Publishing military officers' names 'creates Islamic State hitlist'

The Times shrieks about a security breach, MoD yawns

The first RAF F-35B Lightning II to land in the UK. Crown copyright
Two RAF officers. For security reasons we're apparently not supposed to say who they are. Crown copyright

The Ministry of Defence has been accused of creating an Islamic State hitlist by publishing the names and ranks of Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force officers.

Made available to the public since the 18th century, the Army and Navy Lists contain the names, service numbers, ranks and date of seniority of every serving officer.

Back in the days when the world was powered by steam, a public reference guide to who was and who was not an officer was a useful piece of information – as much for weeding out Walter Mitty types in the pub as for settling vital disputes like who should be in command, as famously happened at the Battle of Rorke's Drift.*

The lists are still published publicly and can be found online after a quick search. The Times claims this morning that the practice amounts to a “security blunder” and that it provides a “target list for Islamic State militants”.

As well as full-time regular officers, the three services' lists also include the same information about part-time reservists.

The information on the lists is pretty vague and doesn't really disclose much at all. Historians and genealogists love them for tracing family members, and that's about the most you can do with them. Naturally, they provide a source for corroboration of other information, but in El Reg's view the risk to service personnel is low.

An extract from a recent Navy List

An extract from a recent Navy List. As you can see, the information in it is very limited

An MOD spokesperson said: “The security of our people is our foremost concern and we keep the range of measures we have to address the threats to them under constant review. Last November, our policy was changed to restrict publications of such lists to senior officers, already considered in the public eye.”

Senior officers are counted as those at the rank of colonel (NATO OF-6) and above. However, there are many other ways of finding details of officers – most notably captains of warships, who, according to article 39 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), must be “duly commissioned by the government of the State and whose name appears in the appropriate service list or its equivalent.” This is why the Royal Navy website publishes potted biographies of lieutenants (OF-2) in command of such mighty men-o-war as Her Majesty's Small Motor Launch Gleaner, a 15 metre motor cruiser fitted with sonar survey gear – and the smallest commissioned vessel in the RN.

Information about new commissionings, promotions, retirements and resignations are also published in the MoD supplement to the London Gazette, a sample extract of which can be found here (PDF).

In an odd quirk the Army List also includes the service details of Officer Training Corps cadets. These are university students who spend three years being plied with drink, playing with weapons and running around getting muddy, all while being heavily groomed to actually join the Army. Most OTC volunteer officer cadets don't, though the Army still sees a strong benefit to influencing future captains of industry, leaders of the Empire and officers of the East India Company's steamships.

In the cases of the Army and RAF, cadet instructors are also on their lists. These are volunteer youth group workers who run the MoD's uniformed cadet forces, which keep teenagers usefully occupied twice a week and on occasional weekends. Some cadet instructors hold a special class of commission, as distinct from real military officers who can be sent to war. ®

Bootnote

* At Rorke's Drift the post was originally commanded by Major Henry Spalding. Before the famous battle, Major Spalding rode out of the post to find out why his promised reinforcements hadn't turned up. “Almost as an afterthought he consulted a copy of the Army List, to establish who would command the post in his absence,” records this excellent website on the history of the battle.


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