SFO’s ‘Al Yamamah’ cache was in storage next to cannabis farm in London’s Docklands
“You were really on to something” – Emily Thornberry, shadow attorney general
Confidential documents that were lost by the Serious Fraud Office from an investigation into Britain’s biggest arms deal were sent to this London warehouse.
Exaro has pieced together the inside story of how the SFO mislaid 32,000 pages, 81 audio tapes plus electronic media after gathering them during a six-year investigation into BAE Systems over bribery allegations.
The SFO mixed up the material with other documents, and accidentally sent it to the warehouse pictured.
The owners of the warehouse – which has no SFO connection – were unaware of the secret material stashed in their storage site. They also had no idea about a cannabis farm in the warehouse – right next to the SFO’s lost files.
Police carried out a raid to close the cannabis farm, but they too were oblivious to the SFO cache.
After SFO insiders told Exaro how the law-enforcement agency had descended deeply into disarray, we began to investigate astounding claims last year that it had even lost track of files from its most sensitive case – BAE’s sale of military jets for billions of pounds to Saudi Arabia under ‘Al Yamamah’.
Emily Thornberry, shadow attorney general, took up the issue. She put a parliamentary question to Dominic Grieve, attorney general and the minister with responsibility for the SFO.
It prompted his admission a fortnight ago that the agency had lost the huge collection of confidential material. “The SFO has contacted the 59 sources of this data to inform them of the situation, and is working to contact any others who may have been affected,” wrote Grieve.
Straight after his admission, Thornberry tweeted to thank Exaro for helping to expose the SFO for its bungling. “You were really on to something,” she added.
In 2006, under pressure from Tony Blair’s Labour government, the SFO was forced to drop the BAE investigation.
The bizarre case of the missing BAE files began last year when three Exaro journalists were asked to a meeting at an unusual rendez-vous in East London – outside a warehouse in an eerily quiet part of an industrial area in Docklands.
Locals told of the area’s gangster heritage. These days, small-time criminals rub shoulders with respectable businessmen to rent space at the storage facility.
A man, who asked for anonymity, appeared for the meet. He emerged from the warehouse with a bundle of keys, and spoke nervously of how he had stumbled upon an extraordinary cache of documents.
He wanted to show the material to our journalists, so took them through a loading area and up a ramp-way into the bowels of the warehouse, walking past lines of shipping containers.
A white van entered. The sound of brakes echoed around the store’s metal shell. The van halted, and out leapt men in boiler suits. They opened up padlocks on the containers, loaded cargo, then left. Well within the warehouse, our contact quickened his walk towards an office walled with white-washed breeze-blocks. He unlocked a plain white, wood-panelled door.
Exaro had found the SFO’s treasure trove of lost files on Al Yamamah. They were heaped in hundreds of brown boxes from floor to ceiling. Stapled to each box, was an SFO note.
From one precariously-balanced pile, the contact pulled out a box, and plucked a fistful of papers. “Look at this,” he said.
Under stark, fluorescent lighting, our journalists leafed through papers that detailed hush-hush payments to secret Swiss bank accounts of several Saudi royals.
The astonishing documents shed light on lavish gifts for princes and princesses allegedly paid out of a slush fund that kept Al Yamamah rolling. A randomly-chosen page showed how one Saudi princess went on a shopping spree in London, returning home with 150 bags of luxury goods.
The explosive documents detailed startling evidence of how the UK lavished expenditure on Saudi royals to help facilitate a government-to-government deal.
The contact offered to let Exaro take the lost files. He wanted money, so Exaro declined.
Over a year later, the attorney general was forced to admit that the SFO had lost the files while trying to return them to various sources following the close of the investigation into Al Yamamah.