The culture of secrecy and the right to the truth in Britain. Interview with Baroness Neville-Jones

The culture of secrecy and the right to the truth in Britain. Interview with Baroness Neville-Jones

Matteo Angioli
Membro del Consiglio Generale del Partito Radicale
Wed, 01/09/2013

London, 6 November 2012

Baroness Neville-Jones, in the early 1990s you have been Chairperson of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and because the Radical Party has been following very closely the developments since the Iraq war, from 2002 until the Chilcot Inquiry and the delay that it is going through, I would like to ask how the JIC has evolved in comparison with your presidency and the Scarlett years, and if you agree that it was really instrumental to the Prime Minister of the time to have a document signed by the Secret agencies to support a political case.

The JIC is a committee that brings together all the heads of the various intelligence services and also various other intelligence instruments; all powers of both defence, security and policing in the country. So it isn’t just a committee of the intelligence services, it is a mixed committee. It has traditionally been chaired by a non-intelligence individual - I was a foreign service officer. So it’s an official committee, not a ministerial committee. The object of the Joint Intelligence Committee is to give the government of the day assessed intelligence; not raw, clearly, but intelligence that has been set in the context of what is also known from open sources, from our diplomatic community and the defence ministry, about a given situation. The material that the ministers get will be one that has been through the process of the intelligence space, a secret-based information, being assessed in light of of other knowledge. That is then presented to them as a picture and the assessment is meant to indicate the level of confidence that those who have written it have in the picture they are painting. That has been the format ever since its inception. It’s a post-war creation; it sprang out of the War and was sustained by the need and importance for it in the Cold War. It went on, correctly in my opinion, and continued in existence after the end of the Cold War.

That kind of committee depends for its credibility on the quality and the integrity of the work that it does. That is what should command respect. Now what happened in the case of the Iraq war was the following: first of all, the government of the day, Mr. Blair’s government, had made some crucial changes in the nature of the way he ran government. It has been tradition in this country that the permanent civil service works directly to Ministers and people who come in on a political base with Ministers, their special advisers, operate side ways. That is to say they can operate with ministers but they cannot have and should not have line authority – in other words be managers of - regular civil servants.

Mr Blair wasn’t interested into the rules and he did two things. He put Jonathan Powell and his communications adviser Alastair Campbell, in line authority, by Order in Council, over civil servants. So when they expressed their views, civil servants actually couldn’t ignore them. The other thing he did, he broke the tradition of having a non-intelligence service chairman of the JIC. He put John Scarlett, from the Secret Intelligence Service in as a chairman. This alters things.

What happened then, as you know, the JIC functioned normally up to the point at which that became a great political need to be able to demonstrate to the public the thesis that the government maintained, which was that Saddam Hussein continued to have in his position and to hide from inspection WMD.

You will be aware that there was widespread skepticism about this, because there hadn’t been any recent evidence and it wasn’t easy to track this because first of all the inspectors hadn’t been in for a very long time into Iraq and secondly none of us had embassies any longer. So a lot of the evidence was old.

To cut a long story short, in response to the demand to show cause why he should do this, the government decided that the instrument that was most suitable at its disposal for actually demonstrating the case was the JIC.

History shows that they had very great difficulty producing a convincing case on the basis of the evidence available as a result of their normal work normally pursued. When it was presented in draft to the government, in effect what Jonathan Powell said was that this doesn’t make the case. John Scarlett found himself, subject to the authority of Alastair Campbell, to make a case. As you can imagine, this caused a very great discomfort inside the committee. I don’t think the committee was at all comfortable with the way in which in the end it massaged the evidence. They found themselves very near the edge of the integrity of their work, and I don’t want to take it any further, but when subsequently it was clearly demonstrated that actually these weapons of mass destruction did not exist - and that is itself an interesting story, because there had been evidence that Saddam had used WMD and secondly, I think no one imagined that actually a man who had once possessed them and who actually was telling the world he got them - and you can see why he would have done that - he wanted you to keep out – so he said, “I’ve got a big dog here!”. So nobody thought: “Perhaps he doesn’t have any!” So there was an assumption: “There must be some somewhere!”

You know the story and your viewers will know the story, and it put a lot of discredit on a very traditional and traditionally highly regarded piece of government machinery. There was an inquiry into its functioning and there are further rules of how it operates which have been drawn up which should safeguard the integrity of the system, but clearly what you can’t do is maintain the integrity if the JIC is subjected to political pressure for political purposes.

This government doesn’t do that. I think we are now back to a more traditional situation. The sort of issues that it deals with are still the issues which are the ones where you need to have available to you evidence and information which is not necessarily available through the press your diplomatic contacts and so on. I definitely think that it still has a role to play. It operates these days alongside other committees, which have a more domestic focus. There is a separate committee that deals with terrorism and particularly the domestic side of terrorism. It is not exclusive, but that’s its focus. So the JIC is one of a number of the assessment committees in current circumstances but it retains a central role.

With regard to the current situation in Syria, why is the Cameron government offically proposing the exile of Bashar al-Assad and why didn’t the Blair government want the same solution, openly, for Saddam Hussein?

Well, these are not intelligence questions; these are policy questions. The intelligence machinery does not make policy. What the intelligence machinery does is advise the government on the situation. The government then takes a decision on the basis of that, but the intelligence officials do not make policy recommendations. It is a very sharp separation in our system and that was one of the things that went wrong at the time of the debacle over Iraq because the JIC got itself in a position of being an advocate of policy. That’s one thing it shouldn’t do, so actually its function is to give ministers assessed information, the best guess that it can on what the situation is. Ministers take these decisions. It is a very separate function and it is very important to understand that Intelligence agencies do not make policy recommendations.

In this case, testing the availability of a ruler to leave their country is another kind of information, right?

Yes, it is, it is a policy decision. It is British policy that settlements cannot include that. It is a policy decision.

Do you think that the “culture of secrecy”, which many observers, including British observers, say is part of the British system is expanding, is stable, or is decreasing?

Well, I don’t accept there’s a culture of secrecy. I do accept, and I think it necessary, that we have instruments in the British Government machine, which do protect our safety and our security. In a country that is a direct object of attack by suicide bombers and still sadly also by dissident members of the former IRA cannot know dispense with the ability actually to inform itself in ways which are not through normal diplomatic contacts and the press. I think it is obviously a very important question on how far their powers go and what the scope of their activity is. They are subject to the law in this country. There are Acts which govern the scope and the purposes of the services. Any time that there is a need to take some police-related action in relation to an individual, there has to be a warrant from Ministers.

A lot of the activities are also subjected to parliamentary scrutiny. The Intelligence and Security Committee is the supervising Committee and at the moment its activity is expanding and it’s being made more powerful. We do believe that if you are going to have to, as we believe we do need to, continue to have capable Intelligence services, that it is also important to have parliamentary scrutiny of them and in closed sessions the Intelligence and Security Committee can take evidence on operations.

I have to final questions: may I ask your opinion on whether the JIC would give the green light for operations such as those led by the American presidency on the use of drones in countries such as Pakistan and the second is about the Special Rapporteur for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-recurrence of the UN. This position was created in September 2011 and it should deal mainly with complaints from victims of serious human rights violations. The “right to truth” is a customary right which stems from the serious abuses dating back to the military dictatorships in Latin American countries and in South Africa as well. Do you think that the future of the world would open up to a more transparent and accessible way to govern our countries and therefore to increase access to documents through FoIAs or will it be a continuous friction and fighting between national security matters and this?

As I said to you, the Intelligence services don’t give policy advice, so the decision to sanction any kind of attack of whatever nature is a political decision and the Government has to take into account, and will take legal advice on that, on the legality of assassination of targets of that kind. It would be a government act, - we don’t have a CIA that actually undertakes military operations. Our intelligence agencies do not do that. We’ve got a different system.

On the other question, I personally think that we do need more mechanisms which enable in a sense a responsibility to protect at the international level to go below the national and collective level. We do need to find some way of actually being able to tackle individual cases because it’s the absence of being able to tackle individual cases that tends to lead to situations in which the individual cases then become numerous and the numerous cases will become a hell for communities. They can lead to very big conflicts. It’s a way of nipping some of the abuses that take place in society.

What one finds however, is that, and this is where the disproportion arises, in societies where you have a healthy law and individual citizens feel free and able actually to avail themselves of both national and international instruments, they will chase after these issues, and these are societies where there is in practice very little abuse.

In the end it is very difficult to get this machinery to deal with them. So what I would like to see is actually the UN show determination to tackle the areas of real abuse and not just simply allow itself to be manipulated by those who can say “here’s another instrument, where I can have a go” by people in societies where very genuinely there is no need to for it.

Maybe we could sum up by saying that - this is an expression used mostly by Marco Pannella and Emma Bonino - the “raison d’état” is still prevailing over the “sense of state”?

Well, I don’t think of a country where “Raison d’état” would be something that we recognize as being legitimate. “Raison d’état” is the exercise of state authority without legitimacy. It must have legitimacy. It must be sanctioned within the law. I think that “Raison d’état” for me is action which may be legal, but it may well be outside the framework of law, extra legal. I wouldn’t accept that. I think the rule of law remains fundamental.

Also in relation to the European Court of Human Rights?

Yes, absolutely!


Editorials and interviews
Baronessa Neville-Jones, all’inizio degli anni ’90 lei è stata Presidente della Joint Intelligence Commission (JIC – Commissione Congiunta per l’Intelligence). Dal 2002 il Partito Radicale ha seguito gli sviluppi della guerra in Iraq e ora sta seguendo l’inchiesta Chilcot e il ritardo che qusta sta subendo. Può dirici come si è evoluta la JIC da quando era lei a presiederla rispetto alla presidenza di John Scarlett?