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Newly released documents undermine the government’s claim that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia under the “Al Yamamah” deal were clean of bribes.
The UK government, going back to John Major’s Conservative administration, has claimed that a confidential national audit office (NAO) report on Al Yamamah showed that no bribes were paid for the sales. But the documents suggest that it has exaggerated the findings of the NAO report.
A briefing note, of July/August 1992, prepared by the ministry of defence (MoD) Saudi armed forces project team for dealing with press enquiries about the subject – released under the freedom of information act (FOIA) – makes clear that the NAO report was not even an investigation into bribery payments, euphemistically referred to as “commissions”.
However, the briefing note says that the report found no evidence that the MoD, which oversees the deal, paid bribes.
The government has since expanded this apparent conclusion by saying that the report found no bribes were paid by any party.
The briefing note states: “The NAO report was not therefore an investigation specifically into alleg-ations of commission payments, although in passing it concluded that it had found no evidence of the department making improper payments,” with emphasis as in the original.
The government has sought to present the con-fidential NAO report as giving the all-clear to Al Yamamah, which has long been embroiled in bribery allegations.
The NAO’s apparent conclusion, that it found no evidence of the MoD paying bribes, was expanded by the government for public presentation, to the claim that it found no bribes were paid.
This is illustrated in a background note prepared for John Major, for prime minister’s questions in March 1992, following the decision not to publish the NAO report. Major was briefed that the report showed that the MoD was “acting in conformity with treasury approvals and the rules of government accounting.”
But, under “other key points”, the briefing adds: “The [NAO] was given full access to the department’s accounts and associated papers and found no evidence of improper payments.”
The briefing note of July/August 1992 suggests that this claim is false.
Another example of the government’s claim that no bribes were paid is a comment made in 1994 by Roger Freeman, then defence procurement minister, to The Financial Times: “No commissions were paid, and no agents or middle men were involved.”
The British public has been unable until now to judge the government’s presentation of the NAO report because it remains unpublished.
The NAO audits government departments’ spending. In 1992, it completed its report on the MoD’s accounts in 1990-1991 dealing with its role in the supply of Tornado aircraft and other equipment to Saudi Arabia under the multi-billion pound Al Yamamah agreement running since 1985. But it is the only NAO report to remain confidential.
The government is still maintaining that it must be kept confidential, refusing to disclose a copy under FOIA.
The briefing note provides more glimpses on what is one of the most sensitive subjects for the British government. It says: “The NAO has been monitoring MoD’s involvement in Al Yamamah to ensure that proper accounting arrangements are followed. In particular, MoD has introduced special accounting arrangements for Al Yamamah, for example to ensure that Saudi confidentiality is preserved. If the normal rules had been followed, Saudi transactions would appear each year in the department’s published appropriation accounts, laid before parliament; and we need to avoid this.”
These disclosures come after government doc-uments dating from the 1970’s were declassified and released in the national archives, showing that the government knew even then that British companies were paying bribes to win Saudi arms sales.
After these earlier documents were released, Lord Gilmour, who was defence secretary in the 1970’s, commented: “You either got the business and bribed or you didn't bribe and didn't get the business.”
Meanwhile, the Saudi Arabian and UK govern-ments are negotiating another Al Yamamah deal with a possible order for up to 72 Eurofighter Typhoons.
Another version of this article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph.
The government is hoping to maintain its fiction that the huge Al Yamamah arms contract was not facilitated with bribery. To this end, it seems that the government misled the public over the conclusion of the NAO in a confidential report completed in 1992 on the MoD’s role in Al Yamamah. That has emerged from the limited disclosures on this subject made under FOIA.
However, the government still claims that the report itself must remain confidential. It claims that to release it would be a breach of Parliamentary privilege, as well as prejudicing international relations and commercial interests.
We do not accept this. Moreover, we think that the public has every right to see for itself the NAO’s conclusions on the MoD’s role in Al Yamamah. Then it can judge for itself what to make of the government’s public claims about the hitherto unpublished report.
Of course, we have heard the overblown claims for the alleged necessity of secrecy for this NAO report before on other issues.
For example, two initially confidential NAO reports into massive over-spending at each of the new headquarters for the security service, MI5, and secret intelligence service, MI6, were eventually released – in redacted form – under the open-access guidelines that preceded FOIA in the UK.
We were initially told that the release of those reports would prejudice national security. Their eventual publication showed that this claim was, indeed, overblown. But their release did show extraordinary incompetence over the two new bases for Britain’s intelligence services. Not for the first time did those in government confuse their interests with those of the public.
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