Leading article: Coup plot Cook never noticed

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The Independent Online
DOES Robin Cook know what goes on in his own department?

He would like us to think that he doesn't have a clue. If Mr Cook does know what the Foreign Office gets up to then he would be aware that officials had connived at a British firm of "military consultants", Sandline Ltd, supplying arms and mercenaries to support a coup in Sierra Leone. These activities breached a United Nations resolution and a European Union arms embargo. They are not immediately recognisable as elements in an ethical foreign policy. The affair is now subject to a criminal investigation.

Given all that, it is easier to understand why Mr Cook is so emphatic about his ignorance. In the Commons yesterday, he made categorical denials of ministers' knowledge of, or involvement in, these events. This means that civil servants and diplomats must have conducted an audacious cover- up. It implies that they made sure that neither Mr Cook nor any of his ministers knew that the deputy head of the FO Africa desk, Craig Murray, had met representatives of Sandline in London. They also ensured that their political masters did not know about the British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone's meeting with officials from Sandline before the coup. The Foreign Secretary was left unaware that 30 tons of arms were flown from Bulgaria to Sierra Leone by Sandline in February.

In short, we are invited to believe that, to adapt an old joke, Mr Cook has been treated by his staff as a sort of political mushroom - kept in the dark only to find himself now covered in the rich manure of political embarrassment.

There will now be a number of inquiries into the affair. Mr Cook has promised his full co-operation. We hope that public servants will not be used as scapegoats. It is certainly worth mentioning that the regime that they helped to oust in Sierra Leone was brutal and despotic even by Africa's standards. They may have had the best of motives for their actions, which will no doubt be taken into account. If no evidence that links ministers with Sandline emerges then that may be the greatest service they could have performed for their master. Mr Cook will not be the first politician in history to prefer to plead guilty to a charge of ignorance rather than one of complicity.