MoD deletes data on Afghan tours

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Electronic records on the activities of British troops in Afghanistan are routinely wiped from computers when regiments return to Britain, creating a gap in the documentation of soldiers' actions that a leading legal expert believes "smacks of cover-up". The Ministry of Defence confirmed this weekend that it has no established method of archiving the data generated during the deployment of soldiers abroad.

The ministry stated that it is "not possible" to give assurances there are no gaps in the information kept on areas such as the day-to-day activities of troops in places such Afghanistan. The disclosures were made to the ongoing public inquiry into the death of hotel worker Baha Mousa, 26, which resumes tomorrow.

Mousa suffered multiple injuries while in the custody of British soldiers in southern Iraq in 2003. Staff on the inquiry have encountered difficulties in obtaining copies of relevant records in the case, such as commanders' directives and information on who held particular posts at the time. In a statement to the inquiry, Katherine de Bourcier, the MoD's departmental records officers, said suitable archives exist but "there is currently no established electronic archiving capability in MoD for information returned from operational theatres.

"When operational deployments end, IT systems are returned to the UK and typically the servers are cleansed of data, with no process for saving the information held on them."

Ms De Bourcier said a "temporary archiving capability" has been established to log information from units returning from Iraq, and in "the near future" it will take data from Afghanistan. But funding for this facility runs out next March.

She said all the military services have guidelines for keeping records from tours of service for "historical purposes", but that this amounts to only a fraction of the data generated: "Overall, it is not possible at this stage to provide assurance that there are no longer information gaps in records created on operations."

Phil Shiner, from Birmingham-based firm Public Interest Lawyers, who represents more than 100 Iraqis who claim they were abused by British troops, was critical of the failure to retain copies of electronic files from foreign deployments.

He said: "This is absolutely reckless. For them to wipe them all just smacks of cover-up. I cannot believe that there is some benign explanation for bringing computers home and then purging them."

An MoD spokesman said that Ms De Bourcier's statement "highlights the improvements that have been made and are ongoing in the area of record-keeping".