Leading Article:Mr Aitken: a failing minister

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The Independent Online
Yesterday, Jonathan Aitken blamed his current troubles on a campaign by a "failing newspaper". We can only assume that he was referring to us. A master of failing to notice that which is under his nose, he has evidently overlooked the fact that the Independent's shareholders are close to completing a financial package which will secure our future. The new money is needed because of the price war initiated and sustained by the empire of Rupert Murdoch, whose excesses are only possible because Mr Aitken's party gave licence to them.

For the second time in a week, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has attempted to shoot the messenger. We are not going away, Mr Aitken, any more than John Humphrys is going to stop asking politicians hard questions.

Now that is cleared up, let's get back to real issue: the role that Mr Aitken played in a company that illegally exported 140 naval guns to Iran, breaking his own government's embargo. His defence is that he saw nothing, heard nothing and knew nothing about Project Lisi. This was an arms order, one of his company's largest, which was supposedly destined for Singapore but which in fact ended up in Iran.

Mr Aitken's contention is remarkable. He apparently remained steadfastly unaware even of Project Lisi's name, despite the fact that it was mentioned in monthly reports circulated to all directors.

His incorrigible ignorance is all the more surprising given what we report today about Mr Aitken's former colleagues on the board of BMARC, the company responsible for Project Lisi. We have spoken to four out of seven of them. All four, including Gerald James, the former chairman, Major-General Donald Isles, the former managing director, and another former director, James Miller, said that they had at least heard rumours that Iran was the real buyer. Mr James has acknowledged that he knew for certain where the weapons were heading. The fourth director has declined to be identified.

Yet even though most of his colleagues knew of the rumours, no alarm bells rang for Jonathan Aitken, Middle East expert, defence specialist, one-time curious journalist and, at the time, would-be Cabinet minister. The issue is, quite simply, is this a credible claim? No one can say for sure, but we are surely entitled to be sceptical on the basis of the known facts.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister took his Chief Secretary at his word. Mr Aitken, had, he said, dealt with the matter "very forcibly and to great acclaim from most of the House ... He has made his position absolutely clear. No evidence has been found to counter that, either by the Independent newspaper or by anyone else."

We beg to differ. We contend that Mr Aitken is hiding behind a cloak of ignorance and non-recollection, for which he does not apologise, and which will not satisfy the British public.

Lord Justice Scott was right yesterday to reject Mr Aitken's request to investigate BMARC. The Scott inquiry has enough to do already in scrutinising the trade in arms to Iraq. But we do need an independent inquiry into the allegations surrounding arms weapons to Iran. Mr Aitken's position looks ever more fragile.