It’s only May, but Able Seaman William McNeilly is already leading the pack for Worst Whistleblower of the Year Award. McNeilly is – or was – a Royal Navy sailor assigned to one of our Vanguard-class nuclear deterrent submarines. He went on leave, tried unsuccessfully to get his self-authored report published in the national press (it was two days before the election), then went AWOL. It finally started to circulate in the national press after it was picked up by the (Scottish) Sunday Herald.
Essentially, McNeilly maintains that the Vanguard subs are poorly maintained, insufficiently secure, easy to infiltrate and not-fit-for-purpose. With the sardonic wit characteristic of the British military, his report was summarised by one anonymous ARRSE poster thus:
“So all a terrorist needs to do to access the missile control centre of a nuclear sub is to join the Royal Navy. I bet they are kicking theirselves over not figuring that one out.”
But broadly speaking, McNeilly might have a point. The secrecy which has long shrouded our Vanguard subs may be wholly necessary for reasons of national security, but equally, that self-same secrecy would also cloak severe levels of incompetence and inadequacy. One does wonder sometimes. Even so, McNeilly’s whistle-blowing is distinctly unconvincing. He has committed very serious breaches of secrecy and protocol for a report that isn’t really any more damning than a bad editorial. My initial impression, when I first heard the story, was that McNeilly is a young and not especially worldly man, who went on shore leave and desperately wanted an excuse not to go back. So this report is his excuse.
But this is a far murkier story than that. Instead of embracing anonymity, McNeilly went public from the gate. He even posted his passport and RN ID card on the net.
Specifically, McNeilly posted it on Scribd, which, nudged by the security services, promptly took it down, as it did his report (whistleblowers take note). Wikileaks, still a far more reliable channel for this sort of thing, has snatched and uploaded it all here. The report has gone through three revisions, and in the last McNeilly also trumpeted how he had been able to take three flights unmolested since he went public. So that’s all a bit weird. Where he lost me, however, was here (I’ve bolded the key bits):
“This [my report] contains references to CB8890: The instructions for the safety and security of the Trident II D5 strategic weapon system. I’m sure all the Strategic Weapon System (SWS) personnel are scratching their heads and wondering how I’m writing this on my personnel laptop and referencing a book, which is contained within a safe in the Missile Control Centre (MCC). The MCC is the compartment used to control the launch of the nuclear missiles. It can only be accessed by people on the access list, and no personnel electronics are allowed. I was on the access list but how could I have gotten a copy of every single chapter on to my phone? A hidden camera? No. Smuggled the book out then filmed it? No. What I did was walk into a room were no recording devices are allowed. I sat down; took my Samsung Galaxy SII (white) out of my pocket, and recorded the entire book word for word.“
That doesn’t sound like whistleblower to me. That sounds like a spy.
Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, both in my opinion genuine whistleblowers, released huge amounts of information. In fact the number of documents leaked by Snowden is in fact so large it is extremely difficult to quantify. But despite repeated (and dishonest) assertions to contrary, none of it got anybody killed; none of it “aided the enemy”; none of it even put anyone in danger. Consider the context too. With Manning and Snowden, their government was doing something illegal; their military and intelligence apparatus was facilitating that illegality; and the spooks and the generals were lying routinely lying to both the public and the politicians about it. McNeilly’s case is drastically different. The Vanguard subs are legal, and the secrecy that surrounds them is entirely justified.
Now consider this: in 2012, Petty Officer Edward Devenny (also from Northern Ireland, as is William McNeilly) was entrapped by MI5 agents posing as Russian spies. Over three months they ploughed him with drink and offerered him a number of inducements to provide classified information. Devenny, whose service record was until then pretty exemplary, eventually succumbed. When he was tried, it emerged that one of the things “Dima” and Vladimir” wanted him to do was use his mobile phone to record some classified manuals inside the sub. McNeilly, for reasons which defy any explanation other than espionage, has done exactly the same thing.
McNeilly’s long statement reminded me very much of the stereotypical defector. He exaggerates his importance, experience, and knowledge; he boasts of his intelligence; he complains of his mistreatment; he repeatedly insists that he isn’t interested in money; he avers that deep down he is loyal to his country and his branch of service – in fact he is doing this for the greater good. This is pretty much a bullet-point list of the attitudes struck by your stereotypical defector, and with good reason: they are pampered and pressured into believing this garbage by their handlers.
During Devenny’s trial, it emerged he was hugely suspicious he was being entrapped. This isn’t surprising, considering every Vanguard sailor knows it’s something MI5 and the MOD police occasionally attempt. In fact this is public knowledge, and has been ever since Chapman Pincher started writing counter-intelligence manuals. Devenny even told the officers entrapping him he believed that was exactly what they were doing. But the Security Service persisted, and eventually, after a night on the booze, Devenny crossed the line and took some snaps.
Reading McNeilly’s statement it is all but too apparent that someone – and almost certainly our own people – had been buttering him up. Perhaps they posed as concerned liberals, and lured him into “doing a Snowden” with offers of money and fame. Or they may have faked being foreign spies, as with Devenny, in which case McNeilly realised last-minute what was going on, and has re-styled himself as a whistleblower to furnish himself with a nobler motivation. One or the other. But if the story tells us anything, it’s that MI5’s Ulster office has very little to do these days. Either that or Northern Irish submariners are inherently inclined to treachery – but that is something I would stridently deny, having a touch of the Orangeman in my lineage.
(Incidentally, if counter-intelligence officers entrap a serviceman like this, and then agree with him to keep his crime a secret, they have an agent for life – and that’s how Lee Harvey Oswalds are made.)