Aitken cleared by inquiry into export of arms

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The Independent Online
CJonathan Aitken, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was cleared yesterday of being involved in illegal arms exports. A triumphant Mr Aitken said the verdict, from a powerful Commons select committee, was a step on the way towards clearing his name and resurrecting his ministerial career.

"I feel I have been cleared, exonerated and vindicated by this committee and its judgment," said Mr Aitken, who resigned from the Cabinet last summer amid a welter of allegations about his business dealings.

The Trade and Industry Committee confirmed articles in the Independent in April last year that Mr Aitken was a director of BMARC, an arms company which supplied guns to Iran in breach of a Government embargo. "Some GAM- BO1 20mm KAA cannon made from components manufactured by BMARC found their way to Iran," concluded the report.

Following the Independent disclosures, Gerald James, BMARC's former chairman, was widely quoted as saying directors knew the naval cannons were heading for Iran and claimed that Mr Aitken was present at a board meeting when details of the contract to supply the guns - codenamed Project Lisi - was tabled for discussion. "We find that Mr James's allegations are, in general, incredible," the committee said. "On the matters we have examined in detail, Mr James has proved to be a highly unreliable witness."

The report by MPs went on: "We have found no reason to believe that Mr Aitken was aware of the alleged suspicions over Project Lisi nor any reason why he should have been suspicious himself."

The report was sharply critical of the way BMARC was repeatedly granted export licences by the Government to supply arms to Singapore, despite intelligence warnings suggesting the real destination was Iran.

MPs said the affair highlighted "major weaknesses" in the licensing procedures and called on the Government to appoint a senior civil servant to oversee the whole system. They set up their inquiry after being invited to do so in June last year by Michael Heseltine, the then President of the Board of Trade. In a dramatic statement to the Commons, Mr Heseltine confirmed the Independent revelation and asked the committee to investigate.

Despite having his imprimatur, the inquiry ran into difficulty. Martin O'Neill, the committee chairman, said yesterday that information had been requested from the Ministry of Defence, and refused. Instead, the committee had to rely on material supplied by Jane's, the defence journal. MPs also complained they were denied access to the actual intelligence reports, but were only given summaries by officials, and they called on the Government to be more open with future select committee inquiries.

Mr O'Neill denied that the report had been compromised because the committee did not have access to the raw intelligence reports - although he accepted the report would have had greater force if they had seen the material. "I don't think it is shot through with holes. I don't think it undermines the credibility of the report that we didn't have access to all the material," he said.

At the same press conference, another committee member, Ken Purchase, demurred from the outright attack on Mr James. Mr Purchase went on to maintain that Mr Aitken had brought the allegations on himself, saying he had taken his "eye off the ball" by becoming a director of the company.

Mr Aitken is pursuing libel actions against the Guardian newspaper and Granada television's World In Action over a number of allegations about his business dealings. Earlier this week, he succeeded in getting the trial set for October 1997 at the earliest. Defence lawyers accused him of trying to prevent the case being heard before the general election.