A British investigation into a leak of confidential diplomatic memos is raising questions about press freedom after a police warning that the news media might face a criminal inquiry if more leaked documents were published.
The Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command is investigating the release of private memos written by Britain’s ambassador to the United States as a possible breach of the Official Secrets Act.
Announcing the police inquiry on Friday, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, the leader of the police unit, warned against publishing anything further from the leaked documents. He said that could be a criminal matter.
He also urged the leakers: “Turn yourself in at the earliest opportunity, explain yourself and face the consequences.”
The leak led to the resignation of Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch. President Trump had said his administration would no longer work with Mr. Darroch, whose memos had described the Trump White House as clumsy and inept. Mr. Darroch said he could no longer properly do his job.
British officials say they believe the leak was not a result of computer hacking and seems to have been carried out by an insider.
The Official Secrets Act prohibits public servants from making “damaging” disclosures of classified material. It is aimed at civil servants and others in the government with access to sensitive information.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is jousting with Boris Johnson to become the next prime minister, tweeted on Saturday that the person responsible for the leak must be found and held responsible, but he differed with the police over whether the publication of leaks was a possible crime.
“I defend to the hilt the right of the press to publish those leaks if they receive them & judge them to be in the public interest: that is their job,” he said.
The chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, said he did not believe publishing leaked material constituted an offense under British law.
He said a free press was “essential.”
The Mail on Sunday, which first obtained the trove of leaked memos, has yet to face any legal repercussions for its decision to publish.
The Foreign Office criticized the leak but did not challenge the authenticity of the memos.