British MoD Tried to Suppress War Book, Claiming Estonian Sensitivity

3/16/2011 4:26 PM
Category: Politics

The British Ministry of Defense and military have tried to stop the publication of a controversial book on the war in Afghanistan, citing fears that it may prompt Estonia to pull out of the conflict, its author has asserted. The Estonian side says their only concern has been with descriptions involving sensitive personal data.

Toby Harnden, author of “Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan,” wrote in The Telegraph that the ministry has used various pretexts to have the book's content changed, including national security issues and objections by Estonian officials to publishing details about the deaths of Estonian soldiers.

As part of its attempts to have the book changed, the British military and MoD both told the publisher, Quercus, that descriptions of the deaths of three Estonian soldiers had caused anger within the Estonian leadership.

The author said he was contacted by "a government minister from the NATO ally that the MoD was coordinating with" who accused him and Quercus’s chairman of “morally unacceptable” behavior in detailing how the men died.

Nick Gurr, the British MoD’s director of media and communications, had also told the publisher that Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves had got involved in the issue and had "lobbied the US Ambassador."

A March 16 statement from the Estonian President's Office sharply rejected the implications that Ilves tried to censor the book in any way.

The statement said that the topic of the book did come up when he was meeting with the US ambassador in the latter's capacity as a representative of a leader in the International Security Assistance Force.

Ilves expressed concern that the book published information that would affect the "honor, dignity and privacy of our soldiers who were wounded or killed on the battlefield" as well as the feelings of their relatives. In the case of fallen British soldiers in the book, the statement said, the information was either removed or the next of kin had been additionally informed.

An Estonian Ministry of Defense release issued the same day confirmed that the ministry had contacted the "British allies" about the issue, saying that it was concerned for the rights of Estonian soldiers and their families.

Commenting on the alleged attempts of stopping the publication, Minister of Defense Jaak Aaviksoo said on ERR radio: "We did point the British MoD's attention to the fact [that the book contained sensitive personal data]. The response was that they were aware of the problem. But as for the argument between the Bristish MoD and the publisher, to be honest, we have no information to comment on that in any way."

Aaviksoo said he also could not comment on Toby Harnden's claim that "a government minister from the NATO ally" had contacted him and the publisher.

"The author has his own commercial interests to mind and he can say what he likes. Neither I or any official of the Ministry of Defense has ever contacted the ministry, the author or the publisher to apply any kind of pressure to them," Aaviksoo said.

The book, an account of the Welsh Guards in Helmand in 2009, includes descriptions of the deaths of three Estonian servicemen, details of which have not been released to their families. Unlike in Britain, the Estonian military does not provide such information. 

But the book also paints the British operations in Afghanistan as poorly managed, grossly understaffed and chronically under-equipped, characterizations that would not only be embarrassing to the UK, but could also raise serious questions in Estonia about its involvement in the conflict.

Estonia currently has 165 troops serving in Afghanistan, all of them under British command.

According to The Telegraph, Gen. Peter Wall, the British Chief of the General Staff and head of the Army, stated that he feared “huge political embarrassment” over the book. He suggested it could affect the outcome of Estonia's March 6 parliamentary elections and eventually lead to the country's withdrawal.

The MoD also paid 175,000 euros to buy the entire first print run - 24,000 copies - citing concerns about security and safety of personnel.

In a separate move, the British ministry raised what it called a “security” issue and threatened legal action against the book's publisher, Quercus. The threat was followed by a 48-page MoD document demanding wholesale changes to the book. The publisher rejected the demands, and the book is now on sale nearly in its original form, with only 50 words changed from the original manuscript.

 

Steve Roman


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