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Police investigating the alleged theft of e-mails behind the recent “Climategate” uproar have been telephoning climate change sceptics to question them about their political and scientific beliefs.

The Norfolk Constabulary was called in by the University of East Anglia after thousands of its climate scientists’ confidential e-mails were published online last November. The documents appeared to show the scientists concealing information and manipulating data to fit their theories, although two independent inquiries have cleared the university of wrongdoing.

The Financial Times has learnt that everybody who made a request to the university’s climate research unit under Freedom of Information rules ahead of the alleged hacking is being approached by officers searching for the culprits.

In a letter to the FT, Sebastian Nokes, a businessman and climate change sceptic, said he was interviewed at length by a detective, who “wanted to know what computer I used, my internet service provider, and also to which political parties I have belonged, what I feel about climate change and what my qualifications in climate science are. He questioned me at length about my political and scientific opinions”.

Mr Nokes said he had sent an FOI request to the university’s climate unit asking whether scientists had received training in the disclosure rules and asking for copies of any e-mails in which they suggested ducking their obligations to disclose data.

The university, which was deluged by FOI requests in the run-up to the data breach, denies accusations that it deliberately withheld information.

Norfolk police declined to give details about the case but Julian Gregory, the detective superintendent leading the investigation, said: “As with any investigation we will interview anyone who may have information of relevance.”

Charles Rotter, a San Francisco-based blogger who moderates one of the first sites to have published the leaked data, has also been approached by Norfolk police because of his submission of an FOI request.

Local police are being helped by officers from the National Domestic Extremism Team, leading the climate sceptics to question the involvement of a unit set up to counter home-grown terrorists and radicals. A unit spokesman said the two officers were assigned because of their expertise in computer forensics and because they had experience of dealing with environmental activists.

There have been indications that the hackers could have been based in Russia, and some experts believe they may have been hired by sceptics based in the US.

A recent inquiry by MPs expressed sympathy for scientists trying to cope with a “frustrating” deluge of FOI requests which they suspected were intended to harass, but said climate change academics must release their data publicly.

The university said 22 per cent of the FOI inquiries came from the UK, 39 per cent from abroad and 39 per cent were untraceable.

Financial Times, 15 April 2010