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Hacking scandal claims another British official

Scotland Yard aide resigns; Murdoch testimony due today

By Alan Cowell and Sarah Lyall
New York Times / July 19, 2011

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LONDON - The phone hacking scandal in Britain brought down another high-profile figure yesterday when John Yates, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London and the country’s most senior counterterrorism officer, resigned his post.

Yates departed a day after the country’s top police officer quit and Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International, was arrested on suspicion of illegally intercepting phone messages and bribing the police.

Such is the severity of the crisis swirling around the Murdoch empire and Britain’s public life that Prime Minister David Cameron cut short an African trip yesterday and, bowing to opposition pressure, called a special parliamentary session for tomorrow to debate the widening scandal.

The scandal also took a grim turn yesterday when Sean Hoare, a former reporter for News of the World, the tabloid newspaper at the center of the scandal, was found dead in his home in a London suburb, according to British news organizations and the Associated Press.

Hoare was one of the first to go on record saying that “phone hacking,’’ as the practice of breaking into private voice mail is known, was widespread at News of the World. He also said a friend, Andy Coulson, was aware of it and actively encouraged it as editor of the paper.

Coulson later left to work as Cameron’s spokesman.

The Hertfordshire police said they had found the body of a man but would not confirm his identity. They said they were not viewing the death as suspicious.

Yates, who was the police official in charge of counterterrorism, was asked in 2009 to determine whether to reopen an investigation into allegations that News of the World had regularly hacked the cellphone messages of celebrities, politicians, and other public figures.

He decided against reopening the inquiry, a decision that he acknowledged last week was the wrong one. The company shut down News of the World earlier this month.

Shortly after the Metropolitan Police announced his resignation, Yates made a defiant public statement: “I have acted with complete integrity,’’ he said. “My conscience is clear.’’

He said a “huge amount of inaccurate, ill-informed, and on occasion downright malicious gossip’’ had caused him to step down.

A group of Internet hackers took aim at Murdoch yesterday, defacing the website of his other UK tabloid. Visitors to The Sun website were redirected to a page featuring a story saying Murdoch’s dead body had been found in his garden. Lulz Security, an Internet hacking collective, took responsibility for the hacking attack in a Twitter message.

Speaking in South Africa, Cameron said Parliament would stay in session beyond the scheduled start of its summer recess for an emergency session tomorrow. Murdoch, his son James, and Brooks are set to testify before a parliamentary inquiry into the scandal today.

The prime minister made the announcement hours after Paul Stephenson, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, commonly known as the Met or Scotland Yard, said that he had decided to step down because “the ongoing speculation and accusations relating to the Met’s links with News International at a senior level’’ had made it difficult for him to do his job. News International is the British newspaper subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

The home secretary, Theresa May, said yesterday that the country’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, a police oversight body that reports to her, would investigate possible corruption in the links between the police and journalists.

A separate inquiry by an independent panel will look into the relationship between Yates and Neil Wallis, a former News of the World deputy editor who had become a public-relations consultant for the police after leaving the paper.

When Stephenson, the police commissioner, resigned on Sunday he, too, said that he had done nothing wrong. He said that because he had not been involved in the original phone-hacking investigation, he had had no idea that Wallis was himself suspected of phone hacking. Wallis, 60, was arrested last Thursday.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, said yesterday that Yates decided to resign after police authorities informed him that he would be suspended while his ties to Wallis were being investigated. At a news conference, Johnson said Yates had told him last year that he did not believe there was “anything at the end of the rainbow’’ to justify reopening the phone-hacking inquiry.

Stephenson and Yates have been asked to appear today before Parliament’s home affairs committee investigating police behavior in the scandal. Yates testified before the committee last week, but was asked yesterday to return to clarify some points.

On Sunday, Stephenson tried to deflect attention from his own role by implicitly criticizing Cameron’s decision in 2009 to hire Andy Coulson as his spokesman. At least Wallis had not resigned from the paper under a cloud, as Coulson had, the commissioner said.

The crisis has exploded in the two weeks since reports surfaced that the newspaper had ordered the hacking of the cellphone of a 13-year-old girl who had been abducted and murdered in 2002.

The prime minister, who has come under repeated attacks over his relationship with Coulson, defended himself yesterday. “In terms of Andy Coulson, no one has argued that the work he did in government was in any way inappropriate or bad,’’ he said, speaking at a news conference in South Africa.

Under pressure from the Labor opposition, the prime minister said Parliament would be called to a special session tomorrow to “answer any questions that may arise’’ and “so I can make a further statement.’’

Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labor Party, repeated his attacks yesterday on what he called the prime minister’s “spectacular error of judgment’’ in hiring Coulson, despite warnings about Coulson’s possibly murky past.