Defence Secretary to review SAS Afghanistan emails

  • By Mark Urban
  • Diplomatic and defence editor, Newsnight

Image source, Reuters

The revelation of secret emails about SAS operations in Afghanistan is causing recriminations within the Ministry of Defence, with a process starting this week to re-examine how ministers were kept in ignorance of their content.

Some are blaming the department's legal department, others says the directorate of special forces blindsided them and believe there should be a 'dramatic' change in the culture of these elite forces.

BBC Newsnight now understands that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who is due back from leave shortly, has asked for the whole question of how ministers only learned about the emails' contents on Friday to be re-examined "going back to the start", in the search for answers.

Emails published at the weekend emerged during the judicial review of a case brought in London by an Afghan man who argues his father was unlawfully killed by British troops during operations in Helmand Province early in 2011.

The case has been jointly investigated by the BBC's Panorama programme and the Sunday Times.

One person close to the centre of political decision making in the MoD told Newsnight on Monday, "ministers were never shown these emails, simply given a precis by the department of what they said, which never indicated their significance".

The emails highlight worries expressed by British troops during a tour of D Squadron, 22nd Special Air Service Regiment in late 2010 and early 2011.

'You couldn't make it up'

In one message a senior non commissioned officer highlights a series of shootings on operations where Afghans had, according to the squadron, suddenly produced weapons, commenting: "you couldn't MAKE IT UP!"

On another occasion in early 2011, a senior officer reported "concerning" conversations with fellow commanders suggesting "possibly a deliberate policy among the current [redacted] Squadron to engage and kill fighting aged men on target even when they did not pose a threat".

This second email was headed Secret UK Eyes Only, and was deliberately kept on a limited distribution.

The allegations about D Squadron's tour - each of 22 SAS's sub-units rotated through Afghanistan in turn for 3-4 months - are not new.

They have already been investigated by the Royal Military Police under Operation Northmoor, a prolonged inquiry that ended without any soldiers being charged.

Veterans of the regiment have complained about the stress of such prolonged enquiries.

However it is the emergence of new details in the High Court that has triggered fresh worries in the Ministry.

The judge who is hearing the case has asked the Ministry of Defence for an explanation of why the emails were not revealed during earlier proceedings.

One Ministry of Defence source reached this evening for comment, agreed that the disclosures had caused "real concern", among ministers when they realised on Friday what was about to become public, but insisted that their discomfort had resulted from a lack of communication with MoD officials and lawyers handling the matter, rather than any breakdown of trust with SAS commanders.

They denied that the revelations would upset relations with the Director of Special Forces, or the Chief of the General Staff or head of the Army, who was running the special forces command during 2012-2015.

However others who spoke to BBC Newsnight suggested the emails reveal an SAS "culture problem" that would have to be dealt with.

SNP MSP Stewart MacDonald has written to Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, suggesting that remarks made by Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer during a debate seven months ago had been shown by the release of the emails to be untrue.

Mr Mercer had insisted that claims against the SAS had been made by a very small number of individuals working within the investigation into possible illegal killings.

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