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UK police thought phone hacking widespread in 2006

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LONDON (AP) — Detectives pursuing British tabloid phone hacking in 2006 quickly concluded that the practice was not confined to a rogue News of the World reporter but decided not to expand their investigation, a police officer who led the inquiry said Wednesday.

Detective Chief Superintendent Phil Williams told Britain’s media ethics inquiry that the London force was contacted in December 2005 by royal family staff who suspected their voice mail messages were being intercepted.

Williams said police soon discovered that illegal eavesdropping was “probably quite widespread” at the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper and beyond because of a major flaw in cell phone security systems.

“I accept that there were absolutely further leads that we could have followed in this investigation,” Williams said. “The decision was we were not going to do that.”

Williams said it seemed likely that many in the media, as well as criminals, would have been aware of the vulnerability of cell phones, whose messages could easily be accessed if the users had not changed the factory-set pass codes.

He wrote in a note at the time that this shortcoming had “serious implications for security confidence in (phone company) Vodafone voice mail and perhaps the same for other service providers.”

The judge-led ethics inquiry, set up last year because of the hacking scandal, is investigating whether corrupt relations between the press and police stymied the initial inquiry, which failed to reveal the scope and systematic nature of the hacking.

News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator working for the paper, were briefly jailed for phone hacking in 2007.

No one else has been charged, although Williams said police who examined Mulcaire’s notes found more than 400 potential victims and the possible first names of other journalists who commissioned phone hacking.

Most victims were not informed for several years that their phones might have been hacked.

Williams acknowledged that in retrospect this had been a mistake, but said he had not wanted to compromise a covert inquiry and alert potential suspects.

He said police considered broadening their inquiry, but concluded that would require major new resources that could threaten other operations, including counterterrorism.

By October 2006, Peter Clarke, the Metropolitan Police counterterrorism chief, decided not to expand the hacking probe. It was reopened last year after the scale of tabloid eavesdropping became clear.

Williams denied pressure from Murdoch’s company had played any role in the police decision.

“I don’t think it was a factor at all,” he said, adding that Clarke “is the most professional man that I have ever worked for and I have absolute confidence in his integrity.”

Murdoch’s global media company insisted for years that hacking was confined to Goodman and Mulcaire, but now admits it went much wider.

Police now say there were hundreds of victims, and Murdoch’s company has paid damages to about 60 of them, including actor Jude Law and singer Charlotte Church.

Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old News of the World in July amid public anger at the scale of its wrongdoing.

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Online:

Leveson Inquiry: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/

Jill Lawless can be reached at : http://twitter.com/JillLawless