Keith Vaz, the British MP investigating claims of an elite Westminster pedophile ring, compared the plot twists to a John Le Carré spy novel after the government admitted this week it had either "lost" or destroyed 114 of the files alleging child abuse.
Mr. Vaz's astonishment is understandable.
The files – culled from Home Office documents from 1979 to 1999 – are either missing or were destroyed as part of the government's routine housekeeping, according to Mark Sedwill, the Home Office's top civil servant.
Who ordered the destruction? Mr. Sedwell didn't know. Where might the missing documents be located? The Home Office could only guess, really, as the government didn't think it necessary to log what material they destroyed or what they retained, Mr. Sedwell told Mr. Vaz's all-party Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday.
It certainly isn't the first time the British government has claimed to "lose" important files. Britain's Foreign Office said this week that documents related to the UK's role in a CIA abduction operation involving Diego Garcia were "incomplete due to water damage."
But the Home Office's industrial-scale destruction of files is unprecedented, as are its claims that the Home Office lost its homework on a pedophile investigation into allegations concerning the upper reaches of British establishment – not just Downing Street but the judiciary and even members of the royal family.
In short, the claims are simply not credible. There has been ample reason to justify an investigation into child abuse allegations. Time and again there has been one reason or another over the last few decades to proceed slowly, or not at all.
The documents date back to 1983, when then Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens submitted a dossier detailing child abuse allegations to then-home secretary, Leon Brittan (now Lord, Brittan). Mr Dickens's 50-page dossier is believed to have details of eight or more politicians and other public figures allegedly involved in a pedophile ring. One is thought to be Peter Hayman, who served as a British High Commissioner to Canada.
Four of the missing files also involved Home Office staff who were prosecuted and fired in connection with pornographic images, Mr. Sedwill told the committee. Is it believable then, that no copies of the files were made by any other government departments? Or that only paper versions of the files have ever existed, not electronic copies?
Westminster has little incentive to discover the answers. Police at Scotland Yard are believed to have a list of more than 10 British politicians – members of all three political parties past and present – on its list of suspected child abusers. At the most serious level, the allegations involve the brutal rape of young boys.
Home Secretary Theresa May ordered two reviews on Monday in response to the cries of "whitewash" and "cover-up." One probe will look at the Home Office's handling of the historic child abuse allegations – a review of the review, as it were – and the second a wide-ranging probe about how claims of child abuse were dealt with by public institutions, political parties, churches and the British Broadcasting Corporation.
And who is to head the "independent" review? A parliamentarian, Lady Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, who is a member of the House of Lords. The Baroness may well be a person of integrity but she may also be far too close to the establishment she has been asked to investigate. To paraphrase John Le Carre, a desk – and especially a desk in a cosy office at the House of Lords – is a dangerous place from which to view the world.
Meanwhile, what's left of the 114 files will be handed over to Mr. Vaz's committee on Friday. lt is likely to include just the archive titles, with dates and file numbers, and a redacted copy of an earlier Home Office investigation into the handling of the files.
Still, that may be enough to provide clues as to whether vital information was selectively destroyed, and whether powerful figures in Britain's establishment were granted access to vulnerable children, using care homes as a supply line for sexual abuse.
Britain's investigation has so far been conducted in the shadows of Westminster, a secret world – as Le Carré described it – of people living in a bubble and gossiping endlessly about who said what to whom. It is time for the British paedophile scandal to come in from the cold.