Defence Secretary apologises for leak of Afghan interpreter details as investigation launched

Taliban fighters walk in the streets. Credit: AP

The Defence Secretary has apologised after an email error exposed the details of 250 Afghan interpreters, many of whom still hiding in the country, and are looking to move to the UK.

Ben Wallace has launched an investigation into the data breach and one person has been suspended after hundreds of people were mistakenly copied into an email from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) asking for an update on their situation.

He said: "It is an unacceptable level of service that has let down the thousands of members of the armed forces and veterans. On behalf of the Ministry of Defence, I apologise."

The Defence Secretary also revealed here are 900 "credible cases" for resettlement still in Afghanistan beyond the 311 the government is currently speaking to.

He said he was made aware of the leak at 8pm last night adding "to say I was angered by this was an understatement and I immediately directed investigations take place."

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace apologised for the leak Credit: PA

Mr Wallace told MPs: "Initial findings show that an email was sent at 17:44 hours as part of a weekly contact we maintain with Arap currently remaining in Afghanistan. This was copied to all applicants rather than blind copying them.

"The email was immediately recalled on identification of the breach and then a subsequent email was sent advising people to delete their email and change their addresses, many of whom have done.

"So far, one individual has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation and processes for data handling and correspondence processing have already been changed.

"I have directed extensive steps are taken to quantify the potential increased risk to individuals in order to take further steps to protect them."

A full flight of 265 people supported by members of the UK armed forces on board an evacuation flight out of Kabul Credit: Ben Shread/PA

Mr Wallace said the evacuation scheme would continue to operate despite the leak and confirmed armed forces minister James Heappey was speaking to neighbouring countries to see what could be done to help any of those identified.

Labour shadow defence secretary John Healey welcomed the defence secretary’s apology but told the Commons that "action" is now what matters most.When asked why the government was mass emailing vulnerable people in Afghanistan, Mr Wallace replied: "It was a mass email, it didn’t contain their home addresses or anything.

"The photo profiles were ones that were in the profiles of the email addresses.

"Having looked at the email addresses, the vast majority weren’t specific names necessarily. That doesn’t change the fundamental impact that could have had and still could do."

According to reports, some of those whose information has been released are in hiding from the Taliban after the militants took control of the battle-torn country last month.

Former Defence Secretary Johnny Mercer slammed the mistake, saying it would leave people "probably moving house again tonight".

"The truth on how we have treated our Afghan interpreters will come out.

"All the back slapping over Operation Pitting masks a criminally negligent performance by the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office on doing our duty to these people.

"I reiterate, the vast majority have been left behind, probably moving house again tonight."

He added the treatment of Afghan interpreters had been "deeply shameful".

A member of the UK Armed Forces fist-bumping a child evacuee at Kabul airport Credit: Ben Shread/MoD/PA

A spokeswoman for the department said: “An investigation has been launched into a data breach of information from the Afghan Relocations Assistance Policy team.

“We apologise to everyone impacted by this breach and are working hard to ensure it does not happen again.

“The Ministry of Defence takes its information and data handling responsibilities very seriously.”

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson appeared to back President Joe Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan last month, despite international consensus that it led to the Taliban's recapture of the country.

In an interview with American broadcaster NBC, the prime minister said: "America had been there for 20 years - it's a respectable argument to say enough is enough."

He added: "You can't endlessly subcontract the government of your country to other people. There's got to be some sort of system."

But, when pressed, he did appear to acknowledge misgivings over Mr Biden's swift withdrawal strategy, saying: "Could we have done it a bit differently? Maybe we could."