Friday, 6 February 2009

Intelligence and lazy smears.

Another article I missed but which is now causing controversy was the Sun's exclusive on Wednesday concerning the arrest of an army colonel on suspicion of leaking casualty figures to Human Rights Watch. To call the story a lazy smear would be perhaps putting it too politely:

A BRITISH Colonel is alleged to have leaked highly sensitive civilian casualty figures after being befriended by a woman from a human rights group.

A senior source told The Sun that Lt Col Owen McNally started passing details to her when the pair became “close” in Afghanistan.

In case you don't get the incredibly subtle allusion being made here, the allegation appears to be that McNally handed over the true civilian casualty figures after conducting an affair with Rachel Reid, a former BBC journalist. Problem is, Reid herself completely denies it:

According to news reports, Colonel Owen McNally has been flown back to Britain, where he will reportedly be interviewed by military police. The Ministry of Defence has told media that I was the recipient of these secrets as a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Whatever the MoD has whispered into the ear of the Sun, Col McNally and I met only twice, both times in a purely professional capacity, both times at the Nato military HQ in Kabul. Both times we met to talk about civilian casualties from US and Nato air strikes.

What has happened in the last couple of days has been bewildering. I do not understand how these two meetings might have led the British government to accuse McNally of a serious crime that could lead to a hefty jail sentence, and why my government might want to see my reputation dragged through the mud, when I live in a country where a woman's reputation can mean her life. The meetings seemed unexceptional. A QC retained by Human Rights Watch has confirmed that the kind of information I received is not covered by the Official Secrets Act.

If the ministry had been seriously concerned that one of their officers was leaking information, why leak it to the media? Why was my name released to the media by the MoD, with a (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) libel that our relationship was "close"? They would know exactly what impression they were creating, and presumably decided that my reputation was expendable in order to ensure coverage of their "story".

Conor Foley provides some further background information:

A similar cloud of surrealism shrouds the charges against McNally. He was the UN mission's (Unama) focal point with ISAF and just last week made a presentation on how to improve civil-military liaison and bring greater transparency to Nato's operations. His job was to liaise with the civilian parts of the Afghan mission and he was highly respected within the international community in Kabul for his professionalism.

McNally is thought to be one of the army's most senior former non-commissioned officers. He joined the army as a private in 1977 and worked his way up through the ranks before being commissioned in 1995. The idea that he would throw away his career for a passionate fling seems extremely implausible, but his arrest does highlight a broader problem about the levels of secrecy surrounding many aspects of Nato's military strategy in Afghanistan.

In essence, McNally seems to have been doing his job. For his trouble, and for being honest and helping a true picture of the number of civilian casualties enter into the public domain, he gets arrested on trumped up charges, and the woman also only doing her job gets accused of exchanging sex for information. The newspaper chosen for this news to be leaked to is one that is completely behind the campaign in Afghanistan, and one which has no compunction in such sleazy smears being thrown around. Whether it's claiming that al-Qaida fighters caught plague, that they're raping fighters into becoming suicide bombers, or that a colonel broke the OSA in return for sex, it's just further evidence that you cannot take a single word written in the Sun seriously.

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