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Trident whistle-blower William McNeilly deserves more than the 'hero or coward' treatment

This seems to be a man trying to improve the world, not break ranks over a personal opinion

Joe Glenton
Tuesday 19 May 2015 15:23 BST
Concerns about security on HMS Vanguard were publicised by William McNeilly
Concerns about security on HMS Vanguard were publicised by William McNeilly (PA)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


When my belief in the capacity of powerful institutions to exercise basic good sense simply overflows, I read Ministry of Defence press releases to keep myself in check. Indeed, few things can trim my faith in the human intellect like the supercilious ramblings of some nameless, faceless “MoD spokesperson.”

While the full facts of the case are cloudy, this was certainly true of the Royal Navy’s bitter sounding suggestion that Able Seaman William McNeilly was only a “very junior sailor” expressing, “subjective and unsubstantiated personal views” when he brought to the public’s attention his professional concerns over what he felt were severe security and safety risks on British nuclear subs.

While his claims are yet to receive the full and public inquiry they deserve, we do know that ad hominem has become the automatic response by the state to those who expose the truth these days.

If it isn’t pulling rank as in the case of McNeilly, the questions will be about the individual’s mental state or whether or not they hold some deranged or simmering grievance.

Besides those options there is always the preposterous framing by the media of an issue of straight forward bean-spilling or resistance to dangerous institutional stupidity using the lame “Hero or Traitor?” or “Hero or Coward?” templates.

Expect all these to come soon in the case of McNeilly.

While facts are yet to come to light fully, we do know that NcNeilly, who after a brief period of absence without leave has handed himself in as promised, is a highly trained, highly paid engineer trusted by the Royal Navy to operate on an advanced WMD-carrying submarine.

Junior or not, safety is a central part of his job - as it is of any submariner’s role. His investigation - if the Senior Service can bear to read it - even logs the extensive training they themselves gave him to that precise end.

Unless the Navy are saying their own teaching methods and personnel are inadequate, that same training goes a long way to substantiating his view and, let us be frank, it seems unlikely McNeilly wrote an 18 page report on the potential for a nuclear disaster, all the while knowing he could face prison, on a passing whim.

As a veteran I can attest that the average matelot, like the low-ranked soldier, is a practical woman or man and is far less subject to delusions of command than his or her superiors. Commanders who, we should recall, can count Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya among their more recent shining achievements.

The fact that NcNeilly’s view is one from the bottom up - from the coalface of our bloated, sagging nuclear program - does not diminish the strength of his arguments: it is far more likely to multiply them.

Further, there is nothing in his 18-page report which suggests he wrote it in a fugue or fit of immaturity. Most criticisms so far extend to his grammar and occasional rambling, though there are good clear reasons he did not file his report to a sub-editor.

My first impression is that this is a man trying to improve the world, not break ranks over a personal opinion. If his investigation exudes anything at all it seems to be a commitment to the public good, which makes him worth any 10 corporate journalists in my book.

His investigation, titled The Secret Nuclear Threat, also shows that McNeilly knows what he risks and that he feels he must take a stand anyway.

His claims have also since been backed by another former sailor who worked on nuclear submarines.

Why, some will ask, did he run?

His full rationale is unclear at this time, but I suspect we need look no further than the treatment meted out to other defence and security whistle-blowers: Manning, Snowden, Vananu, Kiriakou and so on.

Given the vile treatment truth-tellers receive, especially when it comes to exposing the excesses of the military and intelligence services, who can blame such a person for wanting a few more gasps of free air before their trials truly begin.

After all, unless you are named General David Petraeus and therefore pretty much guaranteed a free pass if you leak damaging military secrets, exposing the West’s military-security complex from within has become the great apostasy of our time.

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