This week an official in the the Ministry of Defence's security directorate wrote to more than two dozen former members of the Special Forces who have published details of their experiences, banning them from attending reunions on ministry property, in case they gathered material for more books or television programmes. Last year the MoD introduced new contracts for serving special forces personnel designed to prevent them publishing accounts of their work or helping with documentaries. The ban on attending regimental reunions is probably the MoD's final attempt to shut the stable door after a series of best-selling books destroyed much of the mystique and secrecy surrounding covert operations. Let us hope so, anyway.
"Special Forces" refers to all the units under the Director of Special Forces, an army brigadier. They include the Army's SAS , which comprises one regular, and two TA units (about 800 men in all); the Marines' Special Boat Service (about 150 strong); and a number of smaller units - 14 Company of the Army Intelligence Corps and certain Royal Signals and RAF personnel.
A number of manuscripts are being read by the MoD at the moment. The next one to be published, due on 27 March, will be by Sarah Ford, on the role of women in 14 Intelligence Company in Northern Ireland.
The ban on authors' visiting bases has the overwhelming support of serving members of the Special Forces, particularly the lower ranks, who have become increasingly resentful of the success of a few former members who have earned large sums of money. Some of the books are gripping, and fully deserve their success; others are tedious, the realm, an army officer said yesterday, of "trainspotters". The most successful of the writers, Andy McNab, has made an estimated pounds 5m from his book Bravo Two Zero, about the fate of an eight-man patrol behind Iraqi lines in the Gulf war.
This week's fuss about the ban on visiting special forces bases obscured a more interesting point. According to senior MoD officials, the Army and the MoD did not want a blanket ban on everybody writing about the history of the Special Forces, but aimed to focus on those disclosures that could really damage national security and future operations.
But that was all too complicated for ministers - and especially the Armed Forces Minister, Nicholas Soames. There might be no reason to stop people writing about certain SAS operations, and it might even be good PR. In Yemen, for example, the SAS pioneered the type of reconstruction work now being carried out in Bosnia, known by its staff code as G5 - aid to the civil community. But no. A blanket ban it had to be.
A more intelligent approach would have been to come down very hard on details of operational techniques that are still used, and operations in Northern Ireland. Information about the role of 14 Company of the Intelligence Corps in Northern Ireland could be more damaging than much of the material about the SAS.
What really worries the MoD is that details may emerge of special forces operations in places where they were not supposed to be. It is widely believed that UK special forces operated in Vietnam, Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union, and there is little doubt that they have been involved in countering drugs in South America. The MoD's refusal to make any comment on the Special Forces and refusal to discriminate between real secrets and relatively straightforward military matters could be a dangerous policy in an era when the truth will almost certainly out.
Targeting regimental reunions had a special poignancy. General Sir Peter de la Billiere, the former SAS officer who was the senior British soldier in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, is widely blamed for starting the rush of books with his Storm Command, published in 1992. Immediately after the publication of Sir Peter's book, detailing the story of the patrol Bravo Two Zero behind Iraqi lines, it was widely believed that the soldiers who were themselves involved, and survived, might do even better.
However, the media's focus on Sir Peter in the last week is a red herring. He did not receive one of the letters from the MoD, and does not expect to. He has already largely excised himself from the regimental community by resigning as president of the Regimental Association. He knew he would no longer be welcome. He has also now retired from the Army. He is irrelevant.
In spite of that, the media this week invented an imaginary "battle" between Sir Peter and the MoD, stressing his "hero" status. Like all SAS officers and men, he knew that side of his life was supposed to be secret. The extraordinary public interest in him during and after the Gulf war was his own doing. According to his son, quoted in 1995, "He lost loads of money in Lloyd's during the Gulf War, so he wrote his book to make some cash."
Sir Peter is certainly an expert self-publicist. His role in the Gulf was not as powerful or influential as he has made out. The British army and air force units were under operational command of the Americans. Sir Peter's role was more that of a very senior liaison officer.
There has been indignation that many of those excluded had their books "cleared" by the MoD, as some have protested with an air of wounded innocence. "We prefer the word `scrutinised'," one MoD source said. "Clearance does not mean approval. Then they went and talked on the radio, helped make the documentary. There is a whole network of contacts out there, which contributes to erosion of security."
The MoD has a point. Whereas people who served in the Special Forces in the early days, in the North African desert or the Radfan, wrote their memoirs out of interest or love, the large sums now available have changed the game. Covertness and secrecy were always conditions of membership of these elite forces. Now that the temptations to renege are greater, the contractual and statutory instruments enforcing adherence to the code need to be stronger.
The MoD has relaxed its policy of "we do not discuss Special Forces" a little. Once the books started appearing, the MoD could not deny what was in them. "It's a ratchet mechanism," one source said. "Once it clicks forward, you can't go back."
Up to now, the MoD has avoided any very damaging disclosures. Bravo Two Zero was embarrassing because it highlighted the cock-ups which occur in any military operation, thus damaging the SAS mystique and aura of invincibility - not because it compromised secrets. Chris Ryan's book, which presented a different account of the same incident, began a more damaging trend with arguments between individuals. The MoD is uncomfortable with that, but it needs to focus on the things that are really secret.Reuse content