Why all the secrecy?

Publish date: August 17, 2000

- Could the Nikitin-case change the cold war mentality? Commentary by Bellona President Frederic Hauge.

The information that has been coming out about the accident involving the Russian submarine Kursk is very confusing and at times misleading. Nobody following the case could avoid noticing that the mentality of the cold war era still exists in the Russian naval structures handling the case. It is not only the the initial refusal of all offers of help from abroad, only to accept British/Norwegian co-operation when it seems to be too late, that has shocked both the Russian and international observers and the public. Also, a lot of misinformation has been given by official Russian sources, sources who had to have known that the information they made public was wrong. Head command of the Northern Fleet, the Ministry of Defence, and others are still practising the game of misinformation.

First they said that the accident happened last Sunday. This was said when they knew that both the Norwegian ship Marjata, and a US electronic surveillance ship were close to the location of the Kursk, monitoring the well played rehearsal in the Barents Sea that ended so catastrophically.

It is well known to the Russians that the two ships can precept any tiny explosion. And they did. It’s now confirmed, by Norwegian military, that one small explosion was shortly followed by a bigger one. What was the point of trying to fool everybody for four days, before admitting the correct time of the accident? Obviously they knew that the first statements they made public were wrong, and that the truth about this had to be discovered sooner or later. The head command of the Northern Fleet sent out a press release Sunday afternoon, while 118 sailors were fighting for their lives inside the Kursk, announcing the successful conclusion of the exercise. Have they learned nothing since the Chernobyl- accident? Why are high-ranking officials stating that radio-contact had been established with the submarine when it was not true? Why should we trust them when they later say that such contact never was established; they now want us to believe that they communicate through knocking at the hull. We really hope they are telling us the truth this time, but there are some very good reasons to be suspicious. Particularly since the American intelligence service reports that they haven’t heard a single sound from the sub since the accident.

The list of strange and incorrect information that has shrouded the case could be made much longer. Why, for instance, was it reported that there had been a collision with another vessel? It only takes a little basic knowledge to deduce that this is an unlikely possibility. If the crash was so severe that the Oscar went down, the other ship would have been extremely damaged and ended up on the seabed as well, or at the very best of scenarios, in need of immediate emergency assistance because of the strength and weight of the Kursk. It would obviously be impossible to hide such an event.

How is it possible to have faith in the commission set down to investigate the accident, when its leader, Vice Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, bombastically states that the Kursk collided with a surface vessel at a depth of 20 meters?

In a chaotic and dramatic situation it’s easy to understand that a certain amount of the information made public could actually be incorrect. This may happen anywhere, not only in Russia, and is particularly prone to happen in times of a large crisis. With the Kursk case, however, there seems to be an attitude towards giving wrongful information and not admitting the full scale of the accident. This attitude definitely delayed the very much needed co-operation with foreign countries, and thereby jeopardising the lives of the sailors onboard Kursk.

Not all of the misinformation can be blamed on the chaotic situation, though. In this case incorrect information was made public even though it was blatantly obvious that it was wrong or misleading! Why?

The strategy of misinformation worked quite well in May 98., the last time an accident with a nuclear submarine occurred near the city of Murmansk. Rumours circulated about an accident, and people in Murmansk started to obtain iodine tablets for protection. The official response was that the rumours were unwarranted and that what the public believed to be an accident, was merely a rescue-exercise. Soon after the official statement, the first pictures of a Delta class submarine with a blown up missile hatch was presented by the Norwegian aeroplanes patrolling the area. The Northern Fleet stuck to their explanation that it was only an exercise, and Russian media paid no attention to the case.

The Russian bureaucracy is well known, and could very well be a partial explanation to the phenomenon at hand. In the Russian hierarchy, one has to be very brave to make a decision where a wrong move could involve loosing your stars. It’s better keeping the stars and not taking the responsibility. This could explain why the Norwegian and British ships and aeroplanes already were on their way when the Russians accepted foreign offers of assistance. A response that came some hours after President Putin spoke publicly about the accident.

Bellona and Aleksandr Nikitin have lived with high treason charges for five years. These charges are based upon what we wrote in the Northern Fleet report about 20 -30 years old nuclear submarine accidents; information which was based on open sources. This has taught us, the hard way, about the paranoid cold war mentality existing among the people now handling the Kursk-crisis. It’s a very frightening experience. The new Russian Constitutional law clearly declares that it’s illegal to keep knowledge about situations that can damage the environment and people’s health. The case brought against Bellona and Aleksandr Nikitin, by the FSB and Ministry of Dedence has been a Kafka-like process. All together there’s been 9 different sets of charges, and Mr. Nikitin has endured 13 different trials and 10 months of imprisonment. We won in the city court of St. Petersburg on December 29, 1999. The verdict was an excellent piece of legal work carried out by the brave judge Mr. Golets. This verdict cleared Mr. Niktin completely from the charges of espionage, charges that were put forth because of his efforts in describing the old submarine accidents in the Bellona report on the Northern Fleet fleet. The verdict also rejected the expert-evaluations from the 8. Department in the Ministry of Defence, based upon secret and retrospective laws, that concluded the information was secret. The Russian Security Police, FSB, were embarrassed and appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, but the court upheld our victory. This turned out to be too much for the General Prosecutor’s Office. There was so much prestige invested in this case now, for them to let it go. They were of the opinion that submarine accidents should be kept secret, no matter what, and for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union this kind of case went to the Presidium of the Supreme Court.

The Presidium will meet again on September 13. I believe they will uphold the decision from the Supreme Court April 17. Such a decision could quite possibly help to end the cold war mentality that still prevails. The Presidium has two options: it can either close the case, or send it back for further investigation, reopening this “Kafka-process”. If Bellona and Niktin wins, it will be a victory for democracy and openness, which are the two fundamental necessities to solve the huge nuclear safety challenge in the Arctic.