17 February 2011

Wikileaks and recent posts

A Wikileaks report in the Daily Telegraph last week has linked two of my recent posts. One of these was about the Iraq Inquiry and the other, posted a week earlier, was about a public falling out between the former head of the British Army, Lord Dannatt, and the former UK ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles. The Iraq Inquiry Secretariat has been headed since its formation in 2009 by a career civil servant, Margaret Aldred. Previously she had been deputy head of the foreign and defence policy secretariat at the Cabinet Office and it was in that role that she met with the ‘Political Minister Counselor’ at the US Embassy in London on Wednesday 15 July 2009. The cable sent from the Embassy the following day which summarised their meeting was the basis of the Daily Telegraph Wikileaks report headed:
Lord Dannatt wrong on troop numbers, civil servant told US
The senior civil servant organising the Iraq Inquiry secretly briefed against Britain’s top general after he called for more troops to counter a surge of deaths in Afghanistan.
Going back to an article by Rosa Prince in the Daily Telegraph on 16 July 2009 helps shed light on the atmosphere at the time of the meeting and the subsequent cable from the Embassy:
Richard Dannatt: Boots on ground key to victory in Afghanistan
The head of the Army has added to the pressure on the Government to send additional troops to Afghanistan by saying "more boots on the ground" were vital for victory.
Following heavy British losses in Helmand Province, General Sir Richard Dannatt said that he would like to see "more energy" putting into speeding up the provision of equipment to UK troops.
He said: "I have said before, we can have effect where we have boots on the ground. I don't mind whether the feet in those boots are British, American or Afghan, but we need more to have the persistent effect to give the people confidence in us. That is the top line and the bottom line."
The General was speaking during his last visit to Afghanistan before retiring later this month, as Gordon Brown insisted that "everything we can" was being done by the Government to provide British soldiers with the equipment they needed.
The war in Afghanistan dominated Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday, with David Cameron saying that the number of British helicopters in Afghanistan was "simply insufficient".
Gen Dannatt appeared to back the Tory leader's warning, adding: "We are trying to broaden and deepen our effect here, which is about people and about equipment, and of course to an extent it is about helicopters as well.
It looks as though the purpose of the meeting at the Embassy the day before this appeared was to reassure the US “that HMG remains committed at the highest levels to maintaining its mission in Afghanistan.” The cable states:
[Aldred] stressed that HMG has "worked hard to get the right number of helicopters" ... Referring to General Dannatt's call for more troops, she stated that the PM decided how many British troops would deploy to Afghanistan only after close consultation with the MOD.
Aldred strongly criticized partisan ‘party politicking’ which, she asserted, attempted to capitalize on 15 British combat deaths over a recent 10 day period to cast doubt on HMG’s prosecution of the war effort. "Both opposition parties are seizing every opportunity to attack the government," Aldred said.
Many of the comments put on the Telegraph website about their more recent article brought Andrew Marr’s comment on bloggers to mind – “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night” etc. Margaret Aldred’s role as a top official was to support the policies of the government of the day, but the tone of the article, and many of the rather personal criticisms attached in the comments, failed to recognise this. Dannatt presumably saw his role at the time as supporting the British army, rather than the UK forces as a whole or the government. We now know that Dannatt and Number 10 had been at odds in late 2006 according to Jonathan Powell, and about Cowper-Coles’ version of his conversation with Dannatt in mid-2007 (earlier post). Then the goings on seemed to provide some sardonic amusement to a mere nonentity like me, albeit tinged with kleinburgerlich schadenfreude. However on this occasion that wouldn’t seem to be appropriate, and one’s sympathies have to be with the Madam Top Kneddy.

Watching BBC1’s Panorama programme on 14 February, Wikileaks: The Secret Story, and its depiction of Julian Assange, should increase anyone’s misgivings about Wikileaks. Listening to some of his former associates, the expression attributed to Lenin, ‘useful idiots’, came to mind. While it seems unlikely that the Wikileaks cables initiated the unrest which is spreading through the Middle East, we may well not yet appreciate all the damage that Assange’s activities can cause. The whole underlying principle seems dubious. A bank clerk who steals his employer’s money, even if to give to worthy causes, is a thief and goes to prison. Is that different from an employee who takes his employer’s confidential information and makes it accessible to the world, purportedly in the public interest? Wikileak’s first associate in the UK media was the Guardian. Assange, having fallen out with them, is now working with the Daily Telegraph, who ran the MP’s expenses revelations of 2009.

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