UK Defence Ministry’s classified documents with secret information about a warship and the British military was found at a bus stop in south-eastern England.
According to a media report on Sunday, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said an employee reported the loss of the documents last week, which were discovered by a member of the public in a soggy heap behind a bus stop in Kent early on Tuesday morning.
The BBC report said one set of documents reportedly discusses the likely Russian reaction to HMS Defender’s passage through Ukrainian waters off the Crimea coast on Wednesday and another lays out plans for a possible UK military presence in Afghanistan after the US-led NATO operation there ends this year.
"It would be inappropriate to comment further," an MoD spokesperson said, as it was confirmed an investigation has been launched into the incident.
A member of the public, who wishes to remain anonymous, found the 50-odd pages of documents and contacted the BBC when he realised the sensitive nature of the contents. The BBC believes the documents, which include emails and PowerPoint presentations, originated in the office of a senior official at the MoD.
The documents relating to the Royal Navy's Type 45 destroyer, HMS Defender, show that a mission described by the MoD as an "innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters", with guns covered and the ship's helicopter stowed in its hangar, was conducted in the expectation that Russia might respond aggressively.
On Wednesday, more than 20 Russian aircraft and two coastguard ships shadowed the warship as it sailed about 19-km off Crimea's coast. Moscow's defence ministry said a patrol ship fired warning shots and a jet dropped bombs in the destroyer's path but the UK government rejected this account, denying any warning shots had been fired.
The mission, dubbed "Op Ditroite", was the subject of high-level discussions as late as Monday, the documents show, with officials speculating about Russia's reaction if HMS Defender sailed close to Crimea.
The bundle of documents also includes updates on arms exports campaigns, including sensitive observations about areas where Britain might find itself competing with European allies. And there are briefing notes for last Monday's session of the UK-US Defence Dialogue, including observations on US President Joe Biden's first months in office.
Most of the papers are marked "official sensitive", a relatively low level of classification used, according to the government, "where there is a clear and justifiable requirement to reinforce the 'need to know'".
But one document, addressed to UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace's private secretary, and marked "Secret UK Eyes Only", outlines highly sensitive recommendations for the UK's military footprint in Afghanistan, following the end of Operation Resolute Support, the NATO operation currently winding down in the wake of President Joe Biden's decision earlier this year to withdraw American forces.
The document discusses an American request for British assistance in several specific areas, and addresses the question of whether any British special forces will remain in Afghanistan once the withdrawal is complete.
Due to the sensitivity of the document, the BBC said it has decided not to report details which could endanger the security of British and other personnel in Afghanistan.