The SAS destroyed information that could provide crucial evidence about the suspicious circumstances surrounding the killing of unarmed Afghans, some, it is alleged, in cold blood.
The shocking admissions emerged in hearings of the inquiry set up in the wake of claims that SAS soldiers unlawfully killed more than 50 Afghans between 2010 and 2013.
New evidence, largely unnoticed, revealed last week how the SAS deleted data held on its computers in breach of repeated promises it made to the Royal Military Police (RMP).
The inquiry heard that SAS soldiers faced most serious allegations of wrongdoing and of perverting the course of justice by attempting to cover it up.
Richard Hermer KC, counsel for Afghan victims, told the inquiry that “the defiance of an unequivocal direction to retain evidence is at best highly suspicious and at worst a patent and criminal attempt to pervert the course of justice in a multiple homicide investigation”.
In response, Oliver Glasgow KC, the Inquiry’s counsel pointedly noted: “That observation is not without foundation”.
The allegation before the inquiry, Glasgow added, was that the data was “forensically wiped as part of a cover-up to prevent the Royal Military Police from recovering evidence relating to extra-judicial killings.”
‘Execution of prisoners’
A number of SAS soldiers gave evidence, unidentified and with their voices distorted.
One was asked whether he was aware the investigations included allegations of extra-judicial killings, “effectively the execution of prisoners”, and that he must have been aware it was a very serious matter “for UK Special Forces and for the whole British Army and potentially even the country”.
The SAS witness replied he was not aware that the data was relevant to the allegations even though he had been told to conduct an investigation into its deletion.
A senior RMP officer accused the SAS of “just dropping data wherever they wanted…[they] just ignored us”.
“The dispute over the data was regarded by the SAS as so sensitive that it was referred to the director of special forces”
Senior SAS soldiers were described as being “quite sheepish” as they blocked attempts to come to an “amicable” solution on how to retrieve data vital to the military police investigation.
The inquiry heard that the dispute over the data was regarded by the SAS as so sensitive that it was referred to the then director of Britain’s special forces, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, who was subsequently appointed head of the Army.
A senior officer in charge of Operation Northmoor, the investigation into the alleged war crimes, who was also involved, agreed that the separate investigation into the deleted data should be conducted internally by the SAS rather than independently – a decision that infuriated the military police.
Emails written in 2011 by members of the special forces expressing “incredulity” about the official account of SAS night raids in which Afghan people were killed. Hermer has quoted phrases from them including: “Quite incredible…we don’t believe this”; “Latest massacre!”; “You couldn’t MAKE IT UP!”; “The way we are writing these up will not bear scrutiny in years to come”.
BBC Panorama revealed that one of Britain’s most senior generals was warned that year SAS soldiers were claiming to have executed handcuffed detainees in Afghanistan, and received accounts of conversations in which members of the SAS described extrajudicial killings.
Instead of referring the evidence to military police, General Gwyn Jenkins placed it in a classified dossier and locked it in a safe.
Tessa Gregory, a partner of law firm Leigh Day which represents the Afghan victims, told Declassified: “There are many questions regarding the deletion of data by UK special forces during Operation Northmoor, a multiple homicide investigation by the Royal Military Police, which remain to be answered.”
She added: “It is clear from the evidence given to the inquiry that the military police had told those within UK Special Forces that they wanted all data, including already deleted data to be preserved, yet this did not happen. It seems extraordinary that once it was apparent data was missing, UK Special Forces themselves were left to run an internal investigation into what happened.”
The evidence shatters the myth perpetuated by successive defence ministers and senior Ministry of Defence officials when it suited them that Britain’s special forces are a unique, efficient, highly professional, fighting unit.
The image of an effective but law-abiding elite force is protected by a policy of official secrecy more extreme even than that which protects Britain’s security and intelligence agencies.
While parliament is refused any information about their activities, trusted defence correspondents are discreetly fed edited accounts of special forces operations.
“It seems extraordinary that UK special forces were left to run an internal investigation”
When Ben Griffin, an SAS soldier, revealed how British special forces handed over detainees to the US and indigenous security authorities in Iraq and Afghanistan and who ended up in secret interrogation centres before they were transported to Guantanamo Bay, he was silenced by a high court order obtained by the Ministry of Defence.
Britain’s special forces operate increasingly closely with MI6 and GCHQ. Their elite E Squadron has been engaged in joint foreign missions with MI6, including in Libya.
Despite this ever-closer cooperation, parliament’s cross party Intelligence and Security Committee has declined to scrutinise the special forces along with MI6, GCHQ and MI5 even though it referred in its latest annual report to the “erosion of parliamentary oversight of intelligence and security matters”.
The committee added that if it was to carry out its function to “scrutinise the Government’s work on intelligence and security matters on behalf of Parliament, then the ISC must be able to oversee such work in its entirety, without exception, in order to provide meaningful assurance to Parliament and the public”.