March 2, 2006
It certainly was not part of Britain's plans to win the hearts and
minds of the people of Iraq. But the Foreign Office has been
apparently paying for an adult sex chatline in a Baghdad street for 17
months without knowing it.
The Foreign Office has had to tell MPs that an investigation into how
a diplomat lost two satellite phones in Iraq has nothing to do with
terrorism but more to do with a budding entrepreneur and a telephone
FO officials had already admitted that the lost phones had cost them
=A3594,000 in unauthorised phone bills but it is now bracing itself for
an extremely critical report from the Commons public accounts
committee on how it came to pay phone bills, which at one stage hit
=A3212,000 in one month, without asking questions.
Sir Michael Jay, permanent secretary at the FO, told MPs: "All the
pattern of usage of these phones ... points to some kind of criminal
activity ... It was almost as though they were taken and used as a
kind of mobile phone booth at the end of the street where anybody
could come along and use them.
"After that, they appear to have been used for a couple of scams based
on what are known as personal numbers and premium numbers."
Sir Michael said the premium rate numbers were used for betting
agencies or adult phone lines, and that one of the FO phones had been
"on virtually full time with the person who is, as it were, making the
call getting some benefit from it."
Sir Michael said initial inquiries had revealed a series of blunders.
The phones were already activated when they were sent to Baghdad and
they were not properly logged in - so no one realised at first that
they had been stolen. None of the bills were initially challenged
until people realised the phones had gone missing. The rules at all
embassies have now been changed and no phone is sent abroad already
activated for use.
Edward Leigh, chairman of the committee, told him: "In terms of this
mobile phone being on permanently at the end of a street in Iraq, that
gives a whole new meaning to winning hearts and minds in Iraq, but it
is quite serious."
Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Great Grimsby, whose phone had been
swiped and used to dial a betting agency, asked if the FO had tried to
get its money back.
Since the disclosure, Richard Bacon, Tory MP for Norfolk South, has
made further inquiries: "It appears that they haven't been able to
find the culprit or trace the phone. You would have thought having
spent hundreds of millions of pounds setting up a sophisticated
listening centre at GCHQ it would be very easy to trace a satellite
phone and who was operating it in Iraq. But it doesn't appear anything
was done. It just beggars belief that the FO kept paying the bills."
Sir Michael has promised to try to get the money back. But so far the
only thing FO staff appeared to have done is to try to ring the
premium rate number. Sir Michael told MPs they did not get a reply.
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