Sierra Leone proves Cook will whitewash with the best of them

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THE JOINT is jumping down at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. According to one of Robin Cook's aides, the place is as groovy as the Ministry of Sound - the nightclub, that is - on an E-fuelled Saturday night. "We have lots of Guardian and Independent readers here, you know," one source exuberated to a newspaper. "They rather like this ethical dimension. They are wearing dark shirts and they come in on bikes and plant their helmets on the desks in front of them. There really is a buzz round here."

Forget Glastonbury: get me to the next FCO rave. I want to meet these Vespa-riding, dark-shirted guys who dig ethical foreign policy. True, there is nothing as cringe-making as very straight people telling you how alternative they are. But we should be generous and excuse the more comical trumpeting of the Foreign Office's trendiness as part of a belated and welcome attempt to attract a wider range of applicants. Amen to that. Mr Cook and the foreign affairs minister Lady Symons have been insistent about the need for institutional change against entrenched opposition from the crusties.

But on the evidence of the arms-to-Sierra Leone affair, the adventurous newcomers can expect the mood of relaxed openness to be short-lived. Should those feisty young recruits happen to wonder, for instance, which of the department's senior officials and ministers knew what and when about Sandline International's delivery of arms to help the restoration of President Kabbah, they will be led into a steamy jungle of half-truths to find themselves enmeshed in tangles of purposeful ambiguity.

They will find a minister who knew that a customs investigation was under way but did not inform the Lords in a relevant debate, one who claimed not to have known about the investigation when he dismissed questioning in the Commons, then remembered he had known, but had forgotten he'd known on the date he was alleged to have known. Turning to the modernising Foreign Secretary, the ingenues will find that he had first blamed officials, then unblamed them, then denied that the intelligence services had informed ministers about Sandline's involvement, then found that they had. They could be taken to see Sir John Kerr, the permanent secretary being publicly disembowelled by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee - for refusing, on Mr Cook's orders, to give answers about all of this. This spectacle should deter them from becoming too ambitious.

For a Foreign Office that is supposed to be rebranding itself as fresh and transparent, this one looks as musty and evasive as ever. The only buzz around the place in the last couple of months has been the babble of confusion - some real, a lot of it manufactured. Somehow the obvious question has gone unanswered. Why was Britain was so anxious to get President Kabbah back into power that our hyperactive high commissioner Peter Penfold accompanied him into exile in a neighbouring country, rather than follow the usual practice of being recalled to London to await developments?

It is always edifying when a democratically elected leader is restored after a brutal putsch, but most unfortunates do not get quite as much encouragement and support from the Foreign Office as President Kabbah. There was no obvious strategic interest in Sierra Leone for Britain. But there was a strong commercial one in the diamond and mineral extraction contracts. Did the British government encourage - or tolerate with full knowledge - the use of mercenaries in order to defend these trading interests? Is this now an accepted policy and, if so, why has there been no debate on it? Is Mr Cook - who for all the pitfalls, is genuinely committed to an ethical foreign policy - unaware of the moral ambiguities? The questions multiply as quickly as the excuses.

Mr Cook is now denying the select committee access to the telegrams between Freetown and London which would bring more clarity to the affair. I find this a sad metamorphosis for a man who was such a doughty seeker after truth when he responded with deadly eloquence to the findings of the Scott inquiry.

He now maintains that to provide the evidence the select committee has demanded - and should be entitled to under the precedent of the Pergau Dam inquiry - would pre-empt the findings of an independent inquiry. This is being conducted by a Whitehall veteran at Mr Cook's behest.

We know these reports. They are long on recommendations and short on straight rebukes. Whitehall does not foul its own nest. The Franks report on the run-up to the Falklands war, the inquiries into the sinking of the Belgrano and the building of the Pergau Dam, the Scott report: all ended in a lot of paper and a sense of anti-climax. That, of course, is precisely what governments intend when they launch them, as civil servants know when they conduct them.

The results of the Sierra Leone inquiry are scheduled to appear in the dog-days of late July. The refusal by Mr Cook to allow the select committee sight of the telegrams conveys the impression that he is trying to kick this ball into the long grass. His timing is unfortunate. Select committees are emerging as the most effective form of scrutiny over the actions of ministers. With a supine opposition and young Blairites so dazzled by the culture of absolute and unquestioning obedience to the whips and message- masseurs that they would, as Diane Abbott put it, "walk straight into a brick wall if their pagers told them to do so", the committees provide the best quality control over government that we are likely to get.

Miss Abbott is one of the independently minded Labour MPs who have ensured that this particular committee operates effectively. There is a beguiling contradiction at the heart of New Labour, which means that the sort of Old Labour MPs, whose beliefs would be a liability if they got anywhere near a significant ministerial job, are extremely useful when it comes to checking the power of the executive. Any candidate selection system - such as party list PR - which denies us these bits of grit in the government oyster would be a change for the worse.

The Commons has become a toothless place. Its role has transferred to the committee, where we can still find scrutiny of the powerful by the awkward squads. Politicians such as Mr Cook, who demanded the highest standards of openness when the Tories were in trouble, should be prepared to account for themselves to select committees. To claim, as he did last week, that the Labour chairman Donald Anderson went "over the top" in his demands for clarification shows a streak of arrogance. That is not the same as strength.

The complex, distant and arcane dispute about opaque events in a faraway country has turned into an instructive fable. It warns us that the disposition to whitewash failings and sidle away from responsibility is not carried only in the Tory gene. Most people will certainly have lost the Sierra Leone plot early on, just as they have forgotten the details of the Bernie Ecclestone debacle. But the first seeds of doubt are planted. Are this lot so different from the others? We look from pig to man and man to pig and wonder a little. Mr Cook must break the slithery spiral of distrust by full disclosure to both the parliamentary committee and the Whitehall inquiry. Anything less would fall short of his own high standards.