Saturday 7 April 2007

Heads must roll

The kindest thing one can say of the press conference organised by the MoD yesterday afternoon, to show off the released Iranian hostages, is that it should never have happened.

If the Navy was actually serious about carrying out an inquiry – even if it is of the watered-down "lessons learned" variety – then the last thing it should have done was expose some of the key witnesses to media scrutiny, with carefully pre-prepared and rehearsed statements. Although the issue is not formally sub judice the same general provisions must surely apply, in order not to prejudice any findings.

However, by his behaviour this morning (see also here) before the statement by the two recently captive officers, Lieutenant Felix Carman RN and Royal Marine Captain Chris Air, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band has already delivered his judgement on the conduct of the boarding crew. That rather makes any findings which may emerge from any inquiry redundant, and the inquiry itself a charade.

And, by delivering his injunction not to second-guess "decisions that operational commanders and other people make," defence secretary Des Browne has effectively given carte blanche for the charade to continue.

This is a very foolish move which he may have cause to regret. He could have (and should have) stood aloof from the fray, behind the scenes insisting on a properly constituted Board of Inquiry, then announcing that he would stand by the findings. That way, he could rightly disown any responsibility for what in fact were operational decisions.

All that said, with the benefit of the press conference transcript to hand, we can agree with the officers' decision not to resist the Iranians – in the circumstances in which they found themselves.

It makes an interesting contrast with the December 2004 incident, where the boarding team remained on the ship they were inspecting, when challenged by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, while their boat(s) returned to the mother ship – the team eventually being lifted out by helicopter.

Since the officers have put their own conduct up to the bar of public opinion, we can have no problems with judging them. In that they appeared to have seen, from the vantage point of the boarded freighter, the approach of two Iranian boats, and decided then to return to their boats, this seems to be an unforced error. Like the 2004 crew, they might have been better off remaining on the freighter, sending their own boats away to avoid capture.

That apart, it seems more clear than ever that the capture could not have happened had a warship been standing off to protect them. It is even questionable whether it would have happened had the Lynx remained on guard, as it seems – according to the new narrative – that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards only approached after the unexpected departure of the helicopter.

It also seems, according to Carman and Air, that the boarding team contacted the ship to ask why the helicopter had gone, and was in contact when the Iranians approached. Here, therefore, there appears to be a conflict between this account and that offered by Commodore Nick Lambert.

Shortly after the event, he told the BBC that the boarding had been compliant and that the leader of the boarding party cleared the captain to continue with this business. After that, said Lambert, "we lost communications with the boat, but we did have a helicopter in the air – we always have a helicopter flying top cover – and our understanding is that the boarding party returned to its boats and was promptly arrested by a group of Iranian patrol boats…".

It is precisely to resolve such conflicts that there should be a Board of Inquiry and, for exactly the same reason, the boarding officers' evidence should not have been rehearsed in an informal context before it had been properly heard and evaluated.

That said, we are by no means alone in our criticism of actions taken in relation to this incident and, on yesterday's BBC Radio 4 PM programme – after the press conference – Max Hastings was insistent that the key question must now be how the boarding party was put in the position of being so vulnerable.

He was also highly critical of the lax attitude of the Navy, remarking that the Army had been fighting a "proxy war" with Iran for the last three years, yet the Navy did not even seem to be on a war footing. The operation, he said, had been treated, "apparently as if it were a Sunday stroll".

This in fact was Hastings repeating much of what he had written in The Daily Mail yesterday morning, in a piece headed, "Why there must be sackings over Iran".

The Royal Navy has blundered, he wrote. "It seems unlikely that Commodore Nick Lambert, the local commander off Iraq, will gain promotion to admiral, or deserve to." And, he adds, "Blame must go higher than the Commodore … Some naval heads must roll for the Iranian fiasco. It will not do merely to let officers 'retire with honour' at the end of their present postings. When a fiasco of this magnitude takes place in any walk of life, those responsible must not only be sacked, they must be seen to be sacked."

It was at that point that Hastings was under the impression that there would be a Board of Inquiry and his own fears of a "naval whitewash" now look exceedingly likely to be realised. But, with Band leading the cover-up attempt, apparently endorsed by Des Browne, it appears that they too are putting their careers on the line.

They should know that, in the way of these things, it is often the attempt to cover-up, rather than the original events, which destroy the players.