Washington Post CEO William Lewis’s function in hacking response comes into sharper focus | EUROtoday

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LONDON — In late January 2011, simply days after Scotland Yard launched a significant new investigation of unlawful cellphone hacking by British journalists, a pc technician working inside Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate despatched an e-mail describing an surprising halt in his task.

After days spent serving to to delete emails by the tens of millions from the corporate’s archives, the technician wrote to his bosses that “all decisions to continue” had been now “frozen.” The technician was awaiting phrase on whether or not to halt the purge, press on, or reverse course and “restore all archives already deleted (!!)”

“Nobody here knows because this is coming from the top,” wrote the technician, Nigel Newell, in keeping with a court docket document of his communication. Police had lately requested the corporate to protect proof.

Three days later, the interior halt was lifted. An government relayed phrase to the IT group that legal professionals had given the “green light” to proceed with the “email migration process.” In the following days, one other 15 million emails had been wiped from the archives, in keeping with an accounting from Murdoch’s legal professionals in a 2017 civil case.

That message to proceed was despatched by William Lewis, who was then an government at Murdoch’s U.Okay. firm, and who final yr was named CEO and writer of The Washington Post.

The Feb. 3 e-mail is among the many indications that Lewis performed a key function in occasions on the coronary heart of a fierce authorized dispute: whether or not News International deliberately deleted years of emails — in the end some 30 million, of which 9 million had been by no means recovered — to thwart an energetic police investigation.

Victims of cellphone hacking declare that these deletions had been a part of an effort to cowl up executives’ consciousness that Murdoch journalists had illegally obtained voicemails of hundreds of individuals, together with politicians, royals and even a murdered teenager. Murdoch’s firm has mentioned in court docket filings the corporate’s emails conformed with a data-retention coverage and had been deleted for “commercial, IT and practical reasons” and never as a part of a plan to hide proof. The firm has spent a reported $1.5 billion to settle greater than a thousand phone-hacking claims, with settlements persevering with into this yr.

Lewis has denied wrongdoing whereas declining to reply detailed questions on his actions. He advised The Post: “I know I did nothing wrong, and these allegations are untrue.” He has beforehand known as his task on the time “crisis management” and mentioned he labored to “preserve journalistic integrity.”

A Washington Post assessment of paperwork and interviews with key gamers discovered that News International’s actions in response to the hacking scandal left some police investigators and IT employees involved that the corporate was obstructing the investigation. Some now say their considerations have solely grown with time.

While the broad outlines of the hacking scandal and Lewis’s administration of the disaster had been beforehand identified, particulars about his involvement in how the corporate dealt with emails amid the legal investigation have lately come into public view by means of a long-running civil case. In current weeks, questions on Lewis’s actions deepened after reviews he sought to discourage The Post from overlaying developments within the civil case, an allegation he has denied.

Lewis himself just isn’t the direct goal of any authorized motion. But a British choose lately cleared the best way for Prince Harry and others to air allegations in a trial scheduled for January that Lewis helped conceal proof associated to cellphone hacking. News Group Newspapers, a Murdoch entity, is the defendant within the case.

Former British prime minister Gordon Brown, himself a sufferer of alleged hacking, final month urged London’s Metropolitan Police Service — broadly generally known as Scotland Yard — to reopen its legal investigation, citing revelations from the court docket case.

This week, in a press release to The Post, Brown for the primary time known as on police particularly to research Lewis’s conduct and that of his former boss, longtime Murdoch government Rebekah Brooks.

“Rebekah Brooks and William Lewis were involved in the destruction of millions of emails vital to the criminal investigation into phone hacking,” mentioned the previous Labour chief, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2010. Murdoch executives “who claimed they were doing the cleanup may have instead been engaged in a coverup.”

A spokeswoman for Murdoch’s U.Okay. publishing firm, now known as News UK, mentioned Brown was “relying on a one-sided and incomplete picture of the evidence” and accused him of harboring “enmity” towards the corporate.

As the decade-old controversy has been thrust again into the information, some individuals who had been concerned within the occasions — which led to a wave of resignations and jail phrases for a number of journalists together with a former prime editor — are revisiting misgivings they felt on the time.

An IT employee who participated in conferences with Lewis mentioned he “came to feel the deletions were driven by an effort to hide information.” The employee mentioned his evaluation was “based on what we were asked to do, the way it was done and everything that was going on in the bigger picture at the time,” a reference to deletion directions that he mentioned went in opposition to commonplace protocols and got here amid the Scotland Yard probe. Like some others interviewed for this report, the employee spoke on the situation of anonymity due to ongoing litigation.

The News UK spokeswoman mentioned the corporate “strenuously denies that there was any plan to delete emails in order to conceal evidence.” The spokeswoman mentioned critics of the Murdoch firm, together with police officers, fail to grasp these occasions partially as a result of the corporate has but to current its aspect in court docket.

The spokeswoman additionally known as the allegations historic. She famous that Brooks was acquitted in a 2014 trial on expenses of conspiracy associated to cellphone hacking, a case that dealt partially with e-mail deletions, and pointed to a 2015 assertion issued by Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service after a years-long investigation saying it had seen “no evidence to suggest that email deletion was undertaken in order to pervert the court of justice.”

Some police officers concerned within the investigation, nonetheless, nonetheless harbor doubts.

“There are legitimate reasons for companies to delete emails,” Sue Akers, who led the Scotland Yard investigation of the phone-hacking scandal, mentioned in an interview with The Post. When an organization presses ahead with deleting recordsdata “literally at the beginning of our investigation,” she mentioned, “a more cynical view might be that they wanted to clear some stuff that might not be very helpful.”

Asked how a lot Post management knew about Lewis’s function within the phone-hacking fallout when he was employed final yr, Patty Stonesifer, the previous interim writer and a longtime adviser to Post proprietor Jeff Bezos, mentioned she and a search agency “completed a detailed review of Will’s career, background and references.” She added, “I can assure you of our deep consideration and complete alignment on Will’s leadership.”

Lewis, an completed reporter and editor, arrived as normal supervisor of Murdoch’s U.Okay. publishing operation in September 2010, throughout a second of disaster for the corporate. That similar month, British actress Sienna Miller took a preliminary step to sue the conglomerate for the actions of its best-selling tabloid, News of the World, initiating a lawsuit that might expose proof incriminating a high-level editor in hacking exercise. The authorized menace got here after the sentencing of one of many tabloid’s reporters for cellphone hacking and information articles that recommended the follow had continued.

The firm quickly started its first massive wave of e-mail deletions, eradicating greater than 4 million messages from its archive, in keeping with Murdoch legal professionals. The firm has mentioned the deletions weren’t made in response to Miller’s authorized declare.

After years of resisting stress to open a broad investigation, Scotland Yard despatched a letter to News International within the early days of 2011 saying authorities would now not settle for the corporate’s claims that hacking was the work of rogue reporters. Detectives sought “any material which could be potential evidence of phone hacking” by any workers member, police wrote, in keeping with court docket information.

That weekend, Brooks, then the News International chief government, and members of the corporate’s board had been in touch with the corporate’s chief info officer, Paul Cheesbrough, a couple of preexisting plan to “migrate” emails.

To full this work, News International known as in Essential Computing, an IT firm primarily based close to Bristol, England. The contractors had been advised their activity was emigrate News International from an outdated system to Gmail, in keeping with interviews and a press release given to police.

But once they arrived on Jan. 11, the orders modified, in keeping with statements and beforehand unreported notes taken by somebody current. Rather than overseeing a customary systemwide change, Newell, the lead technician, was handed a bit of paper with an inventory of “top up” executives, these paperwork say. Newell was advised to begin by making a safe copy of these people’ e-mail information to be positioned on a laptop computer, in keeping with a press release he would later present to police.

More slips of paper adopted, together with one titled “special people.”

Then got here directions that Newell seen as so uncommon — and regarding — that he refused to hold them out, in keeping with his assertion. Told to delete any information related to these lists from the corporate’s archives, he balked and insisted that one in every of Murdoch’s personal IT managers be the one to hit the “delete” button, an episode first reported by British journalist Nick Davies in Prospect journal.

In half, he had technical considerations that the safe copy on the laptop computer may not be full as a result of he mentioned the corporate had bypassed typical checks and reliability measures, in keeping with his assertion to police and folks concerned within the operation. These folks mentioned he and others additionally expressed considerations concerning the legality of their activity as police had been investigating.

In late January, because the phone-hacking scandal gained better consideration within the British press, Essential Computing dispatched a extra senior government to News International to supervise the e-mail operation. At this stage, Essential “was quite concerned about the legal implications” of the job it had been employed to do, an organization official mentioned in an interview. The supervisor despatched to London, David Kellett, was put in an remoted space of the corporate’s places of work and instructed “not to tell anyone what I was doing,” in keeping with a witness assertion Kellett gave to police.

Newell and Kellett declined to touch upon the beforehand unreported notes and the witness statements.

The News UK spokeswoman mentioned there was nothing untoward about the best way the corporate selected to retailer archived messages or the directions given to laptop specialists. The firm has mentioned in court docket that the laptop computer was used to retain messages wanted to meet authorized obligations. The dealing with of the laptop computer and its contents grew to become a spotlight of police, in keeping with court docket paperwork, and has been some extent of competition in lawsuits.

Brooks didn’t reply to inquiries, however the News UK spokeswoman denied that Brooks and others devised a plan to hide proof. The spokeswoman mentioned Murdoch’s U.Okay. publishing firm had a “strained” relationship with Essential, which she mentioned put in the troubled e-mail archive system.

On Jan. 12, with a recent spherical of deletions about to start, Lewis issued standards for whose messages ought to be saved, in keeping with excerpts of the steering contained in court docket recordsdata. The full doc has not been publicly launched.

Police got here to see the corporate’s strategy on this time interval as a part of an effort to “hang out to dry” sure journalists whereas “steering the investigation away from other journalists and editors,” Barney Ratcliffe, a senior Scotland Yard investigator, mentioned in a 2015 witness assertion obtained by The Post and reported this week by the New York Times. The assertion, which doesn’t point out Lewis, was filed in a separate case.

The News UK spokeswoman denied that characterization and mentioned the corporate was working to protect e-mail information that had been necessary for the investigation and ongoing litigation.

On. Jan. 26, News International turned over three emails from 2007 to police thought-about doable proof linking cellphone hacking to a senior editor, in keeping with court docket information and interviews. Scotland Yard that day opened a broad new investigation code-named Operation Weeting, with Akers in cost. Lewis despatched the “green light” message on Feb. 3.

Six days later, a News International IT supervisor wrote to a supervisor at Essential asking for an replace on the “deletions being done yesterday,” in keeping with filings and folks conversant in the discussions.

Later that day, a gaggle of News International executives that didn’t embody Lewis met once more with Scotland Yard investigators. The two sides disagreed about how a lot proof the corporate would flip over, in keeping with Ratcliffe’s assertion.

To defend journalistic integrity and bonafide communications with sources, police had shunned seizing proof outright, as a substitute counting on an association during which the corporate would voluntarily present materials requested by investigators.

Police had been “very keen to secure as much information as possible,” Ratcliffe mentioned in his sworn assertion. Murdoch executives, he mentioned, indicated that they’d anticipated their cooperation to be restricted to a slim set of emails involving a small variety of News of the World staff.

In reality, the executives mentioned throughout the assembly, they’d little extra to share, telling police there was “no data” in its e-mail archives previous to January 2008, as one other detective recalled in a press release cited by plaintiffs. What the corporate didn’t reveal, in keeping with the Ratcliffe assertion and different folks conversant in the timing, was that technical work related to deletions had continued into the earlier night.

The News UK spokeswoman mentioned that firm leaders had been clear on the Feb. 9 assembly, divulging that many emails now not resided on archives due to deletions carried out for a vital migration.

One police officer concerned within the investigation mentioned, nonetheless, “There is a big difference between disclosing some deletions and mass deletions, and the fact that they continued” after the beginning of the police investigation.

‘Jaw-dropping moment’

As tensions worsened in 2011 between News International executives and investigators, the corporate turned to Lewis to enhance the connection with police.

That summer season, the corporate introduced a newly created Management and Standards Committee to take over interactions with police and appointed to key positions Lewis and a public relations professional he had identified since childhood, Simon Greenberg. Greenberg died in 2021.

Lewis and Greenberg “came as a pair and they said, ‘We’re here now. Cut the lawyers out and deal with us,’” mentioned a former senior Scotland Yard official. The two made a constructive impression, in distinction to the contentious strategy of the Murdoch attorneys.

Lewis additionally dealt with encounters with some victims of cellphone hacking. David Blunkett, dwelling secretary within the Labour authorities within the early 2000s, mentioned Lewis was his foremost interlocutor when the corporate supplied him an out-of-court settlement.

Around that point, Blunkett recalled, “He came to me and said, ‘Can we settle?’” Blunkett agreed, he mentioned, out of a need to keep away from opening his life to the sort of scrutiny related to a high-profile lawsuit of the kind Prince Harry and others are actually pursuing. Of his interactions with Lewis, Blunkett mentioned, “We had a respectful, professional interchange.”

In those self same months, court docket information present, investigators started to piece collectively simply how most of the firm’s emails had been deleted, many after the beginning of the investigation. On June 29, Lewis and Cheesbrough, the chief info officer, attended a gathering that included Kellett, the senior supervisor with Essential Computing, and Ratcliffe, the police detective.

The session took a dramatic flip when police requested the IT specialists available whether or not there was any means that deleted recordsdata could possibly be recovered, in keeping with court docket information and interviews with folks current.

Kellett then surprised these gathered by disclosing that in January his group had made a backup copy of the News International e-mail archive, in keeping with Ratcliffe’s sworn assertion. The backup didn’t comprise all the e-mail information, mentioned an individual conversant in its contents, however preserved metadata info together with dates and the names of senders and recipients.

“Cheesbrough appeared to be totally shocked by this development,” Ratcliffe wrote. He added that it was a “jaw-dropping moment for most of the attendees because we had previously believed” that emails greater than six months previous “had been expunged forever.”

The revelation was made extra stunning, he wrote, as a result of “it had not been the company that had volunteered the information.”

The News UK spokeswoman mentioned executives had been stunned as a result of the corporate had requested a separate contractor to create a backup earlier than deletions in 2011, however that measure failed. She mentioned the e-mail system was unstable and in want of upgrades earlier than Cheesbrough arrived.

Using the metadata map that Kellett produced, about 21 million emails had been in the end recovered from a trove of about 30 million faraway from the corporate’s archive, in keeping with court docket information.

Lewis confronted having to clarify why the corporate had purged a lot information from its e-mail archive after the launch of the Operation Weeting probe with out informing investigators.

A gathering scheduled for July 8, 2011, loomed as a showdown with police over this revelation.

For the primary time, Lewis outlined an alleged inside menace that firm executives mentioned affected how emails had been dealt with, in keeping with assembly contributors and police notes.

Lewis and Cheesbrough mentioned the corporate had been advised {that a} former worker had accessed emails involving Brooks — who had served as editor of the News of the World tabloid within the midst of its phone-hacking period — and funneled that info to Brown, the previous British prime minister, in addition to Tom Watson, an in depth Brown ally who was then a member of Parliament and now sits within the House of Lords.

“This added to our anxieties,” Lewis mentioned, in keeping with police notes. Cheesbrough mentioned it “contributed to our need to secure data away from the old archive.”

According to the plaintiffs’ court docket filings, Cheesbrough had first laid out the alleged menace in a Jan. 22 e-mail to Brooks and Lewis, her direct report on the time. A contractor was quickly requested to assist them search for the alleged leaker, in keeping with e-mail excerpts and folks conversant in the occasions.

Months later, when Lewis and Cheesbrough advised police of the alleged menace, they mentioned they’d discovered no proof the plot existed. “We have our suspicions but we don’t have any evidence,” Lewis mentioned, in keeping with police assembly minutes. He additionally expressed regret for not having revealed it earlier, saying, as first reported by the New York Times, “We apologize for hiding this piece of work from you.”

In a press release offered to The Post, Watson, who’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit in opposition to the corporate, mentioned he believes it “falsely scapegoated me and the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to create an entirely untrue narrative … to justify its mass deletion of millions of emails.”

The News UK spokeswoman known as Watson’s characterization “unfounded and wrong” and mentioned the corporate has disputed it in court docket. “The security threat did not provide a rationale for the deletions, but it did affect the approach that NI took to extracting and preserving materials,” she wrote.

Two days after the tense assembly, News of the World abruptly printed its final version. “Thank you & goodbye,” the quilt learn.

Lewis continued to serve on the Management and Standards Committee for an additional yr, earlier than ascending to the higher ranks of the Murdoch firm. In 2014, he was named CEO of Dow Jones and Company and writer of the Wall Street Journal, a place he held till 2020.

Last fall, when he was named CEO and writer of The Post, Lewis mentioned he would haven’t any additional touch upon the phone-hacking fallout.

“I took a view very early on that I’m never going to talk about it,” he advised a Post reporter final yr. “And it’s either right or wrong that I’ve done that.”

Davis reported from Washington. Cate Brown, Alice Crites and Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.