For nearly four years they lay piled in a Scotland Yard evidence room, six overstuffed plastic bags gathering dust and little else.
Inside was a treasure-trove of evidence: 11,000 pages of handwritten notes listing nearly 4,000 celebrities, politicians, sports stars, police officials and victims of crime whose phones may have been hacked by The News of the World, a now defunct British tabloid newspaper.
Yet from August 2006, when the items were seized, until the autumn of 2010, no one at the Metropolitan Police Service, commonly referred to as Scotland Yard, bothered to sort through all the material and catalog every page, according to former and current senior police officials.
During that same time, senior Scotland Yard officials assured Parliament, judges, lawyers, potential hacking victims, the news media and the public that there was no evidence of widespread hacking by the tabloid. They steadfastly maintained that their original inquiry, which led to the conviction of one reporter and one private investigator, had put an end to what they called an isolated incident.
After the past week, that assertion has been reduced to tatters, torn apart by a spectacular avalanche of contradictory evidence, admissions by News International executives that hacking was more widespread, and a reversal by police officials who now admit to mishandling the case.
Assistant Commissioner John Yates of the Metropolitan Police Service publicly acknowledged that he had not actually gone through the evidence. “I’m not going to go down and look at bin bags,” Mr. Yates said, using the British term for trash bags.
At best, former Scotland Yard senior officers acknowledged in interviews, the police have been lazy, incompetent and too cozy with the people they should have regarded as suspects. At worst, they said, some officers might be guilty of crimes themselves.
“It’s embarrassing and it’s tragic,” said a retired Scotland Yard veteran. “This has badly damaged the reputation of a really good investigative organization. And there is a major crisis now in the leadership of the Yard.”
The testimony and new evidence that emerged last week, as well as interviews with current and former officials, indicate that the police agency and News International, the British subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the publisher of The News of the World, became so intertwined that they wound up sharing the goal of containing the investigation.
Members of Parliament said in interviews that they were troubled by a “revolving door” between the police and News International, which included a former top editor at The News of the World at the time of the hacking who went on to work as a media strategist for Scotland Yard.
On Friday, The New York Times learned that the former editor, Neil Wallis, was reporting back to News International while he was working for the police on the hacking case.
Executives and others at the company also enjoyed close social ties to Scotland Yard’s top officials. Since the hacking scandal began in 2006, Mr. Yates and others regularly dined with editors from News International papers, records show. Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, met for lunch or dinner 18 times with company executives and editors during the investigation, including eight occasions with Mr. Wallis while he was still working at The News of the World.
Senior police officials declined several requests to be interviewed for this article.
The police have continually asserted that the original investigation was limited because the counterterrorism unit, which was in charge of the case, was preoccupied with more pressing demands. At the parliamentary committee hearing last week, the three officials said they were working on 70 terrorist investigations.
Yet the Metropolitan Police unit that deals with special crimes, which had more resources and time available, could have taken over the case, said four former senior investigators. One called the argument that the department did not have enough resources “utter nonsense.”
Another senior investigator said officials saw the inquiry as being in “safe hands” at the counterterrorism unit.
Interviews with current and former officials show that instead of examining all the evidence, investigators primarily limited their inquiry to 36 names that the private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, mentioned in one list.
As a result, Scotland Yard notified only a small number of the people whose phones were hacked by The News of the World. Other people who suspected foul play had to approach the police to see if their names were in Mr. Mulcaire’s files.
“It’s one thing to decide not to investigate,” said Jeremy Reed, one of the lawyers who represents numerous phone-hacking victims. “But it’s quite another thing not to tell the victims. That’s just mind-blowing.”
Among the possible victims was former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who asked the police last year to look into suspicions that his phones were hacked. In response, Scotland Yard sent him a form letter saying it was unclear whether the tabloid had eavesdropped on his conversations, people with knowledge of the request said.
The police assigned a new team to the hacking allegations last September after The New York Times published a magazine article that showed that the practice was far more widespread and raised questions about Scotland Yard’s handling of the case.
Shortly after, the police finally reopened those “bin bags.” Now, the police are enduring the painstaking and humiliating exercise of notifying nearly 4,000 angry people listed in the documents that they may have been targets of what now appears to be industrial-strength hacking by The News of the World. The chore is likely to take years.
A Series of Inquiries
Scotland Yard’s new criminal inquiry, dubbed Operation Weeting, has led to the arrests of a total of nine reporters and editors, with more expected. And the police have opened another inquiry into allegations that some officers were paid for confidential information by reporters at News of the World and elsewhere.
The Metropolitan Police itself is now the subject of a judicial inquiry into what went wrong with their initial case, as well as into the ties between the department’s top officers and executives and reporters for News International.
At a parliamentary committee hearing last week, three current and former officials who ran the case were openly mocked. One member of Parliament dubbed an investigator “more Clouseau than Colombo.”
At the hearing, the senior investigator in charge of the day-to- day inquiry, Peter Clarke, blamed The News of the World’s “complete lack of cooperation” for the shortcomings in the department’s initial investigation.
While editors were not sharing any information, they were frequently breaking bread with police officers. Andy Hayman, who as head of the counterterrorism unit was running the investigation, also attended four dinners, lunches and receptions with News of the World editors, including a dinner on April 25, 2006, while his officers were gathering evidence in the case, records show. He told Parliament he never discussed the investigation with editors.
Mr. Hayman left the Metropolitan Police in December 2007 and was soon hired to write a column for The Sunday Times, a News International paper. He defended the inquiry that he led, writing in his column in July 2009 that his detectives had “left no stone unturned.”
Three months later, Mr. Wallis, the former deputy editor of The News of the World, was hired by Scotland Yard to provide strategic media advice on phone-hacking matters to the police commissioner, among others. Scotland Yard confirmed last week that the commissioner, Sir Paul, had personally approved nearly $40,000 in payments to Mr. Wallis for his work.
But when Mr. Wallis was interviewed last April by a New York Times reporter working on a story about the hacking, he did not disclose his new media role at Scotland Yard. In the interview, Mr. Wallis defended both the newspaper and the vigor of Scotland Yard’s initial investigation.
A person familiar with the hacking investigation said on Friday that Mr. Wallis had also informed Rebekah Brooks about The New York Times’s reporting. Ms. Brooks, who resigned on Friday as chief executive officer of News International, has maintained that she was unaware of the hacking.
A News International spokeswoman said the company was reviewing whether it had paid Mr. Wallis at the same time.
It is unclear whether Scotland Yard knew about Mr. Wallis’s activities. While The New York Times was working on its article last year, Scotland Yard was refusing to answer most of the detailed questions that The Times submitted to it in a freedom of information request.
Scotland Yard did not reveal that Mr. Wallis had worked for them for a year until Thursday night, about 10 hours after he was arrested at his west London home in connection with phone hacking.
“This is stunning,” a senior Scotland Yard official who retired within the past few years said when informed about Mr. Wallis’ secret dual role. “It appears to be collusion. It has left a terrible odor around the Yard.”
Mr. Wallis did not return calls seeking comment.
He had worked as second in command at the tabloid under Andy Coulson, who left the paper in 2007 after the private investigator and the reporter were found guilty of hacking into the phones of members of the royal family and their staff.
Shortly after, Mr. Coulson was hired by the Conservative Party to lead its communications team. Last year, David Cameron brought Mr. Coulson to 10 Downing Street when he became prime minister. But Mr. Coulson could never escape the glare of the hacking controversy. Once Scotland Yard decided to reopen the case, he resigned from the post and was arrested on July 8.
It was not until last autumn that the police were forced to confront their own mistakes. By then, they were facing an escalating stream of requests by people who suspected that their phones might have been hacked. Two dozen people had also brought civil cases against News International, which was compelling the police to release information from Mr. Mulcaire’s files.
The documents were seized on Aug. 8, 2006, from Mr. Mulcaire’s home in Cheam, south of London. Mr. Mulcaire, a 40-year-old former soccer player whose nickname was “The Trigger,” was nothing if not a meticulous note-keeper. On each page of the 11,000 documents, in the upper-left-hand corner, he wrote the name of the reporter or editor whom he was helping to hack phones.
Also seized from his home was “a target list” of the names of a total of eight members of the royal family and the household staff, and 28 others, which Scotland Yard’s investigators used as their first road map of Mr. Mulcaire’s activities.
‘A Mutual Trust’
From the beginning, Scotland Yard investigators treated The News of the World with deference, searching a single desk in its newsroom and counting on the staff’s future cooperation. “A mutual trust” is how one police investigator described the relationship.
Leaders of the Metropolitan police decided not to pursue a wide-ranging “cleanup of the British media,” as one senior investigator put it. Mr. Hayman, the investigator in charge, said in testimony before Parliament last Tuesday that the inquiry was viewed as “not a big deal” at the time.
The police charged only Mr. Mulcaire and the royal affairs reporter, Clive Goodman. When the case was done, the evidence went into plastic bags in a storage locker, several officials said. It was occasionally reviewed but a complete accounting would not be done until late 2010.
And yet as recently as last year, Mr. Yates told two parliamentary committees that a full accounting of all the evidence had been done.
“It is important to recognize that our inquires showed that in the vast majority of cases there was insufficient evidence to show that taping had actually been achieved,” Mr. Yates said on July 9, 2009.
Mr. Yates said investigators presumed that the material in the files was for legitimate purposes since it was the job of both Mr. Mulcaire and Mr. Goodman “to gather personal data about high-profile figures.”
Yet on numerous occasions Mr. Yates assured the public that all those affected had been notified.
He said the police had “taken all proper steps to ensure that where we have evidence that people have been the subject of any form of phone tapping, or that there is any suspicion that they might have been, that they have been informed.”
The parliamentary committees declined to pursue the matter.
In the fall of 2006, Sir Ian Blair, then the police commissioner, had the option of assigning the case to the Specialist Crime Directorate, the division that handles homicides, robberies and the like. It had 3,500 detectives at its disposal and could have reviewed every document, several former officials said.
The man leading the unit, Tarique Ghaffur, was known among his colleagues for refusing to toe the line. Mr. Ghaffur had led an internal inquiry into the police harassment of a prominent black activist and concluded that the man had been the victim of “unreasonable targeting by police officers.”
It was not until July 2009, three years after the evidence was seized, that Mr. Yates ordered some of the names in Mr. Mulcaire’s files to be put into a database, former officials said. But it fell far short of a complete accounting, they said. In one instance, the police thwarted a deeper look at their handling of the evidence.
Last autumn, four people, including John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, and Brian Paddick, a former senior police official, sought a judicial review to determine why Scotland Yard had not notified all the hacking victims.
In response, lawyers for the police claimed that none of the four plaintiffs’ phones had been accessed. Last February, a judge ruled against going forward with an inquiry. Within days, several plaintiffs received word from the police that their phones might have been hacked.
“The court was misled,” said Tamsin Allen, who is representing the defendants. “It was pretty outrageous.”
A judge recently decided to open a new review of why Scotland Yard did not notify everyone in Mr. Mulcaire’s files.
“I still don’t think we know the extent of what the police did and did not do because we are only about half-way down into the murky pond,” said Chris Bryant, a Labour member of Parliament who is one of the four plaintiffs who applied for the judicial review.
A Toxic Atmosphere
Current and former officials said that shortly after Scotland Yard began looking into the hacking, five senior police investigators discovered that their own phones might have been broken into by The News of the World.
At last week’s hearing in Parliament, Mr. Hayman, one of the five, denied knowing if his phone had been hacked. So far, only 170 phone-hacking victims have been notified.
A second police operation is now trying to determine how many officers were paid for information from journalists working at The News of the World and elsewhere. One of the challenges, a senior officer said, was that the journalists’ records contained pseudonyms instead of the officers’ names. There is suspicion that some pseudonyms were made up by reporters to pocket cash from their editors, the officer said.
The atmosphere at Scotland Yard has become toxic. “Everyone is rowing for the shore,” said a former senior Scotland Yard official. “Everyone is distancing themselves from this mess.”
Sue Akers, who is leading both police inquiries, said the department faced a deep challenge to repair its reputation.
“I think it is everybody’s analysis that confidence has been damaged,” Ms. Akers told Parliament last week. “But I am confident that we have got an excellent team who are working tirelessly to get this right.”
She added: “I hope that I do not have to come back here in five years’ time to explain why we failed.”
Jo Becker contributed reporting.