The Cook, the cover-up, his aides and their blind stupidity

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CRY havoc and let slip the multi-conflict resolution merchants. The men with the glass-fronted offices in the King's Road, SAS-trained command teams on call and useful friends in the South African Special Forces have become the avenging angels of a messy world. Mercenaries are having a good time. A rather better one, at any rate, than the ministers and officials at the Foreign Office who have responded to awkward questions about HMG's role in Sierra Leone's eventful politics by embarking on a bout of high-intensity conflict against each other.

To be a dog of war is suddenly a noble calling. We are invited to admire Tim Spicer and his Sandline International - a name as pregnant with euphemism as the United Fruit Company in Guatemala or James Bond's Universal Export. If people like him don't restore order to the post-colonial countries the super-powers have abandoned to the whims of warrior psychopaths, who will? Such is Sandline's PR pitch.

There is a certain appeal for governments in privatising the dirty work - no messy accountability, no trouble with tedious UN resolutions. A few meetings with officials who may or may not have had the green light from ministers, a deal with the local power broker - Nigeria's General Abacha, but then nothing's perfect - and hey presto, out goes the murderous Sandhurst- trained junta, and in comes if not a good guy then at least a better guy.

"Why the fuss?" writes George Walden, who being both ex-Foreign Office and an ex-Tory minister, is the perfect spokesman for the gung-ho tendency. "There is a myth about the public's right to know. The truth is, there are times when the public can know more than is good for them. If you are going to supply arms and mercenaries to defeat a military dictator, you don't hold a debate in the Commons and submit your plans for comment and inspection."

I am deeply allergic to this usage of "the public", favoured by diplomats and a certain kind of politician. It suggests the kind of relationship a colonial master would have had with his subjects: "Very fond of them, y'know. Best not worry them by telling them what's going on. Only unsettles them."

And as "ifs" go, Mr Walden's is a big one. To what end are we supplying arms and mercenaries in the first place? It is odd that this story has rumbled on for days without the matter being raised of why Britain is taking such an inordinate interest in the affairs of Sierra Leone. It is a former colony, but then so are an awful lot of other benighted countries in Africa. The exertions of High Commissioner Peter Penfold on behalf of President Kabbah do not fit with the broader pattern of disengagement. Indeed, the methods are more suited to the interventionist approach of the 1960s and 1970s, a by-product of the superpower conflict. Since then, and sensibly for a middle-ranking power without any strategic interest in the region beyond trade, we have left risky intrusions to the Americans. This time, it was the other way round. We should be told who was calling the shots and why.

The trail ends with the Foreign Secretary. His insistence that he knew nothing of Sandline's operation and arms shipment until 29 April, when his junior minister had been told of the Customs and Excise investigation two weeks earlier, is barely credible - unless his mind was not on the detail of his job, or the resentment and distrust of Mr Cook in King Charles Street is such that officials wilfully bypassed him on a matter of sensitivity. In this case, we have a serious malfunction in a key Whitehall department. If, on the other hand, Sandline did have official approval, then the Government was supporting - indeed directly encouraging - the use of mercenaries. We ought to have a full debate about the implications. As far as I am aware, Mr Cook has not changed his earlier view that the growth in freelance forces is unwelcome.

On the evidence of the last week, the Foreign Secretary is developing a rather minimalist view of ethics - namely that when there has been a bungle, he will not "whitewash" it. That is hardly a moral framework in keeping with his more sweeping pledges. The fearful symmetry is the command performance he gave savaging the Tories over the Scott report: "This is a government fond of lecturing the rest of the nation on responsibility" (no change there then), "yet when it comes to themselves, not a single minister can be found responsible for what goes wrong."

Sandline is not Matrix Churchill. Arms to Sierra Leone is not the same as arms to Iraq. The reinstatement of President Kabbah was what the West wanted.That is what makes the story so strange: not a single minister can be found responsible for what went right. But to short-circuit from this fortunate happenstance to the conclusion that there is nothing for us to worry about is premature. The methods by which President Kabbah was restored to power are not those to which a democratic government can give carte blanche.

Privatising morality in foreign affairs and tendering out the contracts of conflict resolution to people like Spicer is a dubious practice. How can the Foreign Office vouch for his methods and competence? He managed a reasonably efficient restoration in Sierra Leone, but he made a heroic hash of things in Papua New Guinea. Beneath Sandline is a network of links to other mercenary organisations - like the South African Executive Outcomes which provided Kabbah's bodyguard when he allegedly met the Foreign Office minister for tea. Is this the kind of company the Government is happy to keep? There are hidden consequences, deals and links here which I doubt would bear close scrutiny.

Stripped of their glossy brochures and corporate contracts, mercenaries are what they have always been - killers for hire. They are beyond the controls imposed by international treaties and the UN. For Western governments to resort to them secretly is the equivalent of going behind their own backs. I don't see how this can be squared with any workable definition of democratic accountability, and certainly not with a robust commitment to an ethical foreign policy.

Mr Walden represents the Lady Bracknell theory of handling international difficulties, "Ignorance is a delicate flower. Touch it and the bloom is gone." But when our interventions in other people's wars are conducted in a manner befitting the novels of Graham Greene and the public is kept in ignorance of the facts, misunderstandings and betrayals are bound to flourish.

The Cold War provided the perfect excuse for governments to play out covert games on the international chess board. That is behind us now, and the kind of raison d'etat that Mr Walden evokes died with it. All it took was Lord Avebury, a herbivorous Liberal Democrat peer flicking around on the Internet, to discover Sandline's involvement in the coup and ask questions about it.

Never mind the dishonesty, the cover-ups, the half-truths, and the mud- slinging: it's the stupidity that is unforgivable. How can those responsible have been foolish enough to think that all this would stay secret? Evidently no one has told them that this is the information age. It is 100 years ago to the week that parliament approved Lord Salisbury's request for the dispatch of the Imperial troops to crush the hut-tax uprising in Sierra Leone. They talked about those things then. Now we have a commitment to open government, so of course we don't.