The Hague, autumn 2019 — Those who uncover injustices as whistle-blowers, usually cannot count on too much support. And in case one holds a failing government to account, there is only the national ombudsman to turn to. Here in Holland, this counsel is not known for being all that considerate.
‘I will not be answering your questions,’ writes Ombudsman Reinier van Zutphen on the year’s longest day. The No Cover-up Foundation had only put forward a couple of question marks — all of them quite legitimate, however: Van Zutphen does not feel like being of service. A rather remarkable attitude. It does not really signify good manners anyhow; Etiquette queen Emily Post no doubt would have administered a verbal whacking.
Once a government bungles, the average citizen has but few avenues of approach to have things sorted. In cases like this, in Great Britain one calls upon one’s MP, who has the interests of his or her constituents at heart. This may not always pan out, on the contrary, but one has at least the idea of being represented.
In the Netherlands it is much less common to turn to MP’s. And indeed, they have to adhere to party policy. Should the matter be considered not too party political (or should it garner not too much media coverage), one may be listened to politely, but that will be an end to that.
Taking things to court is one step further, too far for many. It is a costly business to start with. Apart from that, legal proceedings against a government have a tendency to drag on an on. Last ditch attempt: The national ombudsman. A bastion of righteousness and an intrepid warrior against government wrongdoing. On paper, that is.
Imagine being deemed downright ‘insane’ by an MoD [Ministry of Defence] civil servant, which finds its way into an official ministerial memorandum. The ombudsman investigates ever so feebly and declares no irregularities have surfaced. The results of the investigation are published on the internet, in full. Eventually, during a trial, it turns out — beyond doubt — said civil servant was completely out of line. Which is later confirmed by a Court of Appeal ruling. The government was wrong.
Embarrassing, for government and ombudsman alike. Nevertheless, it is a chapter to learn from. Have things set right and do better in future. Once more unto the breach! Yet nothing happens. The ombudsman report is still available on the internet, unabridged. None of the parties concerned even contemplate apologising.
Far-fetched, you may say. Conjuring up something like this is testament to an overactive imagination. Is Holland not a civilised country, with civilised ministers and civil servants? And a civilised bastion of righteousness? Any film producer worth his salt would laugh at a scenario like this. This is too outlandish. Inconceivable even.
But this is, in fact, reality. Whistle-blower Edwin F. Giltay was subject to this very regimen. Years ago, he witnessed an espionage scandal at the internet company where he was employed. A rift within the Military Intelligence Service was fought out there, for the outside world to see. Giltay wanted to get to the bottom of it and decided to investigate. More likely than not, he lost his job over it.
Despite Giltay’s best efforts, the Ministry of Defence never comes clean. Subsequent ministers feigned ignorance, or had the case dealt with by ill-informed subordinates. The Inspector General of the Netherlands Armed Forces, who ought to look into matters like these, does not take it as seriously as he should. Desks have drawers and this is best put in one of them.
In the fall of 2014, non-fiction thriller De doofpotgeneraal (The Cover-up General) is published, Giltay’s account of the espionage affair. The manuscript had been forwarded to the then Minster of Defence, who didn’t deem it fit to respond. The civil servant who had accused Giltay of being ‘insane’ does respond however, one year later though; by taking him to court. The book, which by this time is almost sold out, is banned. Not quite a high for press freedom.
Its author appeals the verdict, which is overturned in the spring of 2016: ‘The Court dismisses the book ban. The accuracy of the book […] is not in doubt.’ Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. So, would the ombudsman be so kind as to retract its report, as it happens to be based on inaccurate data? And how about ministerial apologies for the controversy? For all intents and purposes, it was a civil servant in the MoD’s employ who started it all.
Reinier van Zutphen claims he is not responsible and by the by, he has received one too many letters from Mr Giltay; over and out. Says the latter: The ombudsman lets untruths abound on the internet — which he put there himself. Would it not be prudent to put an end to that? Van Zutphen turns silent and does not intend to spend any more writing-paper on the matter.
The Ministry of Defence tries to hide too: Oh no, we never said anything about Mr Giltay’s mental health — it was a lone civil servant who did that. And this employee is no longer with us, you know. Have a good day. A stunning disregard for the fact it concerned an official MoD memorandum, approved by its erstwhile minister. And what about the ruling of the Court of Appeal? We do not have any views on that, says incumbent Minister Ank Bijleveld.
There you are, good conduct and all. In the meantime, your book has been received well by many dailies and weeklies, at home and abroad. You can boast of commendations by journalists, scientists, MP’s and even a former minister. Interviews left and right. The powers that be ought to be aware by now that mistakes were made and should be put right. These mistakes cannot be deemed peanuts.
After all: Holland is a civilised country, with civilised ministers and civil servants. And a civilised bastion of righteousness. There is, of course, always Parliament. Credit where credit is due: They did ask the Minister of Defence to elucidate. The answer: The matter has been scrutinised, nothing untoward has been discovered. Not to worry, dear people. Parliament accepts the minister’s ruse.
All roads travelled, all possibilities explored. You are persona non grata as far as the ombudsman is concerned and the MoD does not seem enamoured by the sight of you either. Are we all done? Not quite: No Cover-up will keep on asking questions. As will Edwin F. Giltay. The concrete wall of not giving a hoot will crumble one day.
So, Mr Van Zutphen, Mrs Bijleveld — in case you would like to convey some real answers prior; it would be a pleasure.
Originally published in Dutch — August 29th, 2019
© 2019, Editorial staff No Cover-up Foundation | This article may be distributed freely