Smokescreen in Afghanistan: The curious case of Rachel Reid

Why was the name of a British human rights worker leaked in association with an Official Secrets Act investigation into an army officer? Raymond Whitaker investigates
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Rachel Reid, the British human rights worker whose name has been leaked in connection with an Official Secrets Act inquiry, is an ex-journalist. So it came as no surprise to her that the investigation into Lieutenant Colonel Owen McNally, a senior British officer flown home from Afghanistan and placed under investigation for an alleged breach of the Act, "took off" as a story.

As Ms Reid herself said, the fact that Lt Col McNally was supposed to have given a human rights group details of civilian casualties caused by Nato forces in Afghanistan would not have got the tabloids excited. It was the allegation that he had given them to a woman with whom he had become "close" that was the story. It broke on Wednesday in The Sun under the headline "Colonel 'leaked war secrets to woman'". By the next day she had been named as Ms Reid, who represents the US-based group Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan.

On Friday she hit back, accusing the Ministry of Defence of leaking her name as a means of smearing Human Rights Watch and distracting attention from the issue at the heart of the controversy, the growing anger in Afghanistan at the toll of civilians killed in Nato attacks, usually from the air. By implying that she and Lt Col McNally were in a "relationship", she added, the MoD had endangered her safety: "In Afghanistan a woman's reputation is extremely important to her security."

The MoD has denied leaking Ms Reid's name, but its credibility in this area has been suspect ever since it disclosed the identity of Dr David Kelly, the weapons scientist who later committed suicide, as the man who had denounced the Government's notorious Iraq WMD dossier as a sham to BBC Radio 4's Today programme in 2003. In a pre-recorded interview on the same programme yesterday, Ms Reid repeated that she had met Lt Col McNally only twice, at the Nato HQ in Kabul, in the company of others, to discuss civilian casualties, and that in the opinion of a QC it was "highly unlikely" that there had been any breach of the Official Secrets Act.

Unusually, Today did not broadcast a section of the interview in which Ms Reid was asked about emails exchanged with Lt Col McNally, a subject she refused to discuss. Nor did the programme mention that she is a former BBC journalist, which might explain why this courtesy was extended to her. (Full disclosure: I met Ms Reid once, in Kabul in 2007, to discuss her possibly reporting for this paper.) But as she said to her former employer: "Why should Nato be hiding information about people inadvertently killed in operations in Afghanistan?"

Since the Taliban resurgence three years ago, the number of incidents in which civilians have been killed by mistake has risen sharply each year, according to HRW, from around 230 in 2006 to 434 in 2007, when another 57 died in crossfire and 192 under "unclear circumstances". This month the UN said the civilian death toll increased by 40 per cent in 2008 to 2,100.

As the figures show, by far the greatest proportion of Afghan civilians are killed by the Taliban, a fact that used to be robotically pointed out by Nato press spokespeople every time there were allegations of "collateral damage" at the hands of foreign forces. The incident would be investigated, the PR person would add, but the results never seemed to emerge, heightening the impression of indifference to Afghan deaths.

The friction reached a peak with an incident cited by Ms Reid – an air strike in Herat province last August in which the US first denied any casualties, then said five to seven civilians had died, and then, after video evidence came out, revised the toll to 33. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission says at least 76 civilians died, 59 of them children. The UN put the toll even higher, above 90. President Hamid Karzai was outraged, and a directive was issued by the top command that appears to have reduced the number of casualties in such incidents since.

A friend of Ms Reid said: "This is all a smokescreen to deflect attention from civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defence need to be exposed for the liars they are." Not just the MoD, however, but Nato in general, including the US, appears more comfortable with suppressing any discussion of collateral casualties than confronting the issue openly. This could lie behind the treatment of the unfortunate Lt Col McNally, who joined the Army as a private in 1977, and is one of very few former NCOs to reach senior officer rank.