March 2005. Deep inside the Arctic Circle, a training exercise has gone terribly wrong. Beneath an icy cold fjord, 38-year-old Richard is gasping for breath. The seasoned British navy diver is trapped inside a metal tube, near the Norwegian town of Tromsø. Visitors normally come here to see the Northern Lights, but Richard is practising with a ‘swimmer delivery vehicle’, a miniature submarine. He is part of a NATO exercise training how to retake oil rigs and ships from Al-Qaeda.
The mini-sub has space for six. The pilot and navigator sit in the front compartment, and four frogmen are in the back. The only oxygen comes from the crew’s personal tanks. Richard’s teammates exited the submarine first and are now swimming freely outside, but somehow he is trapped. Over the next ten minutes, Richard rapidly runs out of oxygen. By the time Richard is rescued, the damage is done. Rushed to hospital, he died a week later.
Lieutenant Colonel Richard van der Horst OBE was not supposed to die this way. He had only recently taken charge of the Royal Navy’s ultra-secret Special Boat Service (SBS). It was the culmination of a glittering military career, where he had masterminded the rescue of kidnapped British commandos in Sierra Leone and patrolled Kurdish safe zones in the Gulf War. Now he was dead. An inquest followed, and the incident sparked some press coverage, with Richard’s former comrades briefing journalists about his distinguished service. His wife reportedly considered suing Britain’s Ministry of Defence, claiming that Richard was not properly qualified to take part in the dive.
I never met Richard, however I later learned that we are distantly related. As an investigative journalist, I often probe Britain’s special forces, the most secretive part of the UK military, to try to find out what is being done in our name – and the impact on the people tasked with operating in the shadows.
Once, I found that a British Special Air Services (SAS) officer advised the Indian army how to evict Sikh dissidents from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, their holiest site. The raid resulted in a blood bath. When I exposed the SAS role, British Sikhs were shocked at this covert foreign policy, which no one had ever voted for. The UK Prime Minister had to order two high-level probes. Instead of revealing more, the reviews mainly criticised how I had been able to uncover the mission – they said the files were released to the National Archives by mistake.
And this is where the problem starts. Unlike every other branch of government, Britain’s special forces and intelligence agencies are not required by law to declassify their old files after 30 years. They can keep them under wraps forever. Even the late Liberal Democrat peer Paddy Ashdown, a former member of the special forces, told me he struggled to access old SBS files about missions he was involved in.
The year Richard died, 2005, there was hope that things could change. The Freedom of Information Act came into force, thanks to Tony Blair. The former Prime Minister would come to bitterly regret it though. ‘You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop,’ he wrote in his memoirs. ‘There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.’ Blair was aghast because the Act allowed journalists and the public to obtain internal government documents within a month of them being written, without having to wait 30 years. It was revolutionary, and led to major scandals over MPs expenses and many more.
Still, Blair was not as foolish as he would like us to believe. The Act contained several major caveats. One of them concerned private companies working on public sector contracts – a hallmark of Blair’s government. These firms were exempt from freedom of information, no matter how many millions in taxpayers money they received. The other glaring loophole concerned Britain’s spies and special forces. Section 23 of the Act said that anything about them was strictly off limits. The veil had been lifted on large parts of the British establishment, except for some of its most powerful institutions.
This exemption is still in force today. To see how it works, New Internationalist asked Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) about the number of training accidents in 2015 to 2017 involving the army and navy’s two main special forces regiments: the SAS and SBS. Predictably, the response came back that nothing could be revealed – because of Section 23. To demonstrate the arbitrariness of this rule, we also asked about accidents involving the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines. They are both very elite units, whose members often go on to join the special forces (as Richard had done). Under the law, we were entitled to information about their accidents.
The figures we received show why the public should scrutinize military training exercises. There were 774 injuries at the Royal Marines Commando Training Centre in that three year period, including civilians working on the base. Although the number of injuries has fallen since 2015, there were 21 ‘major injuries’ in 2016. The MOD said these could have involved injuries as life-changing as the amputation of a leg, permanent loss of sight, serious burns or ‘scalpings’.
Despite the high number of injuries among the marines, the paratroopers seem to be almost immune from accidents. The Ministry of Defence said ‘there were fewer than five injuries reported on parachute regiment selection training for the period 2015-2017. Due to the small number identified, and to avoid possible inadvertent disclosure of individual identities no further breakdown of these figures can be provided.’ That is less than 1 per cent of the injuries suffered by the young marines. Given that paratrooper training involves scaling obstacle courses high in the air and sky diving, less than five injuries suggests the Ministry of Defence is keeping inadequate records.
Still, the point is proved that we are allowed to know about injuries on marine and paratrooper training, but not the special forces equivalent. The justification for this is hard to find. We all know what SAS training involves. Channel 4 has a popular TV show called ‘SAS: Who Dares Wins’ where special forces veterans put fitness enthusiasts through a reconstructed version of the course.
This excessive secrecy means that the only time the public learns anything negative about our spooks or commandos is when there is a leak, or something goes catastrophically wrong – sparking an inquest or full blown inquiry. Like when Richard drowned, there was no way the military could cover that up. He was the commander of the Special Boat Service, the unit’s most senior officer, a role his father had also once held. He was from an established military family, and not a ‘lowly squaddie’. And even if he had been more junior, under ancient laws of the land any violent or unnatural death requires there to be an inquest.
As such, inquests are one of the only ways we learn about mistakes on UK special forces training exercises. In 2002, an inquest heard that an SAS man died on a training mission in Oman. A mortar was fired 200 metres off target, causing a hideous case of ‘friendly fire’. More recently, another inquest heard that three SAS recruits died of heat exhaustion on a march through the Welsh Mountains in 2013, as temperatures soared to 30 degrees Celsius. The coroner found a catalogue of failings in how the exercise was organized, with tracking devices ‘not fit for purpose’.
That case is still causing ripples. In September 2018, Bryher Dunsby, the widow of one of the fallen trio spoke out and said military training had not changed enough since her husband’s death. The local MP, Madeleine Moon, supported her call for reform. ‘There seems to be an absolute failure to learn lessons in the MOD ... I would like to see the Ministry of Defence be very clear that they will be prosecuted where these deaths take place,’ Moon said. ‘We ask people to step forward and join the armed forces and place their life on the line in the theatre of battle. We should not ask them to step forward and face death when they're on a training or selection exercise.’
If there was more transparency around non-fatal injuries on special forces courses, perhaps then there would be public pressure on the MOD to make the training safer before it resulted in a fatality. And the transparency argument does not end with the health and safety of the spies and commandos themselves, although that is a sensible place to start.
The public should also be allowed to know what happens when special forces move off the firing range and onto the battlefield. Are they being deployed in secret wars where the British taxpayer has no idea the country is even engaged, like at Amritsar in 1984? And if the special forces kill a civilian while on active service, either by mistake or for a more sinister reason, how is that investigated?
Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper ran a front page story in 2017 headlined ‘Rogue SAS unit accused of executing civilians in Afghanistan’. MPs were worried, but had no power to investigate the allegations. One senior MP who chaired the Defence Select Committee, which is meant to keep watch on the army, said ‘we don’t have a mechanism in parliament for any form of scrutiny for the activities of UK special forces.’
Is there a better way to do this? We might think that blanket secrecy is a necessary evil. After all, these are Britain’s most elite units, and if we open them up to transparency then the enemy will learn their secrets, putting lives at risk. It is a frightening argument, but one that the New Internationalist can reveal is deeply flawed. Our investigation looked into four of Britain’s closest military allies and found that their special forces regiments are measurably more open about when exercises go wrong.
Take the US to start with. Their Freedom of Information Act is several decades older than the UK’s, dating back to the 1960s. New Internationalist asked the US Department of Defense Combat Readiness Center for the number of training accidents involving the US army’s Special Operations Command (known as ‘USASOC’) from 2015 to 2017. USASOC is based at Fort Bragg, reportedly the largest military installation in the world, and oversees elite American Airborne, Rangers and Delta Force units.
Despite its vast scale, USASOC had fewer training accidents in that three year period than the Royal Marines: 491 versus 774. Of course, this could be accounted for by differences in what injuries are recorded, but it still suggests that US Special Forces are safer than some of Britain’s conventional troops. The other remarkable finding from the US was the level of detail that they were prepared to disclose. Far from being concerned about giving away individual details, they sent us an entire spreadsheet listing all 491 accidents – which we are embedding below for you to explore.
By sorting the columns and scrolling through, you will see that there were nine deaths among the accidents. These included one fatality on a ‘Free-fall Airborne Operation’ and another when a ‘Soldier was participating in closed circuit night dive’ – which sounds similar to Richard’s drowning. Another death was from ‘Demolition Explosives’, clearly a high risk course. But some of the deaths seem easily preventable. Someone died in an ‘Administrative Movement’ and another perished while ‘Operating a Commercial Bobcat’ – a small digger.
Trawling through the data dump gives a raw picture of life in the US Special Forces, the drudgery of long runs and the danger of working from heights. One operator needed days off work after a mishap trying to ‘complete the Nasty Nick O-course’, which sounds like an ominous training exercise. There were 49 accidents of various severity from ‘static line airborne operations’ – that’s the kind of traditional parachuting technique used on D-Day.
Like Britain’s Royal Navy, the US Navy also has its own special forces, the famous SEALs unit. These elite divers use similar covert infiltration techniques to the SBS, especially the miniature submarine that Richard drowned in. To see if this equipment had become safer since Richard died, New Internationalist made a Freedom of Information request to the US Naval Safety Center for data on what they call ‘training mishaps’ involving the swimmer deliver vehicle from 2015 to 2017. (Remember the equivalent data on SBS accidents would be impossible to obtain in the UK).
After two months, the US Navy sent us a spreadsheet listing six accidents with the mini-sub over the last three years, with the number rising steadily from one mishap in 2015 to three in 2017. Although there were no fatalities, the most serious accidents involved an ‘unconscious diver in water column’, requiring three days in hospital, and an incident where the ‘Diver lost consciousness on decent due to improper gas in SCUBA cylinder.’ There was also a near miss when a ‘Diver surfaced conscious without an air source.’ The data shows he ‘complained of being dragged behind’ the swimmer delivery vehicle. The recent rise in accidents involving this equipment should worry UK special forces, who have just ordered three more of the mini-subs from the US at an estimated cost of $90 million. (The sale was announced by the US authorities, and not by Britain’s Royal Navy).
Some might argue that the US special forces have to be more transparent than the UK, because they are so vast. It’s impossible to keep a secret in an organization with some 70,000 members (around the size of Britain's entire army) and $13.6 billion budget. There might be some truth in this, but it is not a decisive argument. Even allies with smaller special forces units than the UK, like Australia and New Zealand (which has less than 5,000 regular soldiers), gave New Internationalist data about their training accidents. (We also asked the Canadian special operations forces, which has not yet responded to our investigation, although by law it should publish similar statistics).
The Australian military opened a new special forces academy in Sydney last year, called the Special Operations Training and Education Centre (SOTEC). We asked them for details of any accidents there in the first 12 months of operation, where mistakes are most likely to occur as recruits and instructors alike adjust to new surroundings. It emerged that there had only been seven accidents in that time period, although three people were hospitalized and several require ongoing treatment. One soldier broke his legs from hitting the ground too hard during some kind of descent that went wrong. Several of the injuries involved nasty rashes, probably from the hot weather.
The Australian special forces seem to take heat related injuries, understandably, very seriously, which is something their British friends might learn from. On October 25, 2017, at 10pm, medical staff noticed that an Australian soldier was ‘struggling’ while ‘conducting a water resupply activity, involving water jerries, as part of the Course.’ The medical staff removed him from the activity and ‘The doctor diagnosed the member as having heat stress as well as being dehydrated. He was given fluids through IV and initiated cooling measures to lower body temperature. The member recovered and wanted to continue with the activity, however the medical staff removed him from the course.’
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology local weather records confirm that the maximum temperature that day was 32 degrees Celsius, and two members were taken off the training course. Remember that the three SAS recruits collapsed in the Welsh mountains while training in similar temperatures to these.
New Zealand’s Defence Force was one of the most transparent jurisdictions we investigated, with help from Green Party activist Umesh Perinpanayagam. Within a day of filing the request, he had a signed response from the Chief of Staff, an Air Commodore. Admittedly, there was not much data to trawl, or the true figures were revised downwards, but nonetheless records were available to the public. It turns out that New Zealand’s Special Operations Forces only suffered four accidents that required hospital treatment between 2015 and 2017. Half the accidents occurred in military training, and half during sport and physical conditioning. Three out of four accidents were in 2017, suggesting a slight rise in risk, but still very little to worry about.
Although New Zealand has had an Official Information Act (OIA) since 1982, this transparency law has not stopped the country’s special forces from alleged participation in human rights abuses, including war crimes. In 2010, New Zealand’s Special Air Service (NZSAS) took part in a raid on two Afghan villages, Naik and Khak Khudday Dad. There are allegations that six civilians were killed in the raid, including a 3-year-old girl. Another 15 civilians were wounded, and no enemy combatants were found.
These shocking claims only surfaced seven years later when New Zealand’s top investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, and his colleague Jon Stephenson, published a book exposing what looked like a massacre, which they titled Hit and Run. Lawyers for the Afghan villagers immediately demanded the New Zealand government launch a formal inquiry, but the country’s then Prime Minister, right-winger Bill English, refused to act. He also lashed out at the authors, claiming their book contained inaccuracies.
However, a breakthrough happened later that year when English lost a general election, and a Labour-New Zealand First-Greens coalition took power. The new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, soon announced an inquiry. Since then, the military has reluctantly confirmed that the NZSAS did raid the village, but still disputes claims of civilian casualties.
Perinpanayagam, the Green Party activist, told New Internationalist that ‘The current government came in promising more transparency, but I can't say whether or not any progress has been made on this. For example in the NZ Labour – Greens confidence and supply deal it states that a priority for the Green Party was to “strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information”.’
Hager was equally reserved. Communicating via encrypted email (he is not a fan of mobile phones), he said that the new administration had become ‘a bit’ more responsive to OIA requests, noting that ‘The political environment always has an effect on how arrogant or untouchable agencies feel.’ If his OIAs about spies or special forces are refused, he can complain to an Ombudsman, which he says ‘usually results in more info being provided’, or in rare cases he can challenge the decision in court.
‘I do regularly get information on intelligence agencies and special forces under the OIA,’ he reflected. ‘But because of national security exclusions there is a lot they don't have to give. It assists research rather than uncovering big things.’ For him, OIA is just one tool in his arsenal, and he relies more heavily on cultivating sources. ‘It is definitely still the case that serious revelations and questionable things that have been kept secret, such as in my recent Hit and Run book, need inside sources. The OIA just isn't strong enough.’
And so it seems as though transparency laws alone are not enough to stop special forces from killing civilians. British, American, Australian and New Zealand commandos have all been accused of war crimes in Afghanistan. Three out of four of these countries have transparency laws that should subject their special forces to scrutiny. So it is impossible to draw a direct correlation between opacity and atrocity. When I put this grim picture to Hager, he said, ‘No, alas, transparency laws are not enough to stop abuses of power. But they do still help ... In the end it is insiders that have most chance of making secretive agencies accountable.’
Perhaps though, the effect of transparency laws is to create a wider culture of openness. It might make sources more likely to come forward, and it might make inquiries more likely to survive. The British military’s internal probe into civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Operation Northmoor, has reportedly come under intense pressure to close cases quickly, and do so with limited resources.
The debate around transparency on spies and special forces has been dominated in recent years by a series of high profile leaks and whistleblowers, from Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange to Edward Snowden. Their revelations have shone a powerful light on US foreign policy, particularly the way it works with trusted partners in the intelligence community to violate the privacy of millions of law abiding citizens through the bulk collection of communications data.
Many of these allies are members of the so called ‘Five Eyes’, a network of white English speaking states (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) set up after the Second World War to share intel. Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a vast doughnut shaped complex in Cheltenham, was at the centre of the data harvesting scandal and is an integral member of the Five Eyes.
However, just like the SAS or SBS, British spooks are exempt from Freedom of Information. That means the eavesdroppers at GCHQ, the James Bonds at MI6 and the Spooks at MI5 are all off-limits. Tellingly, we know more about their work from fictionalized dramas (which inevitably give a glamorized version), than from official records.
On the rare occasions that internal documents do come to light, they are seldom as glamorous as what we see on TV. When Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, human rights investigators were able to walk straight into his spy headquarters and leaf through the once secret files. Amid the reams of paper were some strange faxes from MI6. On closer inspection, these revealed that in 2004 British spies had shared intelligence with the CIA to help the Americans kidnap a pregnant woman, Fatima Boudchar, and her husband Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, in order to deliver them to Colonel Gaddafi’s torture chambers.
Belhaj was a Libyan dissident, whose group was once been sponsored by MI6 in the 1990s. But by 2004, with Tony Blair eager to win a slice of Libyan oil for BP, Belhaj and his wife were now a disposable asset (or as MI6 said, ‘cargo’) that could be traded with Tripoli for some profit. This scandal would never have come to light had it not been for the fall of a third world dictator. The MI6 faxes would have been exempt from Freedom of Information, and never have arrived at the National Archives. In the final reckoning, Gaddafi’s fearsome Mukhabarat were more transparent than England’s respectable Edwards and Elizabeths toiling away behind the opaque green glass at Vauxhall Cross.
In 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May eventually issued an ‘unprecedented apology’ for the couple’s kidnap, and a coalition of human rights groups from Amnesty to Reprieve, Liberty and Freedom from Torture, demanded a wider public inquiry. Yet almost no one called for reforms to the freedom of information act, such as scrapping Section 23, that would allow the public to routinely ask questions and receive answers about what their intelligence agencies were doing, without waiting for a catastrophe to occur that warranted an inquiry. The focus was on retrospective remedies not pro-active prevention.
Aside from leaks or revolutions, or a rare public inquiry, there are only a handful of ways to find out about British intelligence. Parliament now has an Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) comprised of trusted MPs who exert some scrutiny of spies behind closed doors, and occasionally publish reports, but even they have become frustrated with the level of secrecy on issues such as extraordinary renditions. In November 2018, the ISC published a report into the Manchester Arena bombing. It criticised MI5 for moving ‘too slowly’ in recognising the threat posed by Libyan suicide bomber Salman Abedi.
However, the ISC could not give the public the whole story of why 22 people died at that pop concert. Dominic Grieve, the MP who chairs the Committee, said ‘There is one further issue which caused us serious concern in relation to Salman Abedi, but which we cannot comment on publicly due to the highly sensitive security aspects. This is contained in the classified report sent to the Prime Minister, for her to take action.’ In response to the ISC report, a barrister specializing in national security, Simon McKay, told the Sunday Times that ‘The families deserve greater transparency about the nature of the failures [by MI5].’
There is also a new spy watchdog, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, which is allowed to spend a couple of days each year having lunch with Britain’s spy chiefs and flicking through their files. However, its annual reports seldom reveal much of note, as the most important parts are hidden behind confidential annexes.
Lastly, for those who want to get litigious, and can afford lawyers, there is the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which mostly sits in secret. A coalition of human rights group are currently pursuing a case before this Tribunal, that has revealed MI5 agents are routinely allowed to break the law – although the government will not yet confirm if this extends as far as murder or torture.
Just as with the special forces, it does not have to be this way. Three of the Five Eyes nations subject their spies to transparency laws: the US, Canada and New Zealand. (Australian spy files are eventually given to their National Archives). This means that even the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies, like the CIA and NSA, have to answer freedom of information requests. To put this to the test, New Internationalist asked British and allied spies for details on their number of sick days. Much like the special forces training accidents, this is a basic level of transparency that even agency insiders would benefit from in terms of Health and Safety or worker’s rights. We also asked about their policies on first-class travel for spies on non-operational trips, to see if the public purse was being abused.
Although the CIA and NSA posted us letters of acknowledgement from across the ocean, they are yet to respond fully to our questions. Americans who use the system often, like Cori Crider, a lawyer who worked on Fatima Boudchar’s case, told New Internationalist that the US system was ‘broken because the government don’t want it to work’, citing lengthy delays as the norm. However, she had come across documents that showed CIA officers were allowed to stay at the Corinthian Hotel in Tripoli, suggesting that five star accommodation goes with the job.
In Canada, only citizens or residents can use the law, so we asked Professor William Walters, an expert on state secrecy at Carleton University, and his research assistant Sarah Wade-West, to file requests. They contacted Canada's wire tappers, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), and their spooks, the Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), to ask for data on staff sick days and travel policy.
Both agencies say they abide by a ‘National Joint Council Travel Directive’, which covers the entire civil service, suggesting that there are no special perks for spies. The Directive requires staff to book the cheapest economy class airfare, although ‘business/executive class air travel shall be authorized where continuous air travel exceeds nine hours.’
The CSIS also disclosed its human resources reports for the last couple of years, showing a slight rise in the number of sick days. On average, Canada’s spies take about two weeks sick leave each year, some of it unpaid. The reports also provide an insight into other working conditions. In 2015, three allegations of harassment were founded, as were eight other grievances and a further eight staffing appeals. In general though, Canada’s spies seem to be well looked after – an employee survey from 2015 that found spies had ‘the resources to support their physical and mental health, safety and wellness at work’.
As with its special forces, New Zealand was fairly open about its intelligence agencies on this occasion. A month after Green activist Perinpanayagam filed requests with the country’s Communications Security Bureau (Te Tira Tiaki in Māori) and Security Intelligence Service (Te Pā Whakamarumaru), he received a hand signed letter of response from the Director-Generals of both spy agencies. They handed over data on sick pay, carefully pointing out that its spies took less days off than the public sector average. Although some spies have become sicker in recent years, they are still healthier than their counterparts in Canada.
They also disclosed the most recent edition of its policy document on staff expenses for travel on non-operational trips. Like in Canada, New Zealand’s snoopers and spies have to put up with the ‘most reasonable lowest-fare economy class’ flight tickets, unless special circumstances warrant an upgrade to … premium economy. And even that has to be approved in advance by the Deputy Director. (However, the most senior spies are allowed to fly business class if their destination is beyond Australia).
By comparison, the response New Internationalist received from Britain’s spies was starkly opaque. The UK Home Office, whose minister oversees MI5, invoked Section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act and refused to release data on spy sick days or travel policy.
Responding to our investigation, Maurice Frankel, the director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information, told New Internationalist that, ‘It shouldn’t be necessary to exclude whole classes of material from FOI altogether.’ He said that if Parliament scrapped the Section 23 spy loophole, the Act would still contain ‘a broad exemption for national security which allows sensitive material to be protected for as long as it is capable of causing harm.’
Hager urged British journalists not to give up. The veteran investigator said ‘We all need to learn that secretive agencies are not as impregnable as they seem, and then keep relearning it. The reason experienced researchers and reporters in this area keeping getting sources and leaks is that they keep seeking them out – because their experience has shown them it is possible. Spy agencies and special forces are just made up of people, with all sorts of different views and openness to helping the public to know what’s going on.’ He urged journalists who are hesitant about probing the deep state to ‘overcome the idea that it will be impossible.’
For now then, leaks, deaths and disasters will provide the only real window into Britain’s spies and special forces. Unless Section 23 is scrapped, journalists in the UK will have to keep reaching out to the insiders, attending inquests and waiting for public inquires.
Special thanks to Umesh Perinpanayagam for requesting information in New Zealand, and William Walters and Sarah Wade-West for requesting data in Canada. Thanks are also due to Jen Gibson for her advice on US Special Forces, Cori Crider for sharing her knowledge of US/UK intelligence operations, Omran Belhadi for his assistance with navigating the US FOIA system and Antony Loewenstein for his guidance on Australia’s special forces.