Coulson: I may have seen top-secret material

Ex-News of the World editor tells Leveson inquiry he may have had unsupervised access to papers, despite low-level clearance

Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson has admitted that he may have had unsupervised access to top secret material while he worked for David Cameron in Downing Street, despite not having undergone the necessary security checks.

Coulson’s admission at the Leveson inquiry on Thursday afternoon appears to contradict No 10’s account of the former News International employee’s access to the most sensitive government materials while he was working for the prime minister. It has consistently claimed that Coulson had appropriate security clearance for his work because he did not have unsupervised access to top secret papers.

Downing Street decided that Coulson and some other officials would not undergo rigorous, high-level vetting when the coalition government took power in May 2010. It has maintained the decision was made partly because it felt too many officials had unnecessary access to highly sensitive papers in the previous government and partly to keep down costs.

In questions put directly to the prime minister’s spokesman and through freedom of information requests over almost nine months, the Guardian has asked if Coulson had “unsupervised access to information designated top secret or above” at any time.

Following an internal review of its handling of the questions, the Cabinet Office replied in March: “No information is held that shows that Andy Coulson was sent information incorrectly or for which he was not authorised.”

But when Robert Jay QC, counsel to the Leveson inquiry, asked Coulson if he had had unsupervised access to material designated top secret or above, he replied: “I may have done, yes.”

Cameron’s former director of communications told the Leveson inquiry he had undergone vetting to “supervised security check” level in order to work inside Downing Street, a level lower than almost all of his predecessors and successors in a similar role. Under government security rules, only officials who have undergone more stringent “developed vetting” are allowed unsupervised access to top secret state papers.

“Security check” clearance grants regular access to material classified as secret, but only “occasional, controlled access” to top-secret documents. Roles involving unsupervised access to top-secret material require higher-level developed vetting, according to official guidance.

Developed vetting involves an extra questionnaire; criminal record, security services and credit reference checks; an extended, typically three-hour, interview, plus reference checks by phone or in person. Investigators ask questions such as: “Is there anything else in your life you think it appropriate for us to know?”.

Under cross-examination Coulson told the inquiry he attended National Security Council meetings while he worked in Downing Street between May 2010 and January 2011.

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