation agenda’ among the British working class. The letter is now accepted to have been a forgery, and an attempt by MI6 officers to bring down Ramsay MacDonald’s government.

More troubling is the apparent loss of papers which hold assessments for government ministers on the security situation in Northern Ireland in the early 1970’s. Other missing files concern the British administration in Palestine, tests on the polio vaccine, the long-running territorial dispute between the UK and Argentina, and the 1978 murder of a dissident Bulgarian journalist named Georgi Markov who was killed after being shot in the leg with a bullet containing ricin while crossing the Waterloo Bridge in London.

For some, this news will not be regarded as anything new. Historians have for a long time been distrustful of the foreign office. In 2013, the Guardian disclosed that the department had unlawfully hoarded 1.2 million historical files at a security compound just outside Milton Keynes. A few years after that, the ministry of defence refused a Freedom of Information request on the basis that the articles requested, which concerned such subjects as UK arms deals with the friendly nation of Saudi Arabia, UK special force operations against Indonesia, and interrogation techniques, were housed in an old building and may have been exposed to asbestos. The defence ministry denied that it was using the possible presence of asbestos as an excuse to continue suppressing the files.

If such is the case, questions could be asked over how many civil servants are at risk of exposure to asbestos, and what exactly the government is doing to protect the health of the people working for it.

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