Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

‘The National Crime Agency’s Investigations Boss Was Sacked Over Leaks – Casting Doubt on Hundreds of Convictions’

The dismissal of one of Britain’s former top crime fighters could bring the safety of convictions relating to police-infiltrated encrypted phone network Encrochat into question, argues Dr Rebecca Tidy 

Photo: Marcin Rogozinski/Alamy

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

The National Crime Agency dismissed its director of investigations, Nikki Holland, in December.

The NCA’s statement to the public was distinctly short: its one-time top crime fighter lost her job after making “information security breaches”. But a disciplinary panel found “no malign intent” and the agency “expects the highest standards of conduct from all officers”.

It has since emerged that Holland committed two instances of gross misconduct and two of misconduct, including using her private WhatsApp and email accounts to send security-classified information on her personal mobile phone. She also tried to declassify the contents of the email, so it could be sent to a non-secure source.

The Crown Prosecution Service disclosed these disciplinary findings during legal proceedings involving the covert accessing by the authorities of the encrypted phone network, Encrochat.

The information was not previously in the public domain, as – unlike officers at England and Wales’ 43 police forces – National Crime Agency employees are subject to closed disciplinary proceedings. 

A panel dismissed a total of 12 allegations against Holland including those relating to access to NCA material and its secure handling, storage and transmission.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct is currently investigating separate allegations that Holland and a junior colleague made data protection breaches, bullied colleagues and misused public funds, the CPS disclosure also revealed.

Don’t miss a story

The disclosure offered a rare glimpse into the NCA’s culture, which – akin to many of England and Wales’ police forces – was deemed problematic by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services in a June 2023 review. 

Inspectors found “poor leadership” and “prejudicial and improper behaviour” across the agency’s satellite sites. They pointed to inconsistent decision-making in misconduct cases with officers who had acted dishonestly or engaged in sexual harassment keeping their highly-trusted jobs.

Officials’ responses to the misconduct allegations raise difficult questions about British law enforcement culture at a time when HMICFRS boss Andy Cook says that “trust in policing is hanging on by a thread” and “below 50%”.

Not dissimilar to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson who told the Covid Inquiry he had mysteriously lost 5,000 messages, Nikki Holland admitted deleting crucial evidence – including all of her WhatsApp messages – from her personal phone in February 2023, despite knowing that it was required for a misconduct investigation.

She acknowledged wrongly telling investigators that she hadn’t accessed a WhatsApp group from her personal device. 

The panel didn’t deem this as misconduct, as it found no evidence that she did these things to avoid incrimination.

In the absence of tangible evidence to the contrary, the public is forced to accept that she progressed to a top policing role without a basic awareness of the need to retain evidence.


Senior Female Asian Metropolitan Police Staffer Quits Over Force Racism Following Boycott Call

A Muslim Met staffer resigned saying her complaints about racism, misogyny and sexual assault allegedly committed by her colleagues had been systematically ignored

It is notable that the High Court ruled in the ‘Wagatha Christie’ case that Rebekah Vardy’s agent didn’t mistakenly drop an iPhone of evidence into the North Sea. Yet the Covid Inquiry and police misconduct panels appear honour bound to accept that a growing number of civil servants are mistakenly disposing of evidence at the very time their actions are under scrutiny and careers are at stake.

The NCA is still “deciding whether to investigate” senior NCA officer Trudi Abadi’s allegation that Holland instructed staff to switch on WhatsApp’s disappearing messages function immediately after a judge ruled that officers’ messages must be disclosed to the court. This claim dates back to a Liverpool Crown Court preparatory hearing on 16 November 2020, but if proven, it would show a willingness to conceal evidence.

It is tempting to turn a blind eye to the latest official embroiled in a messaging fiasco in the era of ‘Government by WhatsApp’. However, Holland’s gross misconduct serves as a reminder that poor behaviour is far from limited to a rank-and-file drawn from the wider British public: it pervades the sector from top to bottom.

As an NCA director, she set the culture for an influential government agency that isn’t scrutinised like police forces. It is even exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. She played a key role in modelling acceptable attitudes and behaviours for more than 5,000 NCA employees and more than 234,000 police officers.

Holland managed Britain’s most serious criminal investigations, typically involving allegations of drugs and firearms importation, county lines and human trafficking. In 2020, she oversaw the secretive Operation Venetic, whereby authorities covertly accessed the encrypted phone network, Encrochat.

The NCA obtained more than 100 million messages – exposing corrupt police officers paid by organised crime groups, murder conspiracies and a vast illegal trade in drugs and firearms.


Revealed: Government Advises MPs and Staff to Turn On ‘Disappearing Messages’ Citing Security Concerns

Deletions seem more likely in the future as politicians fear the consequences of messages entering the public domain

The Encrochat Cases

The Encrochat cases are very unusual because hundreds of people have been convicted and sentenced to decades in prison without seeing any physical evidence whatsoever of their alleged criminality. 

The defendants have been convicted based on nothing more than cell site data (approximate phone location), a single CSV file and a promise – from Holland and her former team at the NCA – that the text within it corresponds to encrypted text messages. 

Typically, defendants have the opportunity to appoint an independent expert to test the accuracy of any evidence against them. However, the NCA steadfastly refuses to divulge the hacking method, claiming it is a French “defence secret”.

In many cases, police found no corresponding incriminating material such as drugs; firearms; cash or Encrochat devices. They were often unable to obtain surveillance or automatic number plate recognition and CCTV evidence to support their allegations of criminal activity.

Unsurprisingly, hundreds of defendants deny ever possessing an EncroChat device, while others are adamant that they supplied much lower quantities or different substances than alleged. They say that the NCA’s claims that there is not one mistake – across the decryption, analysis and presentation of 100 million encrypted messages – are absurd and risk significant miscarriages of justice.

There has rightly been a significant public backlash around the Horizon Post Office scandal, which saw more than 900 subpostmasters prosecuted for theft, false accounting and fraud – because faulty Horizon accounting software wrongly highlighted ‘missing’ cash. The inquiry into these miscarriages of justice shows that investigators made it impossible for independent IT experts to double-check the functioning of this software.

Many IT experts believe these wrongful convictions occurred because courts in England and Wales are entitled to assume that evidence from a computer is always right – unless defendants can prove it is inaccurate. Yet this controversial legislation is still in existence.

With no access to law enforcement’s hacking method, there is no opportunity for Encrochat defendants to prove even a single mistake.

It has taken more than a decade for middle-class sub-postmasters to obtain any semblance of justice. It feels unlikely that defendants accused of serious offences such as drug trafficking and murder will attract the same public furore.


Time for Truth: Calls Grow for Police Probe into Piers Morgan and Mirror Editors

A prominent lawyer, hacking victim and an ex-police officer are joining Prince Harry in demanding police action into Mirror Group crimes and alleged lies to the Leveson Inquiry

Defence lawyers repeatedly accuse the NCA of failing to disclose critical information in the Encrochat proceedings, with some arguing that courts should stay the proceedings as defendants cannot receive a fair trial. Several legal professionals argue that Holland’s evasiveness is indicative of the wider issues around Operation Venetic.

One leading barrister argues that the agency has a toxic culture whereby officers “treat disclosure as a hurdle to avoid”. He describes “wilful blindness” among the team previously led by Holland, with officers who “deliberately adopt strategies that limit their disclosure obligations”. Key information is often provided to the court as “late as possible” or even “after hearings to minimise its usefulness”.

Despite the NCA’s claims to the contrary, many barristers and solicitors suspect that authorities obtained the alleged Encrochat messages by live interception, which means they cannot be used as evidence in a UK court (as per section 56(1) of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016). Yet, once again, the agency’s refusal to provide its method means this suspicion cannot be independently tested.

Investigatory Powers Tribunal

More than 40 Encrochat defendants brought a case before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal – paying in excess of £500,000 in legal fees – arguing that Holland and her former team failed to fulfil their duty of candour and disclose all relevant information to the court when applying for their targeted equipment interference warrant (the only warrant that allows Encrochat evidence to be used in court).

However, judges ruled last May that there was insufficient evidence to establish that the officers deliberately withheld the information.

The IPT found that the NCA provided inaccurate information to the court at various points. However, judges pointed out that officers only needed to ‘reasonably believe’ that their intelligence was correct at the time. They noted that it is irrelevant whether it later emerges that the information was inaccurate.

“As a family, we gambled our entire life savings on asking the state for transparency,” a partner of one of the convicted told me. “We’re not expecting my partner to automatically be acquitted… we simply want a fair trial with an independent, qualified expert to double-check the accuracy and admissibility of the evidence against him.”

In September 2022, NCA officer Luke Shrimpton told the IPT he threw a phone containing crucial evidence about the legality of the hack into the bin, saying he had received no training on the need to retain evidence. And in November 2022, senior officer Annie Norris was fired from the agency after “selling a high value UK covert asset used to spy on drug traffickers” in an incident the agency refuses to comment on.

The NCA has a long history of withholding information from the courts.

It reportedly left taxpayers with a £13 million bill in 2015 after failing to disclose key information when applying for search warrants on the offices of five businessmen it wrongly accused of money laundering. A judge told the agency it had an “egregious disregard for constitutional safeguards” and that this was an “endemic problem” and not an isolated case.

In 2015, the Law Commission found that 80% of NCA search warrants were defective, as officers failed to fulfil their duty of candour – to provide all relevant information including that which undermines their application – to the court when applying.

The NCA presents the Encrochat convictions as a ‘win’ in its battle against organised crime. But, arguably, they reflect the gradual erosion of an individual’s right to a fair trial. 

We will never know how many innocent people are wrongly convicted and locked up, unless the agency allows a suitably-qualified independent IT expert to double-check the digital evidence.

The Encrochat cases are the latest in a series of incidents to raise difficult questions about the secrecy at the heart of the NCA. It is long past time our politicians consider whether this lack of transparency is more of a national hindrance than help.

The NCA was contacted for comment. 

Dr Rebecca Tidy is an academic with a focus on criminal justice and organised crime

Do you have a story that needs highlighting? Get in touch by emailing

Written by

This article was filed under