The officials, who in effect changed government policy without referring to Parliament, will remain in their posts after the acquittal yesterday of a junior official who was charged with conspiracy to defraud the MoD because he followed their instructions. Robert Fenley, 49, was arrested in 1994, suspended from his post, and had to wait years before being charged. Yesterday, however, a jury at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court unanimously acquitted him after hearing that he was simply doing his job.
The case revolved around a real change in government policy when, in 1989, ministers agreed that old MoD weaponry could be sold to foreign governments in the same way - and under the same strict controls - as modern arms. Previously, they had been destroyed or dumped out at sea.
With the ending of the Cold War, large stocks of unwanted small arms and ammunition had built up at the armed forces depot at Donnington, Shropshire. However, attempts to sell them to foreign governments failed because much was old or obsolete, so civil servants unilaterally set about selling them to independent arms dealers.
Mr Fenley's job was to find buyers for 40,000 Second World War vintage Lee Enfield rifles, 56,000 self-loading rifles, and 10,000 Browning and Walther PPK pistols. He made contact with Robert Trem, a former RAF officer who exported diesel electric generator sets and old marine engines from his business in Doncaster, and persuaded him to buy some of the surplus.
Business burgeoned, with Mr Trem selling via a third-party to the north American gun-club fraternity, but the arrangement came unstuck when another dealer wrote to his MP, Sir Archie Hamilton, a former Tory minister for the armed forces, complaining that he had been unable to buy surplus weapons.
The prosecution alleged that Mr Fenley and Mr Trem had sewn up the business themselves, but suggestions that Mr Fenley benefited from the operation fell flat. The court was told that Mr Trem's hospitality towards the civil servant extended to four nights in a bed-and-breakfast hotel in 1993, costing pounds 250.
"It is hardly champagne and caviar ... hula hula girls on the beaches in Hawaii," said Geoffrey Cox, representing Mr Fenley. He added that there had been a "nod and a wink" attitude that "the policy is changing, but we are not going to tell anyone".
An MoD spokesman said the evidence in the case would be reviewed to see if there were lessons to be learnt. Other sources said it was "most unlikely" that any disciplinary action would be taken against officials who gave evidence in the court case.
Mr Fenley said: "I am elated. I can't believe it is all over because it has been such a big part of my life for so long."