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The Ministry of Secrets? Patterns of secrecy and accountability evasion revealed in the MoD

MoD, transparency, accountability, delays, information withholding, unlawful killings, national security, secrecy, investigations, public inquiries, mismanagement, inefficiencies, UK Defence, Patrick Crawford, Agnes Wanjiru, Afghanistan, Iraq, nuclear weapons, Freedom of Information, cover-ups, British troops, armed forces

Research by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) into transparency at the Ministry of Defence (MoD)  has unveiled several concerning patterns that paint a troubling picture of its approach to information disclosure and accountability.

The MoD has been criticised for its long delays in providing time-critical information, often perceived as deliberate stalling tactics. For instance, Al-Jazeera highlighted the case of Patrick Crawford, a teenager fatally shot during the Troubles in 1975. The inquest into his death has faced significant delays due to the MoD’s sluggish document disclosure. This has raised concerns among his family that the case might be closed without a thorough investigation by the cut-off date for ongoing inquiries into Troubles-era crimes.

This issue extends beyond historical cases. Multiple Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted to the MoD have remained unresolved for months, despite the legal guideline that responses should be provided within 20 working days. This pattern of delay undermines public trust and hinders the timely access to information crucial for accountability and transparency.

The MoD’s practice of withdrawing previously disclosed information has also come under scrutiny. The UK Defence Journal reported that the Defence Committee criticised the MoD for becoming significantly less transparent over the past decade. Information that was once publicly available, such as fleet sizes and details about new frigates, is now classified. This shift towards greater secrecy appears to be either a clandestine effort or an unconscious drift, contrasting sharply with other nations that face similar security threats but maintain higher levels of transparency.

A notable example of this trend is the MoD’s cessation of annual safety assessments of nuclear weapons on the Clyde. The Ferret reported that these assessments were published for ten years before stopping in 2017. Efforts to compel the MoD to resume releasing these reports have been unsuccessful, with the MoD refusing to provide reasons for its decision and rejecting FOI requests seeking explanations.

The MoD has also faced serious accusations of failing to respond to reports of unlawful killings by service personnel. Investigations by the BBC revealed that despite credible evidence of war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, the MoD showed a reluctance to prosecute the soldiers involved. Insiders suggested that the MoD had no intention of prosecuting any soldier unless absolutely necessary, highlighting a systemic issue of evading accountability. In Kenya, an inquest concluded that Agnes Wanjiru was murdered by one or two British soldiers, yet the military took no action despite judicial orders for further criminal inquiries.

Attempts to shift accountability to host countries’ armed forces have further marred the MoD’s reputation. BBC Panorama investigations uncovered that British forces initially attributed the killings of four young Afghans in 2012 to Afghan forces, a move seen as an attempt to avoid investigation. Similarly, in Kenya, the MoD disputed whether an explosive that maimed a teenager was left behind by UK or Kenyan forces, despite paying compensation to the victim.

The MoD’s unwillingness to make investigation results public and its efforts to limit public access to information have drawn significant criticism. In May 2023, the MoD submitted an application to restrict public access and limit evidence disclosure in an independent inquiry into allegations of unlawful killings by UK forces in Afghanistan. This request for closed hearings without special advocates has been seen as a deliberate effort to avoid public scrutiny.

Criticisms of the MoD’s use of national security as an argument to withhold information are also widespread. Owen Thompson, the SNP’s armed forces and veterans spokesman, argued that national security is often used as a smokescreen to prevent proper scrutiny. Independent experts have described this justification as flimsy and dangerous, emphasizing the need for healthy transparency to avoid the pitfalls of excessive secrecy.

The denial of the existence of information by the MoD is another troubling pattern. The Mirror reported that the MoD had hidden documents about Cold War radiation experiments on British troops, which were only declassified under significant pressure. Similarly, the MoD denied the existence of footage showing the friendly-fire killing of a British soldier in Iraq, despite the footage being used in a British Army inquiry. These denials raise questions about the integrity of the MoD’s information management and transparency practices.

Withholding information from public inquiries has also been a consistent issue. AOAV reported that despite distressing testimonies from victims of human rights abuses by British troops in Kenya, the MoD has been reluctant to fully disclose information that could provide justice and accountability. Additionally, the widow of a man killed in an RAF helicopter crash 30 years ago accused the MoD of concealing evidence that the helicopter was not airworthy, a claim that was not fully explored during the Fatal Accident Inquiry.

The MoD’s disclosure decisions appear to be based more on the context in which the information is requested and the potential repercussions of its disclosure rather than the public interest. For instance, the MoD denied an FOI request from Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) seeking correspondence about misconduct by British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet later provided similar evidence to an independent inquiry, raising questions about the consistency and integrity of its disclosure policies.

Lastly, the MoD’s transparency efforts are hampered by mismanagement and inefficiencies. AOAV highlighted significant delays and resource mismanagement in the inquiry into unlawful killings and cover-ups by UK Special Forces in Afghanistan. Despite pledging extensive resources and cooperation, the MoD failed to meet crucial disclosure deadlines, suggesting a failure in internal coordination and prioritisation.

As Dr Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV, says: “These findings collectively reveal a disturbing pattern of secrecy, evasion, and inefficiency within the MoD, undermining public trust and accountability. The research underscores the urgent need for reform in the MoD’s transparency practices to ensure that it meets its obligations to the public and upholds the principles of accountability and justice.”