Monday, April 09, 2007

Change in Plans

Those former British hostages in Iran might want to postpone that sun-drenched holiday in the Caribbean.

And put off buying that chateau in the South of France.

And place a hold on that new Jaguar they just ordered.

Seems that the British government has had a change of heart. Defense Minister Des Brown announced a short time ago that he is temporarily banning all military personnel from talking to the media for payment. Mr. Brown announced the change in plans after withering criticism of his earlier decision, which allowed the former captives to sell their stories for substantial sums of money. According to the Defense Minister, "Many strong views" have been expressed about the "very tough call" that the navy and the MoD reached in allowing some of the recently released captives to get cash for speaking with news media.

Hogwash. Given the speed at which that "tough call" was made, it seemed rather easy, almost an afterthought. With the hostages free, the Blair government saw a chance to generate some favorable publicity, and help the former captives pick up a little pocket change. And, had it not been for strong condemnation from opposition politicians, conservative papers and former military personnel, the media circus would still be underway.

In fact, Mr. Brown's "decision" will (at best), briefly contain the media frenzy. Today's edict doesn't affect military personnel who have already signed interview deals, including the lone female hostage, Faye Turney, who has already described her experiences for The Sun. Another paper, The Daily Mirror has also published a "pay" interview with 20-year-old Arthur Batchelor, the youngest of the captives. As for the former hostages who haven't signed media contracts, they will probably "lawyer up," and threaten to sue the government for its arbitrary decision. I'm guessing Mr. Brown's ban will be reversed in short order, and all 15 will have media deals in less than a month.

The defense minister's sudden reversal on "pay for say" only affirms the sheer incomptence with which the affair has been managed. Apparently, Mr. Brown didn't realize that the spectacle of media events--featuring "captives" who were held for only two weeks--might be offensive to former military members, and the families of British troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In general, members of the U.K. military must request permission from commanders to speak with the press, and it is rare for them to receive compensation, although the British press routinely pays for "exclusives."

Aside from the media debacle, Mr. Brown should also face tough questions about the circumstances that led to the hostage-taking. As we've noted previously, the lack of air cover for the Royal Navy and Royal Marine search party is inexcusable; equally baffling is why the operation continued after the "dedicated" helicopter returned to the command vessel. And there have been no disclosures regarding communications between the boarding party and the command ship (HMS Cornwall) while the Iranians surrounded and captured the 15 Britons. In this age of advanced tactical communications, it is almost inconceivable that there wasn't radio traffic between the boarding party and senior officers on Cornwall during that period. A transcript of those communications would be very useful in determining exactly what happened along the Shatt al-Arab.


Addendum: As a former spook, I'm a little mystified by the "debriefing" process for these personnel. A complete debrief for former hostages/POWs is typically conducted through a series of interviews, over a period of days or weeks. In the case of the sailors and marines, the initial debriefing seems to have been a hurried affair, conducted shortly after they returned to the U.K. I'm guessing that the debriefers will meet with the former captives again in the near future, but (presumably) that will be after some have granted interviews with the media. That raises the issue of how much sensitive information might be potentially divulged in their chats with the press, and the potential damage that might be inflicted on coalition intel-gathering along the Iranian coast.

There's a standard rule of thumb in this sort of operation: don't let former detainees speak with the press until they've been thoroughly debriefed, with firm ground rules established on what can (and cannot) be discussed. But even that simple precaution is likely to be botched in the media orgy that unfolds in the coming weeks.

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