We are waiting, Mr Aitken

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The Independent Online
Jonathan Aitken is stretching our credulity. He says that he was a diligent company director who strived to be well-briefed on his company's activities. But he also says that he knew nothing about that same company's illegal sale of naval guns to Iran. It is difficult to reconcile these two statements. Yet that is what the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is asking us to do.

It is important to satisfy ourselves that he is telling the truth. Mr Aitken is a Cabinet minister at the heart of the Government. We must trust him as someone who takes the trouble to see that his interests do not conflict with those of the nation.

So what is the evidence? Yesterday, Mr Aitken again emphatically denied knowing anything about a contract to supply weapons to Iran undertaken by a company called BMARC while he was a non-executive director during the 1980s. The contract was known as Project Lisi.

It is extraordinary that he should have been so ignorant. If we are to accept what Mr Aitken says, he was certainly the victim of terribly bad luck. Here was a man renowned for his expertise and contacts in the Middle East. Yet he was not privy to the final destination of one of his company's largest orders. Monthly reports were prepared for him and his fellow directors updating them on Project Lisi. The contract was even discussed at a board meeting that Mr Aitken left early.

Each opportunity that Mr Aitken might have had to discover what was really going on was apparently missed. As a result we can only speculate about how many lives would have been saved had fate been different and Mr Aitken been sufficiently in the know to stop the export of 140 light naval guns.

This was not to be. Mr Aitken said yesterday that he had "no recollection of ever having heard about `Project Lisi' or read about it in company reports". We can only assume that the monthly reports did not, for some reason, reach Mr Aitken. Who can trust the post these days? Likewise, he apparently left a crucial boardroom meeting before his colleagues reached the point on the agenda when Project Lisi was discussed.

His account is contested. Yesterday, Gerald James, former chairman of Astra Holdings, the company which owned BMARC , dismissed the Chief Secretary's denials. He said that Mr Aitken must have been "blind and deaf" not to have known that the arms were going to Iran. His recollection is that Mr Aitken was still at the meeting when Project Lisi was discussed.

So we are left with two men - one of them a Cabinet minister - flatly contradicting each other about what went on at a meeting that discussed activities contrary to national security interests. Mr Aitken contends that other directors will support his version of what happened. But this affair still leaves him in a position that looks untenable.

Jonathan Aitken has a great many questions to answer yet before we or the public can be satisfied that his conduct in this matter has been up to the standards required of a senior government minister.