Is the Sierra Leone row a cock-up or a conspiracy? Either way it suggests rifts at the Foreign Office over Robin Cook's new approach
IN Robin Cook's grand Whitehall office, pride of place goes to a display of modern British design, including a luminous blue device which crushes tin cans for recycling. After a week of headlines linking him to an embargo-breaking arms scandal, the Foreign Secretary has confessed to using the contraption at moments of acute irritation. In the coming days and weeks quite a few drinks cans may fall victim to the machine christened "Attila the crusher".

Few Britons know or care about the fate of President Kabbah in Sierra Leone. Yet for Mr Cook, the proponent of an ethical dimension to foreign policy, this row involving a far-off country could hardly be more embarrassing.

Nor could it be more poignant. It was Mr Cook who, two years ago, tore the Conservative government to shreds over the arms-to-Iraq affair. Last week it was a different story when, in the Commons on Wednesday, he was forced to correct statements made by his minister of state, Tony Lloyd, to a select committee just a day earlier.

On Friday a breathtaking catalogue of evidence emerged in the shape of a letter from lawyers acting for Sandline, the British firm which supplied arms to the forces of President Kabbah. At the time, there was a UN embargo on the provision of arms to Sierra Leone. But Sandline's letter listed a host of Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and US government officials as having held meetings with the firm.

More embarrassing still was the direct claim that Britain's High Commissioner in Freetown, Peter Penfold, helped to initiate Sandline's involvement, and the assertion that the company's personnel "were invited aboard HMS Cornwall", whose engineers helped repair a helicopter "which Sandline International was operating in support of President Kabbah". The document, sent also to three other ministers, painted a picture of widespread British collusion in the breach of the UN embargo.

All this, apparently, without the knowledge of elected politicians until late in the day. The implications are clear: either ministers did not notice what was happening in areas for which they are responsible, or a part of the Foreign Office was deliberately keeping them in the dark.

Parallels with the Matrix Churchill affair are not strictly accurate. On this occasion civil servants did refer the matter to Customs and Excise for investigation (although apparently without telling any ministers). And, learning the lessons of the Matrix Churchill affair, Mr Cook moved swiftly to announce a separate internal inquiry into his department's handling of the matter.

The story is also a curious one because it involves attempts to restore a legitimate, democratically elected government to power after a coup. And it wasn't as if any arms were shipped from Britain to Sierra Leone. But the fact that a British company appears to have breached the UN embargo opens it up to possible prosecution. And the alleged involvement of officials and inconsistencies in the accounts given by ministers have the makings of a fully fledged scandal.

THE SAGA dates from 5 February when Lord Avebury, a Liberal Democrat peer, wrote to a Foreign Office official, claiming that arms had been flown by Sandline from Bulgaria to Kabbah forces. On 26th the Foreign Office notified Customs and Excise. And on 8 March the Observer ran the story. Two days later Lord Avebury raised the issue in the Lords, where the minister, Baroness Symons, said the reports of arms dealing were not entirely accurate, although an official investigation got under way that day, we now know.

On 12 March Mr Lloyd rubbished the story in the Commons, describing it as "ill-informed and scurrilous". Ministers are briefed before such appearances, but now two had publicly denied the accusations, indeed Mr Lloyd had volunteered the information.

According to the Foreign Office, documents on the customs investigation reached Mr Lloyd's office only in "early April", and were shown to him in the middle of the month. A further briefing took place on 1 May, four days before his fateful appearance before a select committee. So how did he still get into hot water last week? The official explanation is that the intervening time was spent at home in his Manchester constituency on a Bank Holiday break. On Tuesday morning he took the 6am train to London, going straight to the committee, where he was due to speak about human rights. He had not made the connection between that subject and likely questioning on Sierra Leone, and - unbriefed - claimed wrongly that he first knew about the investigation on 1 May.

Mr Lloyd, a popular Commons figure, has certainly damaged his political prospects and can expect a move at the next reshuffle. His boss, Mr Cook, has also been embarrassed. Battle-hardened after a year of headlines over his marriage break-up, the Foreign Secretary is again on the defensive.

Mr Cook says he knew nothing about the affair until 28 April and would not, as Foreign Secretary, have needed to know earlier. Yet Mr Cook's Commons statement has put him on the defensive. Inevitably it casts him as a man creating distance between himself and those ministerial and Civil Service colleagues who have made mistakes - never an edifying position for one who is ultimately responsible for the department's activities.

The Conservatives have exploited the saga to attack Mr Cook's stewardship of the Foreign Office. Michael Howard, shadow Foreign Secretary, claimed that officials are now "wholly out of control", fuelling claims that Mr Cook is in the wrong job and faces a wall of opposition from his civil servants.

Mr Cook's relations with some officials have been spiky, as the feuding with his former diary secretary demonstrated. But some tensions have been ideological - caused by Mr Cook's laudable desire to modernise a conservative institution. One inside source said: "The FCO is divided. For 20 years it has been run in a patrician, neo-liberal way and they have taken a long time to adjust to an ethical foreign policy."

Last week low-level briefing against him continued with claims that Mr Cook tends to concentrate only on subjects that interest him. Mandarins lost little time pointing to the Foreign Secretary's early insistence that his red boxes should not be filled with trivia. Perhaps, went the argument in King Charles Street, an extra red box or two might not have been a bad idea.

MEANWHILE, members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee may recall Mr Lloyd. Key questions remain unanswered. Why, for example, were ministers not informed when the Foreign Office officials referred Lord Avebury's complaints to Customs and Excise? Did the intelligence services, which report directly to Mr Cook, keep him informed? If not, why not? And how was it, after all the meetings between civil servants and Sandline, that no feedback reached ministerial ears?

Yesterday the former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind said it would have been surprising if ministers' private offices were not kept informed. A minister in another department put it more bluntly: "Officials here can barely use the lavatory without minuting us."

The allegations at the heart of the matter remain astonishing - in particular the claim that the British High Commissioner initiated Sandline's involvement. Charges could be brought by Customs and Excise. Finally, the Foreign Office's conduct will be investigated by an outsider, whose findings will be published.

The findings may, of course, help Mr Cook speed up his reforms to the Foreign Office. But they could make for a wretched few months for Mr Lloyd. Westminster remains unsure whether to treat this as a conspiracy or a giant cock-up. As one colleague put it: "In opposition we went to those courses to prepare us for government, but no one could have prepared them for this. Other ministers all seem to be saying the same thing: 'There but for the grace of God go I.'"

A mercenary's life of calculated risk

LT COL TIM SPICER was adrift. Literally. Handcuffed, dumped into a fishing boat off Port Moresby, he was the prisoner of members of the Papua New Guinea army, writes Andrew Buncombe. "I was nearly shot," he recalled later.

Whether Col Spicer's life was really in danger when the operation to use mercenaries supplied by his company, Sandline International Ltd, went disastrously wrong last year and he was taken hostage, is not certain. But when he turned up on the first day of the Commission of Inquiry into mercenaries in Papua New Guinea, witnesses say he appeared bruised and black-eyed.

Col Spicer, 44, is probably used to a few knocks. He joined the Army in 1975, coming top of his class at Sandhurst and taking a commission with the Scots Guards. He served in the Falklands, the Gulf and Bosnia. He has also been linked with military intelligence. In 1988-89 he was responsible for intelligence for the 11th Armoured Brigade in Germany, and he was a director of Special Forces in 1991-92.

Opinion is divided over what this latest incident will do to his reputation. His company has insisted it completed its contract in Sierra Leone and was paid in full. That may be the case, but in a business where discretion is paramount, this sort of publicity may not be wholly helpful. It looks as if Col Spicer may well have to endure a few more knocks.