Friday, 14 December 2007

"Not a whitewash"

Bringing the long-running saga of the capture by Iran and the taking of hostages of a boarding party from HMS Cornwall to some sort of closure, today sees the publication of the Defence Committee report on the incident.

In many ways, the report is highly frustrating in that the Fulton Report on which much of the committee's evaluation was based was kept confidential, and the committee itself held its inquiry in secret. Only the general conclusions have been published.

However, given that operational matters were under examination, and real issues of security were thus involved, the findings, as we remarked earlier, were always going to be a matter of trust. On this occasion, therefore, we are going to have to accept the word of our elected representatives that matters are in hand, and that the conduct of the MoD has been properly scrutinised.

In that context, the committee has unequivocally stated that the Fulton Report was not a "whitewash". Knowing something of the reputation of the man, we are prepared to accept that, and it is unlikely that the committee would have been so confident in its assertion it the situation was otherwise than what it had found.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the committee affirms that the event was "not the result of equipment or resource issues". With than, from our own examination of the incident, we would concur. Despite the fashionable cries to the contrary at the time, this from a very early stage looked like a multi-level operational failure - which was the essence of Fulton's findings. Not, it seems, despite our suspicions to that effect, were there any "rules of engagement" issues.

Although there was no Board of Inquiry or Courts Martial, the committee notes that "administrative action" has been taken against a number of the players – which means that a number of careers will go no further. However, the committee does bemoan the fact that no action was taken against any individuals involved in the media handling operation, and the selling of the sailors' stories. That it was most probably inspired at a very high level probably explains why this is the case – the guilty men wearing very large quantities of gold braid.

As to the media on the current report, the response has been somewhat muted, although this has not stopped the opposition defence spokesman, Liam Fox, making a cheap jibe at Des Brown, declaring that, "Labour's part-time defence secretary" had made "monumental mistakes" in allowing the selling of stories.

There is much more to this issue than this, not least the ongoing weaknesses in the MoD media handling operation, which could do with some serious political focus, but it seems too much to ask that Liam Fox should be able to offer constructive opposition, based on an understanding of the issues.