Massive phone blunder for the British Foreign Office in Iraq

In my own army unit they had strict limitations on phone usage. Well, not all that strict, we needed to talk on the phone, and we could. But there was a limit. And if a department strayed from the limit, they noticed. Quickly. And the department was reprimanded. In some cases repeat offenders simply had their phones cut off, or limited to only certain outgoing numbers, for a time.

The British Foreign Office, in comparison, is much more lax on phone usage. It can take them more than a year to notice very excessive charges. To destinations which were not related to operational needs. On phones that were stolen (but they didn’t notice this too, so that may be a good excuse). In Iraq.

It certainly was not part of Britain’s plans to win the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq. But the Foreign Office has been apparently paying for an adult sex chatline in a Baghdad street for 17 months without knowing it.

FO officials had already admitted that the lost phones had cost them £594,000 in unauthorised phone bills but it is now bracing itself for an extremely critical report from the Commons public accounts committee on how it came to pay phone bills, which at one stage hit £212,000 in one month, without asking questions.

Sir Michael said initial inquiries had revealed a series of blunders. The phones were already activated when they were sent to Baghdad and they were not properly logged in – so no one realised at first that they had been stolen. None of the bills were initially challenged until people realised the phones had gone missing.

This is such a long string of errors and blunders, one after the other, that it would have been really sad if it wasn’t so funny. Or maybe the other way around.

When shipping something abroad, they should track it. Always. If it was sent, and nobody received it, someone should have noticed. Private companies track inventory. Military units track inventory. Why can’t the British FO track inventory? Yes, there are items which aren’t tracked individually, but come on, a mobile phone isn’t exactly a paper-clip.

The fact that they didn’t monitor the billing for those phones is also amazing. The 17 months the article mentions is over a fiscal year. The charges should have been noticed after a month, I think, but not to notice such a bill after a whole year is almost beyond belief. I can’t think of any organization with such a free calling policy.

And these aren’t phones in an office at their HQ. These are phones sent to a foreign country, with all the confusion and potential problems that this entails. How can anyone expect that everything will be alright, and that no monitoring at all will be needed?

Not to mention, they also obviously didn’t screen the phones for permitted and forbidden destination. In an office, in the UK that would have been understandable. Too many places someone may need to call. But in the field, in Baghdad? These phones should have had a pretty limited list of allowed destinations, with a procedure set in order to allow others. And tight monitoring to make sure they’re not used otherwise. I believe those phone sex lines were not officially approved by anyone.

At least that’s one sex scandal that will be duly paid for by the guilty authorities, and in hard currency too.

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