British secrecy? No longer - now we probe our institutions as they fail before our eyes

An illuminating light has been shed on institutions that are not used to critical scrutiny.
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The Independent Online

Normally in Britain, wars are associated with a severe clamp-down on information made available to the public. When a conflict erupts, institutions that operate in the dark become darker still. From Dunkirk to the Falklands our political leaders explain away regretfully the unavoidable secrecy: "Of course we would like to reveal more, but lives are at risk and national security is at stake." We have to wait decades to discover precisely what went on and, more precisely, what went wrong.

Normally in Britain, wars are associated with a severe clamp-down on information made available to the public. When a conflict erupts, institutions that operate in the dark become darker still. From Dunkirk to the Falklands our political leaders explain away regretfully the unavoidable secrecy: "Of course we would like to reveal more, but lives are at risk and national security is at stake." We have to wait decades to discover precisely what went on and, more precisely, what went wrong.

An extraordinary and wholly unexpected consequence of the war against Iraq is that the opposite has happened. An illuminating light has been shed on institutions that are not used to critical scrutiny. Currently it is Our Boys in Iraq who are subject to critical questions. Even if the photographs published in the Daily Mirror are false, they provoke pertinent questions.

Do they reveal a brutal culture in the Army, not ready for the task of handling the highly charged aftermath of war? If the US troops were unprepared, are their British counterparts much better? After recent conflicts British troops have been portrayed as heroes. No awkward questions have been asked. The war against Iraq is different. The questions are flooding in and political leaders are in no position to control the torrent.

The intelligence agencies are even more exposed. By definition the British and US spies are used to functioning in the dark. Now a bright and hyper- critical light has been shone on their conduct. Normally we would not know the scale of their incompetence. In this case we know almost too much. As far as Iraq is concerned, the intelligence on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction appears to have been wrong, comprehensively wrong.

Even the BBC has not escaped - another secretive institution unused to public scrutiny. For those who care to find out, the Hutton inquiry shed light on a convoluted managerial and editorial structure seemingly designed to protect its highly paid bosses from managerial responsibility.

In each of these cases the secretive institutions have been saved in the short term by convenient diversions. Some senior figures in the intelligence agencies protest privately that their material should never have been published in the first place. The Government's dossier was to blame. The spies were innocent. For now their protestations resonate.

The opponents of the war and those who despise the Government combine forces to make sure that it is Tony Blair who is in the dock and not anyone else. The same precarious combination of forces protects the BBC: we will support the Corporation while it embarrasses Tony Blair. In a similar way, concerns about the conduct of the Army are obscured by the debate over whether the photos were genuine. If they prove to be false, there will be such outrage that the questions about the treatment of prisoners and the wider implications of mistreatment will be swept aside briefly. Our boys will be heroes once more.

In some ways these vulnerable institutions deserve our uninformed approbation. They are partially heroic. The British Army has undertaken several successful military missions in recent years. Its handling of the situation in Basra has been more sophisticated and less provocative than the behaviour of US soldiers around Baghdad. The intelligence agencies have had some soaring successes for which they receive little publicity. When we hear of the arrest of a potential terrorist anywhere around the world, we may well have been spared an appalling attack. Such arrests are the consequence of assiduous and risky intelligence gathering. As for the BBC, much of its output remains superb and its managers admirably self-critical.

Even so, these institutions will never again be able to behave on the assumption that no one will discover their weaknesses, that their incompetence or worse will be protected by a lack of scrutiny or a patriotic pride that represses critical probing. A pre-emptive strike places a higher emphasis on the origins and the aftermath of a conflict, with profound implications for institutions still protected by an aura of secrecy.

Mr Blair is being advised by some of his closest allies to be more candid about the flaws in the British intelligence that preceded the war. For honourable reasons he has not been able to bring himself to do so. He continues to insist that British intelligence is superb and that it will prove to be right in Iraq. Such a line will not be tenable for much longer.

One of Mr Blair's allies wants him to put it very bluntly by making a speech in which he poses the question: "What would you have done presented with the intelligence I received?" The implicit message would be that he acted honourably on information that proved to be hopelessly unreliable. Perhaps the Butler inquiry into the intelligence will do the job for Mr Blair. The investigation can hardly conclude that the material reproduced in the Government's dossier was a triumph for the intelligence agencies. In future such material will be scrutinised in ways it never has been before.

For British soldiers, the prism in which they are viewed has changed from uncritical adulation to critical wariness. How much training is focused on the aftermath of war and the handling of prisoners? What is the culture in which these soldiers are trained? These questions are being asked more urgently in the US, where there is no debate about the authenticity of the photos showing their soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners. But in both countries, we know the troops were unprepared for the scale of the policing in the aftermath of war. Political leaders in both countries anticipated a smoother "liberation". They will not embark on such ventures again with such naive optimism. From now on there will be intense scrutiny about the training of troops here and in the US for dealing with the explosive aftermath of war.

The more intelligent and alert figures at the BBC know they must change too. They tell me that the Corporation reminds them of British Leyland in the 1970s, money being spent in the wrong places on the wrong projects run by hundreds of managers in ill-defined jobs, earning private sector salaries without any of the comparable responsibilities. We need the BBC as much as we need the Army and the intelligence services, but only if it spends our money wisely.

Oddly, there is a national obsession about what happens behind the scenes in British politics. Publishers pay a fortune for the memoirs of political leaders and their advisers. But we know nearly all there is to discover. The media follows every move of elected politicians to the point of tedium, with never-ending programmes and expansive newspaper coverage on cabinet ministers who wield little power. I bet that when the memoirs of the current ministers are published they will not reveal much that we do not already know. In contrast, the war has had the single positive impact of casting light on institutions protected previously by a lack of informed scrutiny. They will never be the same again.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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