More irresponsible handling of documents has been uncovered by public records requests. Information you'd think the government would actually want to hang onto has apparently been deleted by those charged with retaining it.
The Crown Prosecution Service is facing embarrassment after admitting it destroyed key emails relating to the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy fighting extradition.
Email exchanges between the CPS and its Swedish counterparts over the high-profile case were deleted after the lawyer at the UK end retired in 2014.
The destruction of potentially sensitive and revealing information comes ahead of a tribunal hearing in London next week.
This auspicious disappearance was sniffed out by Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi, who has been covering Wikileaks for the better part of a decade. And, because it's now unavoidable, it has admitted the destruction in court as part of its filings in a FOI lawsuit brought by Maurizi.
CPS officials are now offering defensive statements about the document destruction, assuring the public, angry FOI requesters, and other government branches that they are willing to dissonantly cogitate their way out of this embarrassment.
Asked if the CPS had any idea what was destroyed, a spokesperson said: “We have no way of knowing the content of email accounts once they have been deleted.”
A legal manager at the CPS, Mohammed Cheema, who has been dealing with the FOI requests, said, in a lengthy witness statement in August this year, that the Assange case file comprises mainly 55 lever-arch files, one A4 file and a selection of other paper files.
He added it was very unlikely the CPS held further significant email correspondence.
I guess it all depends on when you ask the question. The second statement could be true pre- or post-email deletion, but probably more likely to be true after the scrubbing. But it's a bit rich to ask everyone to believe these are simultaneously true -- that the contents are unknown but also unlikely to be significant.
The chance something "significant" may have been deleted remains high. And it will always remain so because the absence of emails means the absence of contradictory evidence. The UK is still interested in Assange and Wikileaks, even though it hasn't pressed the issue of extradition in quite some time. This is CPS's excuse for the mass deletion: the communications were related to extradition proceedings that ended in 2012 and contain nothing relevant to ongoing Assange-related government activity. According to CPS, this deletion was per policy.
“Most casework papers and related material are stored for three years following the conclusion of proceedings, or for the duration of the convicted defendant’s sentence plus three months. In some cases material may be held for longer.”
The problem appears to be the policy then. If documents of interest to the public and of possible use in future prosecutions vanish just because the clock runs out, the policy would appear to run counter to the point of document retention laws. No one expects everything to be retained indefinitely, but archiving electronic documents like emails isn't exactly a Sisyphean endeavor.
The ending of an investigation or prosecution shouldn't trigger a countdown clock that expires this quickly, especially when governments are almost always able to withhold documents while investigations and prosecutions are still ongoing. Generally speaking, government agencies are the only ones that can say definitively when investigations end, leaving document requesters to figure this out through trial and error.
In this case, Maurizi will be continuing her FOI lawsuit against the CPS, but with some of the targeted documents already deleted, there's little to be gained.