Friday, April 02, 2021

Military Censorship


The Changing of the Guard, The British Army since 9/11, is written by Simon Akam, who has given talks to the Joint Services Staff College at Shrivenham, Wiltshire and to West Point, the U.S. Military Academy. 

The Changing of the Guard covers familiar ground, including sexism, bullying, and classism. It also covers the appalling accommodation of military families, the abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence’s wrong advice that British troops involved in operations abroad were not covered by the Human Rights Act, and the misplaced confidence that British forces would cope with foreign insurgencies better than the Americans because of their experience in Malaya in the 1950s and Northern Ireland more recently.

 It details Britain’s long history of military incompetence concerning the way soldiers were sent, first to Iraq, and then to Afghanistan, ill prepared and inadequately equipped, with fatal consequences that could have been easily avoided and the way senior military figures failed to tell the truth.

Richard Norton-Taylor was The Guardian’s defence correspondent recalls a briefing he attended shortly before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 being told that British forces did not want to destroy Saddam’s elite Republican Guard, he added, but to “change the way it was used.” A British brigadier would sit alongside an Iraqi brigadier to ensure that Iraqi forces would adopt a less vicious approach than they had under Saddam. "It was wishful thinking. British commanders knew next to nothing about the power structures in Iraq (and did not seem to want to know) or about the tribal structures in Afghanistan."

Akam’s researc covers the case of the Royal Marine Alexander Blackman, whose conviction for murder of a seriously wounded Afghan insurgent in an incident in 2011 recorded by his colleagues was downgraded to manslaughter on appeal. 

Blackman’s unit was 42 Commando which, says Akam, wanted to hit the Taliban hard. 45 Commando, deployed a short distance away, adopted a more nuanced, policing-style, approach.  While a company in 45 Commando did not fire a shot in anger during its six-month tour, 42 Commando “ran riot,” writes Akam.

He describes the Blackman incident as raising “the entire subject of military accountability.” He adds that in the Iraq and Afghan wars, while there was an “unprecedented web of accountability measures for individual malfeasance on the battlefield,” there was almost zero accountability for the high-level decision-making that led to the prosecution of two deeply troubled campaigns.” U.K. commanders in the field and military chiefs, senior Ministry of Defence officials and intelligence agencies back in London, may be ultimately responsible for abuses on the battlefield. But individual British troops, notably in the special forces — the SAS and SBS — got away with breaches of British and international law, and appalling wrongdoing, including murder. 

There is mounting evidence that the army has covered up torture, murder, abuse and sexual humiliation in Iraq, and fatal shootings by SAS units in Afghanistan. In at least one case, MoD lawyers admitted the ministry had misled a British court.  Similar exposures in Australia led to the disbandment of one of that country’s SAS squadrons, Akam points out. In Britain, the official MoD line, when asked about special forces operations, is one of “neither confirm, nor deny.” The special forces are protected by a blanket of official secrecy thicker even than the intelligence agencies with which they are operating more and more closely — MI5, MI6, and GCHQ. 

Akam shows how the Ministry of Defence and the military establishment tries to bully and threaten publishers and journalists, often successfully. It has regularly demanded to see manuscripts of books prior to publication and puts pressure on editors to seek the advice of the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee. The committee asked to see the manuscript before publication. 

The committee, run by a retired senior military figure backed up by a senior serving MoD official, is a system of voluntary self-censorship. It issues what it describes as “standing notices.” They are sweeping in their language. 

Notice No. 3 says that in order “to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of classified information” editors and journalists are “requested” to seek advice from the committee if they are about to publish information relating to “the methods and techniques of organisations involved with the execution of national security operations including details of Special Forces and other MoD units engaged in security, intelligence and counter-terrorist operations or Security and Intelligence Agency operations that are in the planning or execution stages or after they have been completed.” [emphasis added]

The journalist, Toby Harnden's 'Dead Men Risen', an account of the Welsh Guards experience in Afghanistan which describes poor equipment and bad strategy at a cost of £150,000 the MoD paid the publisher was pulped on security grounds. 

 The UK Military’s Secrecy Problem – Consortiumnews

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