Secrets and lies

Spookdom needs better scrutiny

Nick Thomas-Symonds

In the 1990s, the judge Sir Richard Scott conducted an inquiry into arms sales to Iraq in breach of the embargo then in place. The case against the directors of Matrix Churchill, the machine tools manufacturer, for illegal exports, had collapsed when it emerged that the government had relaxed its guidelines without informing Parliament. The conduct of ministers in misleading the House of Commons came under intense scrutiny; Ian McDonald, head of the Defence Sales Secretariat at the Ministry of Defence, told Scott: “Truth is a very difficult concept.”

In The State of Secrecy: Spies and the Media in Britain, Richard Norton-Taylor draws on his 43-year career as a journalist to analyse the at-times troubled relationship between government and truth. Norton-Taylor joined the Guardian on the day Britain joined the Common Market: January 1, 1973. After two years as its first European correspondent, based on the continent, he returned to London, writing for the newspaper on defence and security matters until he left in July 2016.

The book’s stated purpose is to “expose the mindset which encourages the fetishisation of official secrecy”. Its 12 wide-ranging chapters focus on the activities of MI5, MI6, GCHQ, and the whole confidentiality culture of Whitehall, particularly at the Ministry of Defence. From the Cambridge Five to Wikileaks, scandals that have focussed public attention on the work of the deep state are carefully considered in the readable, well-structured text.

The culture of suspicion that gave rise to systematic spying goes back centuries. There was even thought to be a need to keep tabs on romantic poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: rather than seeking artistic inspiration along the Somerset and Devon coastline, the “government suspected they were looking for a suitable spot for French revolutionaries to land and promote mayhem in Britain”. They were not.

Of greater importance is the powerful reminder of the impact of tenacious investigative journalism. Michael Herman, a former GCHQ official, commented: “Norton-Taylor of the Guardian is a former Freedom of Information Journalist of the Year, and long-term thorn in the flesh of the intelligence establishment.” His work in Brussels merits a chapter, too. There, Norton-Taylor discovered that “British officials are more open . . . the further away they are from Whitehall.”

He makes a convincing case that secrecy has at times been excessive. A doctor from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine wrote in a letter to the British Medical Journal in 1986: “When a minister announces in Parliament that the Official Secrets Act applies to the Leprosy Opinion Panel, something has gone wrong.” Sir John Chilcot had a point when, during his inquiry into the Iraq War, he complained that the political players were publishing books and diaries containing information that he was being told was beyond his reach by Whitehall: “Individuals may disclose privileged information (without sanction) whilst a committee of privy counsellors established by a former prime minister to review the issues, cannot.” Amassing too much data and hoarding it can also be a problem. As Sir David Petrie, head of MI5 during the Second World War put it: “Superfluous information impedes work rather than assists it.” Even now, it seems that this advice may not have been wholly accepted. 

The debate between collective security and individual liberty receives serious treatment. There are touches of humour, too. Lord Egremont, Harold Macmillan’s private secretary, thought intelligence agencies a waste of time entirely: “Much better if the Russians saw the cabinet minutes twice a week,” he reflected. Once, the Labour MP Robin Corbett tabled a parliamentary question to the then Attorney-General, Sir Patrick Mayhew, about “what consideration he had given to the possible prosecution of Mr Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian, and of its editor Mr Peter Preston, arising from the publication on 4th January 1989 of the name and background of the new head of the Secret Intelligence Service?” “Sufficient,” Mayhew replied. Hardly an answer that demonstrated a belief in open government, but Norton-Taylor wisely avoids arguing that there should be no secrecy at all.

Instead, his analysis poses two fundamental questions. Firstly, what should the appropriate level of secrecy be? One thing is certain: ministers should not be engaged in the wilful destruction of documents like when, in 1961, the Colonial Secretary, Iain MacLeod, issued orders than no post-independence states should ever come into possession of material that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government”. Rather, Norton-Taylor argues, there should be a balance: “War reporters and defence correspondents are not always at odds with the military or the government. They should be sensitive to any genuine need for operational security and to protect lives.” Stella Rimington and Eliza Manningham-Buller are singled out for praise. As Directors General of MI5, they “shook up the place, [and] spoke in public about their concerns and priorities, at a time the perceived threat from terrorist attacks increased dramatically.”

The second issue is captured in the Roman poet and satirist Juvenal’s phrase: Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who guards the guards?) Here, Norton-Taylor believes new thinking will be required: “More effective machinery must be set up to scrutinise the security and intelligence agencies, balancing a genuine need for secrecy against the need for personal privacy.” He is not wholly convinced by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), but he fairly acknowledges where the ISC has not shied away from making strong criticisms, including in October 2018, when, considering the sorry history of extraordinary rendition, it concluded that Britain’s “anti-torture policy” was still not fit for purpose.

Modern-day challenges of international terrorism and cyber-warfare present policy-makers with diverse and difficult challenges. As this well-timed book concludes: “We may need the security and intelligence services more than ever. But more than ever, we need to know that they are not abusing their ever-increasing powers.”

The State of Secrecy: Spies and the Media in Britain
By Richard Norton-Taylor
I.B. Tauris, 352pp, £25

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