William McNeilly, the navy whistleblower who released a report on the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent that he called a “disaster waiting to happen,” is reportedly being held by Royal Navy Police after going on the run following its publication, according to Sky News.
On Twitter, Sky News reported sources as saying that “missing able seaman William McNeilly apprehended at #Edinburgh airport last night and now under care of Royal Navy Police.”
The Ministry of Defence has now confirmed that McNeilly was “apprehended” on Monday night and is being held at a military facility in Scotland.
In the 18-page report published on the WikiLeaks site, McNeilly warned of the “shockingly extreme conditions that our nuclear weapons system is in” claiming that Britain’s “nuclear weapons are a target that’s wide open to attack.”
He claims to have collected evidence of serious lapses in security on the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet while serving as an Able Seaman including failure to check security passes, flooding and fires onboard the vessels and the risk of infiltration “by a psychopath or a terrorist”.
The Navy has rejected his allegations saying that they represent “subjective and unsubstantiated personal views, made by a very junior sailor.” However, they also confirmed that there would be an investigation into the claims.
A spokesperson said: “The Royal Navy takes security and nuclear safety extremely seriously and we are fully investigating both the issue of the unauthorised release of this document and its contents.”
The question now is what, if any, charges McNeilly will face if he does hand himself in. In his report the submariner says that he believes the Prime Minister would give him a pardon for his actions.
There’s still a good chance of me receiving a pardon from the Prime minister. I only released selected information, I’m not selling the information to the paper or a foreign government., I will be handing myself in to the police and my desires to serve the people are same as the Prime Ministers [sic]. I also believe it’s in the Prime Ministers [sic] best interest to release me. Prosecuting someone for alerting the people and the Government to a major threat isn’t a good image for someone who serves the people.
Despite his appeals, it’s unclear whether the government would view the case in that light. Instead the Crown Prosecution Service could pursue charges of breaching the Official Secrets Act, under which McNeilly could face up to two years in prison.
His supporters are already campaigning against such charges being filed. A Change.org petition calling for the Ministry of Defence and Crown Office not to prosecute the 25-year-old has so far garnered 2,735 signatures.
The questions now will be: a) whether the report does indeed have merit and; b) whether, even if it does, the government chooses to prosecute McNeilly in order to disincentivise other would-be whistleblowers from leaking sensitive information.
The case is likely to rest on whether McNeilly is right that the “selected” information he provided to the public is not considered highly sensitive in nature.
With the debate over the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent yet to be comprehensively resolved and widespread opposition to the programme by the Scottish National Party and its supporters in Scotland, where the submarines are based, the timing of the leak picks at a difficult thread for the new Conservative government. Its response could help define the lines in the sand between those opposed to renewing the Trident missile system and those who believe it remains crucial to the UK’s defence capabilities.
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