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Monday, 18 February, 2002, 08:42 GMT
SAS secrecy under review
The SAS badge, a flaming sword of retribution
The SAS badge, a flaming sword of retribution
The Ministry of Defence is looking at ways of lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding Britain's special forces, the BBC has learned.

The MoD currently refuses to discuss the size, equipment or operations of either the Special Air Service (SAS) or its even more secretive sister force, the Marine's Special Boat Service (SBS).

Flames billow from the Iranian embassy in 1980 as the SAS go in
SAS at Iranian embassy siege gained publicity
No serving member ever speaks publicly or is named, and their faces are usually disguised in photographs.

But BBC Radio 4's Today programme has learned that now some, including the Commons Defence Committee, have questioned whether such blanket secrecy can be sustained.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has ordered a senior MoD civil servant to investigate which aspects of the forces' work can be revealed, and how.

Former SAS sergeant Andy McNab told the programme he thought a certain amount of openness would be a "good idea".

"The MoD spends so much money and time and effort keeping everything a secret.

"You can't actually stop this huge barrage of information coming out into the public domain, because it comes from so many other different avenues. It's a system of managing the information."

Afghanistan confusion

He pointed to confusion over British special forces' presence in Afghanistan as a case in point.

"Last November, we had the Ministry of Defence saying there's no special forces activity in Afghanistan, then if you listened to America's briefing they would say yes, there's British special forces there. Certainly that's not a secret."

Bravo Two Zero: Account of SAS operation
Andy McNab said there were "no big problems" among special force operatives themselves about greater openness, "as long as it's done sensibly".

"There must be things that have to remain secret... operations, techniques and certainly special forces operators' identification. And obviously anything to do with national security needs to remain a secret."

He added it was "absolute nonsense" that he himself had compromised security with his book Bravo Two Zero, an account of an SAS operation he led during the Gulf War.

Unwanted publicity

Options under review by the MoD could include having an identifiable spokesman, or giving the media more information about deployments.

An SAS soldier inspects an al-Qaeda arms dump
Several SAS members are in Afghanistan
The MoD said nothing would be changed without the express permission of both services.

Since their inception during World War II both services have had operations which attracted unwanted publicity.

In 1972 the SBS caused a storm after parachuting troops onto the QE2 in response to a bomb threat.

The SAS's most famous operation was carried out in 1980, when in the full glare of television cameras, SAS troops stormed the Iranian embassy in London where terrorists had killed a hostage.

Andy McNab, author and former SAS sergeant
"I think it is a situation of managing the information"
See also:

02 Nov 01 | UK
Profile: The SAS
16 Nov 01 | UK Politics
The secretive sister of the SAS
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