Anonymity and the arms trade
Rob Evans wanted the staff directory of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), a hived-off part of the Ministry of Defence, which spends taxpayer money helping UK arms companies (predominantly BAE Systems) win contracts for the export of armaments. He wanted it for several reasons.
‘We were hearing a lot of allegations about corruption within DESO in relation to the arms industry,’ Rob told me. ‘The problem was you had to find out if the employee alleged to be accepting bribes from an arms company actually worked for DESO. There was no way to tell. In the absence of a staff directory we had to resort to, well, subterfuge. It was done in the public interest but in my view that’s wrong. Why should we have had to resort subterfuge? All public officials should be named.’
The Data Protection Act is often used in the most ludicrous ways: reporters’ bylines blacked out and ministers’ names censored. If you’re a public official then suddenly your privacy rights are sacrosanct. DESO and the Ministry of Defence were none too keen to provide Rob with a copy of the directory, so from his desk at Guardian newspapers he filed a freedom-of-information request in January 2005. The directory lists staff names, job titles, work addresses, work telephone numbers and email addresses. In February he received a ‘redacted’ or, in plain English, censored version. And when I say censored I mean heavily. You’ve likely seen the ‘redacted’ MPs’ expenses, but imagine something even more gratuitous. What Rob received was a staff directory with all the names of staff together with all their contact details removed. Even the main switchboard number was blacked out! Only titles remained and for staff based in Saudi Arabia even these were excised. As a staff directory it was pretty much useless, particularly if your purpose was to track staff movement through the revolving door that exists between DESO and the arms industry and vice versa.
The excuses cited by the DESO were the usual – national security and the Data Protection Act (e.g. privacy) – but also the more uniquely bogus exemptions such as disclosures being ‘prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs’ and the risk that it would ‘endanger the physical or mental health’ of individuals. I doubt any of us would have much luck offering such excuses to the government if we objected to state surveillance.
Rob appealed to the Information Commissioner and won his case but the MoD fought on, spending £75,000 of public money to stop the public finding out who worked for them (an irony not at all unusual). The case went to the Information Tribunal where Rob argued that the ‘revolving door’ that existed between government and the arms industry had created a dangerous conflict of interest, whereby the government was working in the interests not of the public but of private arms companies. And it wasn’t just senior officials getting schmoozed. David Leigh, the Guardian’s investigations editor, cited the directory as necessary in a case involving John Porter, a £28,000-a-year DESO official who, evidence showed, had taken gifts including free holidays from arms firm executives. He retired before any action was taken. The newspaper knew of the story at an early stage but was reluctant to publish without proper verification, which the directory would have provided.
Censoring the names wasn’t only wrong but ridiculous, as many were already in the public domain in military lists and the Civil Service Year Book. In addition, Rob discovered the directory wasn’t exactly top secret. In was given to a few friendly journalists and employees of a news agency who covered the defence ministry. Most shocking of all, the directory was handed out at arms fairs to manufacturers and consultants in the arms trade.
John Millen, then directory of Export Services Policy in DESO, said at the tribunal hearing: ‘A copy was provide if the request came from a member of the UK Defence Industry or if the requester concerned had an accepted reason for doing business with DESO.’ Mr Millen then confirmed that in 2004, about 2,000 copies of the directory were sent to ‘named individuals at external addresses, including other government departments’.
Just to hammer home the point that DESO was working for the arms industry and not the public, a reminder was printed on the cover of new directories stating it was for government and industry use only. Sadly this attitude remains unchanged across most public bodies.
It was alleged by the MoD that official business would be hindered if the public were allowed to know who was working for them and how to contact them directly. Think about that for a minute: a public body operating on the principle of cordoning itself away from the public; the public seen as a nuisance rather than the sole reason they have a job. What it smacks of is that paranoid pomposity so typical of public officials, and reveals two main fallacies they commonly hold about the public at large: a) that the average citizen is civically active in a way that all evidence shows they are not (e.g. we are not all busting a gut to phone up the Secretary of Paperclips), and b) that the average citizen is a criminal (in fact, most people are perfectly polite and reasonable if treated with respect and listened to).
The usual made-up disaster-movie scenarios were put forward by the MoD: that we’d all rush out to get a copy of the directory and then get busy stuffing envelopes full of anthrax to DESO staffers. Are the British people uniquely dangerous? I don’t think so. (Though judging by the numerous signs on display in every British institution, we’re some of the most violent people on earth.) There’s never any evidence put forward for these scare stories because that’s exactly what they are – tall tales told to suit the bureaucrats’ love of exercising power unaccountably.
The Information Tribunal ordered the directory to be published, though it did allow anonymity for junior staff, which was problematic. However, by then (20 July 2007) Rob Evans was already in possession of a leaked staff directory. From their illicit 2005 copy, the Guardian reporters discovered some interesting facts: more than 450 civil servants worked in DESO with 161 civil servants working specifically for the ‘Saudi armed forces project’ across Britain and the Middle East. All told, ‘around 40 per cent’ of staff, a minister admitted, was dedicated to selling to one regime: Saudi Arabia. Also interesting when you consider that at the time DESO was headed by former BAE executive Alan Garwood, who was interviewed by the Serious Fraud Office over long-running government-authorised £1billion payments to Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. Both BAE and Prince Bandar said the payments were legitimate but when Tony Blair was Prime Minister he halted the SFO inquiry, again citing ‘national security’. The US Department for Justice then began its own investigation.
That so many UK civil servants, paid for by us, are promoting arms to an autocratic regime in an unstable area is clearly a subject worthy of public debate. Without the directory this information was hidden and no debate could take place.
 As we’ll see again, sadly in the UK trying to get information legitimately is always the least effective method.
Extracted from The Silent State: Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy by Heather Brooke (Heinemann, 2010).
Copyright © 2010 All rights reserved. CC License does not apply to this extract.
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