BOOK REVIEW / Whitehall revealed as certifiably undemocratic: Betrayed - David Leigh: Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99; Trading with the enemy - John Sweeney: Pan, pounds 5.99

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The Independent Online
IT IS four months since the spectacular collapse of the Crown's case against three businessmen charged with illegally selling arms-making equipment to Iraq. Four months since the Government ordered a judicial inquiry into its own involvement in this grubby trade and the extent to which it connived in the breaking of official guidelines. Four months on, Lord Justice Scott and his team have yet to announce where they are going to hold their inquiry, let alone whether it will be 'public' enough to let the cameras in. Yet there are already two books on the subject.

David Leigh's Betrayed is the more serious proposition. He only made it to the Old Bailey in the last days of the trial, but he has taken the precaution of writing it with Richard Norton Taylor, who was there throughout.

By concentrating on the case itself, he examines not why, or what, we were trading with Iraq; but how and to what extent the Government wished this to be concealed. Much has been made of the Government's use of Public Interest Immunity certificates; these alleged that evidence in the Government's possession, which the defence wanted, was too secret to be disclosed in open court. Ministers argued that there was no choice but to issue the certificates, and that it was a matter entirely for the judge to decide on. Betrayed reveals an altogether different picture. The judge, apparently out of his depth, was extremely reluctant to release the documents. And even when partial disclosure was eventually granted, the documents themselves came in dribs and drabs, prised out of a stubborn and worried Whitehall, and sometimes too late for the cross-examination of witnesses.

Most damning of all for the official line is the record of a conversation between a potential witness and Customs, long before the trial. Mark Gutteridge was initially a prosecution witness who had worked for the security services and was worried that this might be revealed in court. In the company of his MI5 handler, Mr Gutteridge met Cedric Andrew, a senior customs official, to discuss his fears. MI5 duly wrote up an account of that meeting, 'As for court, Andrew said it would not be possible for the case to be held in camera. But if it appeared necessary a 'PII Certificate' would be obtained from the appropriate minister.' In other words PII Certificates are bandied around like confetti, when the need suits. That their use could have sent three men to jail doesn't seem to have caused any disquiet in Whitehall.

This issue, rather than the exact nature of the arms trade with Iraq, is what lies at the heart of the Matrix Churchill prosecution. The trial revealed a profoundly anti-democratic impulse at the heart of government. In setting in motion Lord Justice Scott's inquiry, the Government seems to have been wilfully oblivious of Lord Justice Salmon's conclusion to the 1966 Royal Commission on inquiries: 'No government in the future should ever in any circumstances whatsoever set up a tribunal of (the Scott type) to investigate any matter causing nationwide public concern.'

The blurb for Trading with the Enemy by John Sweeney describes the author as 'the only reporter who covered the Matrix Churchill trial who has also been detained by the Iraqi secret police at a roadblock.' I cannot comment on the second part of this assertion, but as one of only three journalists who were present throughout the trial, I certainly did not notice the author gracing the press box until the last few days.

His tone of high moral outrage sits uneasily with his jokey, flippant style; references to what he calls the Whitehall gravy train are punctuated by 'choc, choc', Saddam's procurement network is peopled by 'technobandits'; government jargon is 'Whitehall hey-nonny-no'.

The details of the trial itself drift uneasily in and out of a narrative that is more concerned with Iraq's use of chemical weapons against its internal opposition. Other journalists are excoriated for the 'frisson' they get when confronted with 'erotically charged' secret documents. Yet page after page of Trading with the Enemy is taken up with equally 'charged' eyewitness descriptions of the after-effects of Saddam's gas attacks. At the end of this pull-together of other people's insights, one is left feeling that it might have been more profitable to have read the books that Sweeney quotes from in the first place.