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A Third Security Breach? Williamson’s Leaks Stretch Back to Russian Interference in Brexit

With reports that the former Cabinet minister was implicated in a second security breach in 2019, Peter Jukes and Sam Bright look back to another incident two years earlier

Gavin Williamson in 10 Downing Street. Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street

A Third security breach?Williamson’s Leaks Stretch Back to Russian Interference in Brexit

With reports that the former Cabinet minister was implicated in a second security breach in 2019, Peter Jukes and Sam Bright look back to another incident two years earlier

New allegations from Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials published in the Guardian today suggest that former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson leaked further security information in 2019, around the time of being sacked for leaking details of Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G programme.

However, the possibility of a second security breach in the summer of 2019 raises further questions Williamson’s alleged discussions about issues surrounding potential Russian interference in Brexit, around the time that he was first appointed as Defence Secretary in 2017. 

In evidence heard in the High Court during the Banks v Cadwalladr case earlier this year, a witness claimed that Williamson warned Leave.EU co-founder Richard Tice in November 2017 about inquiries into potential links between his colleague Arron Banks and Russia. “There’s some serious stuff going down with the Russians and Mr Banks,” Williamson is alleged to have told Tice.

In November 2017, one of the first indictments of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election revealed that London was a key part of its investigation. 

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‘Gobsmacking New Revelation’

“Shortly after the first FBI indictments in the Trump-Russia investigation were unsealed, Richard Tice, a leading member of Leave.EU, was tipped off with a warning about Arron Banks’ involvement with Russian figures under investigation,” investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr explained to Byline Times. “This tip-off came from Gavin Williamson, the then Secretary of Defence. In my witness statement, I say that Williamson told Tice that Banks was ‘up to his neck in it’.”

According to Cadwalladr, this tip-off led Isabel Oakeshott, a reporter and Tice’s partner, to search for further evidence about these allegations. Indeed, Williamson himself has some familiarity with Oakeshott – helping to launch her 2018 book White Flag at that year’s Conservative Party Conference. He allegedly “talked at length” to Oakeshott and her co-author Michael Ashcroft for the book.

According to court evidence, Oakeshott agreed an indemnity deal in 2017 with the Sunday Times based on the emails she subsequently discovered, but no publication was forthcoming. This “ultimately led to us publishing details of Banks’ undisclosed relationship with the Russian Government in June 2018,” Cadwalladr added.

“What was extraordinary is that this appears to be a classified leak from a serving Secretary of Defence about a matter of the highest public interest. Just days later, Theresa May made her landmark speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in which she talked for the first time about the threat from Russia to the UK, saying, ‘I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.’ 

Cadwalladr described this as a “gobsmacking new revelation”, showing how Williamson was attempting to “protect his political allies” and guard against scrutiny of Brexit.

“It’s maybe even extraordinary that this was not reported anywhere in the UK media,” Cadwalladr concluded.

And one month before Russia invaded Ukraine, not a single news organisation – other than the Guardian – sent a reporter to cover the Banks v Cadwalladr trial, which Cadwalladr ultimately won.

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The Huawei Saga

Gavin Williamson was sacked as Defence Secretary in May 2019 by Theresa May after she found “compelling evidence” that he was responsible for leaking information about the Chinese tech firm Huawei’s potential role in helping to build the UK’s 5G network. 

May launched an investigation after the Telegraph reported on the decision taken to allow Huawei to build “non-core” parts of the network – also reporting that there were warnings within the Cabinet about potential threats to national security. 

May said that “No other, credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified,” though Williamson claimed that he had been “tried by a kangaroo court” and denied culpability.

May insisted that the investigation was “conducted fairly, with the full cooperation of other National Security Council attendees. They have answered all questions, engaged properly, provided as much information as possible to assist with the investigation, and encouraged their staff to do the same.” Of Williamson’s conduct, she said that, “Your conduct has not been of the same standard as others.”

Williamson allegedly acknowledged speaking to the Telegraph’s Steven Swinford on the phone for 11 minutes on the day of the leak, but denied that he revealed information from the National Security Council – a forum where secret intelligence can be shared between senior cabinet ministers, officials and senior figures from the armed forces and intelligence agencies.

Huawei itself denied that there is any risk of spying or sabotage from its involvement in the 5G network, or that it is controlled by the Chinese Government. The UK Government has now decided that all Huawei technology must be removed from 5G public networks by the end of 2027.

Another Leak

Allegations published by the Guardian today also suggest that Williamson was behind a second leak of information, two years later.

The newspaper reports that Williamson’s successor Penny Mordaunt, who served as Defence Secretary from 1 May to 24 July 2019, was forced to deal with a security leak deemed so serious that officials considered seeking a ‘D notice’ to warn any media outlet considering publishing the information.

A former Government insider told the Guardian that senior MoD figures believed that the leak “could only have come from Gavin” and that “our people’s lives were put at risk by it”. No further information was offered on the contents of the leak. 

A spokesperson for Williamson said the allegations were “categorically untrue” and that the former Defence Secretary “has no knowledge of this or any involvement with it.”

Mordaunt only served as Defence Secretary for a couple of months, narrowing the incidents that could have been the subject of this security breach.

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Around that period, on 6 July, the Mail on Sunday published a story suggesting that UK Ambassador to the US Kim Darroch had criticised US President Donald Trump, calling him “inept” and “uniquely dysfunctional”. The story was written by Oakeshott and Steven Edginton – who was at the time serving as chief digital strategist at the Brexit Party, whose chairman was Tice. 

Fellow Leave.EU campaigner and Brexit Party co-founder Nigel Farage was and still is Trump’s closest European ally – the first politician invited to meet the new President after his victory in 2016.

Darroch communicated his thoughts about Trump via “secret cables and briefing notes”, according to the Mail on Sunday story, that were leaked to its authors. Oakeshott and Edginton even state in the article that “the leak of diplomatic cables is extremely unusual”. Darroch resigned as Ambassador three days later and the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism unit launched an investigation into the source of the leak, believing it to be a breach of the Official Secrets Act. 

An anonymous civil servant was arrested in October 2020 and has been investigated for almost two years over the security breach. He denies leaking the documents and was never charged. 

There is no evidence that Williamson was involved in the leak. In 2019, he was approached by a Byline Times editor about the Huawei and Darroch cable leaks, but walked away without responding. Byline Times previously sent a Freedom of Information request to the MoD, asking whether Williamson met with Edginton during the period in question. This request was denied, on the basis that it “relates to a leak investigation”.

Williamson has this week resigned from the Cabinet over accusations of bullying – his third departure from the top table of Government, this time departing the Cabinet Office.

When contacted for comment, the Ministry of Defence told Byline Times to contact the Cabinet Office, which in turn told us to contact the Ministry of Defence. Williamson did not respond to our request for comment.

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