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MPs are concerned Special Forces are not subject to civilian oversight in the same way as Intelligence Services

By David Collins, George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Calvert

Sunday Times – 29 October 2017

British Special Forces have a “scrutiny gap” when it comes to Parliamentary oversight of their secret operations, the Defence Select Committee heard last week. Soldiers for the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service are not subject to civilian oversight in the same way as MI6 and MI5.

Julian Lewis, chairman of the Defence Committee, raised concerns about transparency following revelations by the Sunday Times that the SAS was being investigated for possible war crimes in Afghanistan. Questioning the Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon on Wednesday, Lewis said:

“We don’t have a mechanism in parliament for any form of scrutiny for the activities of UK Special Forces.

“Special Forces work is classified for understandable reasons but so is the work of the Intelligence and Security Services and we do have a mechanism for scrutiny in the form of the Intelligence Committee.”

Lewis said other countries, including America, were more open without compromising secret operations:

“Would it not be sensible for parliament to fill what apparently would be a scrutiny gap where ... Special Forces ... are concerned?”

Fallon denied there was an issue:

“The US has a different policy to us. We do not comment on the activities of special forces ... I think it’s a gap that protects the ability of our Special Forces to do the work that they do.”

Lewis cited the Sunday Times Insight team’s “extensive investigation” into the alleged activities of the Special Forces in Afghanistan. This paper first revealed that Operation Northmoor – a highly secret Royal Military Police inquiry into war crimes during the conflict – was looking into claims that SAS soldiers had executed captured Afghan civilians. Most of the allegations were made by members of the British Armed Forces, non-governmental organisations such as the Red Cross, and Afghan personnel, rather than claimant lawyers.

Military investigators were flown to Kabul last month to interview a key witness to a 2011 raid in which four civilians were alleged to have been executed in cold blood. Fallon defended the arrangements made under Northmoor to investigate war crimes and said the inquiry was “independent”.