UK must end official secrecy over special forces
Blanket ban on reporting SAS operations undermined by hypocrisy
Top commander insists taboo must remain
Britain’s special forces are playing an increasingly significant role in conflicts abroad. The SAS killed suspected al-Qaida leaders in Iraq and with its naval equivalent, the SBS, has been targeting suspected Taliban commanders in Afghanistan.
To the irritation of the British government, and particularly the Ministry of Defence, General David Petraeus, former US commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, does not miss an opportunity to praise our special forces. Why has such praise not been welcomed by British officials? Because they stick to the policy that operations involving special forces can never be disclosed. Officially, at least.
In his first briefing for journalists on Britain’s role in the Libyan conflict on Thursday, Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Britain’s commander of joint operations, was asked for his assessment about the part played by UK special forces, already reported not least by The Guardian.
I asked him whether it was time to break the taboo covering SAS and SBS operations. „We do not, and are not intending to, comment on special forces operations“, he said.
In August, the Guardian and other media organisations reported that British special forces were in Libya training rebel groups in advance of the attack on Tripoli, an operation which they heavily engaged in planning. SAS soldiers have been working with French commandos and Qatari special forces. They have also been acting as forward air controllers – directing pilots to targets – and communicating with Nato operational commanders. Their presence has been shown on television and the evidence remains on You Tube and elsewhere.
Even senior government officials and former military figures on the D Notice Committee, that peculiarly British institution which operates a system of voluntary self-censorship on security and intelligence matters in cooperation with the media, privately admit that the MoD’s continuing refusal ever to comment officially on special forces operations is absurd.
It is also ineffective. It does not take very long for defence correspondents to discover one way or another whether the SAS or SBS were involved in a particular operation. Many of the books published on UK operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have referred extensively to the SAS – the latest being A War of Choice: The British in Iraq 2003-9 by Jack Fairweather published by Jonathan Cape this week.
Special forces, like intelligence officers, pilotless drones, and cyberwarriors, are likely to be the key players of the future in war and armed conflict. We should surely know what they are up to.