Chinook tragedy demands reform

The Public Accounts Committee report into the Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash vindicates Computer Weekly's three-year campaign for justice. It...

The Public Accounts Committee report into the Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash vindicates Computer Weekly's three-year campaign for justice. It concludes - as did the report of the original RAF inquiry - that there is insufficient evidence to blame pilots Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook for the crash.

The verdict of gross negligence against them must now be overturned.

The air marshals who overruled the initial report lacked crucial evidence. Computer Weekly has unearthed that evidence in its investigations. The safety-critical Fadec software had a history of faults. The warnings of test pilots and Ministry of Defence IT specialists were overruled. And the MoD was involved in a $3m safety lawsuit against Fadec's manufacturers as the negligence verdict was given.

We will never know if the Fadec software caused the crash. But the PAC's verdict - that it cannot be ruled out - should be enough to bring the suffering of the pilots' families to an end.

Meanwhile, the fight for government, civil servants and the military to learn the lessons of Chinook must go on. Since the crash, there has been a pattern of misinformation and obstruction that raises issues much wider than the causes of the crash itself.

Ministers have repeatedly and unwittingly misled the House of Commons in statements based on inadequate briefings from MoD officials. Right to the bitter end the MoD was withholding key reports about previous Fadec-related incidents from MPs.

An eddy of change has touched Whitehall's attitude to IT procurement in the past 12 months. It is now recognised that the lack of accountability and reluctance to admit failure have cost taxpayers millions of pounds, as one large IT project after another has failed. Defence procurement is itself now under the same scrutiny.

So it is ironic that decision makers at the heart of Britain's defence establishment have struggled so hard and so long to prevent the truth about the crash being known.

Conspiracy theories will abound - fuelled by the devastating blow the crash dealt to the intelligence community. But, after two years of close contact with the MoD, and the MPs and peers to whom it is accountable, Computer Weekly does not subscribe to the conspiracy theory.

Rather, the process that blamed two dead pilots while whitewashing the reputations of commanders, civil servants and software manufacturers must be seen as the spontaneous reflex of a system badly in need of reform.

National security concerns will always mean that some evidence must be considered behind closed doors. But the Chinook inquiry has been characterised by the inability of even ministers to get a straight story from the MoD, and by the inability of the most trusted and independent MPs and peers to gain access to vital information.

Society needs to face up to the challenge of accountability posed by sophisticated IT systems. Life or death decisions are entrusted to machines and, in the case of catastrophic failure, the evidence of malfunction is often only circumstantial.

Over the past three years Computer Weekly has uncovered key circumstantial evidence that some in Whitehall were determined to suppress, ignore or discredit. The PAC and its chairman David Davis should be congratulated for their verdict on the case.

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