Battle Order...conclusion

The FCO and Political Clearance
What Mackintosh displays the clearest grasp of is the political authorisation process. Operational clearance is the most under-represented aspect of intelligence work in most literature about the subject, either factual or fictional. Intelligence services are established and paid for by governments specifically to perform policy-related tasks the overt government can not perform easily or safely. People tend to forget that if an agency doesn’t get results the government can overhaul it or simply shut it down, as the British government did with Basil Thompson’s Directorate of Intelligence in 1921, or the Canadians did to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Security Service at the end of the 1970s. An agency has to been seen to be giving value for money, like any other agency, Department or Ministry of State. As a result, political oversight and control are an essential feature of the workings of any IC. Authorisation procedures vary from government to government, and depend heavily on the institutional and constitutional position of the intelligence community (IC).

Britain’s intelligence system is fundamentally a product of the Cabinet system of government.

One has to listen carefully to The Sandbaggers to fully appreciate how Mackintosh has worked out the back-story of internal and external political clearance. He has visibly simplified the process, no doubt the streamline the narrative and make the stories more ‘tell-able’, and even then many viewers find the processes arcane and hard to follow.

In The Sandbaggers, operational clearance has two components: internal clearance through the Deputy Chief or C, particularly when deploying Sandbaggers, and political clearance which is arranged by the ‘FCO desk’, with reference upwards to the Permanent Under-Secretary of State in the Foreign Office (Sir Geoffrey Wellingham). Beyond this, as Sir James Greenly says in Is Your Journey Really Necessary? any operation infringing the sovereignty of a foreign nation requires the personal approval of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.

The FCO desk appears from the second episode (when Burnside wants them to ‘blow up the Cabinet office’ over Sir Donald Hopkins unannounced presence in Vienna), but generally we hear the FCO desk cited when seeking political clearance from the foreign office. Historically, there have been two elements at the SIS which might be described as Foreign Office desks: the FCO Requirements Section R1, and the office of the Foreign Office Advisor (today officially the Foreign and Commonwealth Advisor, but still just FOA in SIS parlance). The ¤SandbaggersË reference to a ‘Foreign Office desk’ is pretty obviously a reference to the FOA, but in the actual SIS the FOA is a senior figure in the agency (being a middle-ranking official in the FCO), and quite a central figure in office life at the Director and Controller level.

The FOA plays something of a dual role at SIS HQ, serving in the first instance as the first level of political clearance in the authorisation process. For most relatively routine operations, the FOA can clear the action on behalf of the FCO, but if there is any doubt, or the risk is deemed higher, then the FOA (usually with C) can take the matter up to the Deputy Under-Secretary for Defence and Strategic Matters. The matter can then be referred up to the PUS and, if necessary, the Foreign Secretary. Only rarely do matters require Prime Ministerial approval, although the PM may become involved in decision-making some of the hairier jobs, such as exfiltrating Old Gordievsky out of Russia in the boot of a car in 1985 — both the Foreign Secretary Lord Howe and Margaret Thatcher were up late the night of the operation, waiting for the news of its outcome to come direct from Century House. The FOA also advises controllers, Directors and C on the drafting of their applications for clearance in order to make them more amenable to the interests and sensitivities in the FCO and Downing Street. Hence the FOA is both more visible than The Sandbaggers’ Foreign Office Desk, and there are several steps of consultation and authorisation to go through before the PUS/FCO would take an interest or become involved. Obviously, however, simplifying FCO procedure and skipping straight up to the PUS greatly streamlines the narrative for television purposes.

In 1994, the UK passed the Intelligence Services Act (1994 ISA) which both placed SIS and GCHQ on a statutory footing, and introduced statutory authorisation and warranting procedures. Both authorisations (where the law will be broken) and warrants (were property or communications must be penetrated) require the signature of the Foreign Secretary. In other words, the 1994 ISA has changed very little.

Other Agencies and the JIC
The FCO has administrative oversight and the first line of political clearance for two intelligence agencies, SIS and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). GCHQ is the British equivalent of the American National Security Agency (NSA). This means that while SIS deals with information from human sources (agents properly understood, or HUMINT) and from ‘local technical operations’ (audiovisual bugs, clandestine wire taps and so forth), GCHQ handles the interception of foreign communications (COMINT) and protection of UK government communications and information systems (COMSEC, since subsumed by INFOSEC). GCHQ is most notable in ¤The SandbaggersË by its absence. References to GCHQ and SIGINT were still likely to draw the attention of the D Notice censors well into the 1980s, and it is possible that the second season episode blocked by the censors dealt with GCHQ or ‘Cheltenham’ as it is often elliptically called (for its location). SIS and GCHQ are both answerable in the first instance to the Deputy Under-Secretary for strategic matters (who is also Chairman of the JIC, about which more below), and are overseen by a junior Foreign Office Minister (at one time the Hon. Tom King MP who more recently served as the first Chair of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee created under the 1994 ISA). Unlike most foreign ministries, the FCO can have as many as four junior Ministers under the Foreign Secretary overseeing things like foreign service, strategic and intelligence matters, Commonwealth relations and overseas aid and development, each with a Deputy Under-Secretary overseeing the day to day running of their branch of the FCO.

And there is indeed a Defence and Overseas Policy Committee (DOPC) in the Cabinet Office, a committee created during the 1960s under PM Harold Wilson’s overhaul of the machinery of foreign relations (which included consolidating the FO and Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO) in 1967, and reforming the JIC in 1968),

The Security Service or colloquially MI 5, is tasked with detecting foreign espionage, subversion, sabotage and terrorism. MI 5 does not have any powers of arrest, though, and so any enforcement action is taken on MI 5’s behalf by the dozen or so regional Special Branches of the various local police forces (contrary to popular imagination, there is no single national Special Branch, although the London Met’s is certainly the largest and most active; by contrast one Northern city only has perhaps half a dozen SB officers all told). It is, as Mackintosh indicates, subordinate to the Home Secretary, but primarily for administrative and political purposes. Under the 1952 Maxwell-Fyffe Directive which provided MI 5’s mandate prior to the 1989 Security Service Act (superseded in turn by the 1995 SSA), and echoed in the later legislation, MI 5 cannot be tasked for political purposes, nor can its information be accessed by any Minister for political purposes. Under the 1931 Secret Service Committee, MI 5 is confined to operations within the 3-mile limit, or in current legal parlance, ‘within the British Islands’, while SIS and GCHQ are confined operations outside that same limit. The division is partly historical, but mainly constitutional as SIS operating inside the UK would imply the FCO was muscling in on the Home Office’s jurisdiction, and likewise were MI 5 to operate abroad.

Far from the Truth
However, the relationship between SIS and MI 5 portrayed by Mackintosh — and many authors and political commentators — is appreciably far of the truth. There has been a history of tension and ‘turf wars’ between the two services, and indeed bids to consolidate them into a single agency. What is less well known is that the original attempt to consolidate intelligence came from SIS’ second C, Admiral Sir Hugh ‘Quex’ Sinclair in an unsuccessful effort to swallow MI 5 and parts of Special Branch in 1925. During the Second World War, MI 5 campaigned to absorb SIS’ Counter-Espionage Section (Section V) because of the overlaps between their work on the Double Cross programme playing the German Abwehr’s agents back as conduits of deceptive information. This was resolved by locating Section V and MI 5’s B Division close together in London, and once the two could talk to each other on a daily basis the strife evaporated. In 1966, partly on the initiative of the SIS Controller SovBloc, Harold Shergold, SIS and MI 5 set up a joint section under K Branch (counter-espionage) and C/UK targetting Soviet Bloc embassies, trade delegations and so forth within British territory.

The joint section was responsible for the 1971 defection of Oleg Lyalin. Lyalin was a KGB officer operating under the cover of the Soviet Trade Delegation, and his defection helped prompt the expulsion of 90 Soviet ‘diplomats’ and refusal of entry to 15 more, an action which permanently broke the back of the KGB in the UK until Oleg Gordievsky’s appointment to the London rezidentura finished the job. Lyalin was targeted by MI 5 officers, but recruited and run by an SIS officer. In 1971 a joint section was added to target terrorism in Northern Ireland (Republican and Unionist alike), in 1972 another joint section for targeting Chinese assets along the same lines as the Soviet UK section, and in the mid-1970s a fourth such unit was added to deal with Middle Eastern terrorism. SIS and MI 5 have also shared a joint research and development facility since 1962. As a result, SIS-MI 5 relations are much more integral, and generally more harmonious than popularly imagined.

While the individual Security and Intelligence Agencies are responsible to specific Departments and Ministries of States, they are also overseen on a day-to-day policy and operational basis by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), or Joint Intelligence Organization as it has sometimes appeared in official statements. The JIC is one of a constellation of powerful Civil Service committees in the Cabinet Office, including the DOPC and the Permanent Secretaries Committee on Intelligence (PIS). The Cabinet Office has no real equivalent in the US executive branch, although the Canadian Privy Council Office comes close. The Cabinet Office is headed by a Cabinet Secretary who, unlike most Secretaries of State is a Civil Servant rather than a member of Parliament — in British politics, a Secretary of State is any Cabinet Minister, as opposed to a Junior Minister.

The JIC doubles as both the top intelligence administrative authority, and as the central, national intelligence assessment organisation. The JIC consists of three components: the JIC ‘A’ and ‘B’ Committees and the Joint Assessments Staff. The JIC main or ‘A’ Committee is composed of the Chairman JIC, the DUS responsible for strategic and security issues at the FCO, C, the Director of GCHQ, the Director General of the Security Service, the Chief of Defence Intelligence (head of DIS, known as the DGI prior to 1989), and occasionally members of other Departments and Ministries depending on the agenda (e.g. the Home Office and the Treasury). Also in attendance are the CIA station commander, a Canadian representative from the Privy Council Security and Intelligence Committee and the Australian National Assessments Staff. Because of this, the real-life London station commander for the CIA is usually a very senior person, far more senior than Jeff Ross is portrayed as being in The Sandbaggers. The ‘B’ Committee is composed of the immediate juniors to the permanent members, and meets on Wednesdays to agree the drafts of any papers that go out under the authority of the ‘A’ Committee which meets on Thursdays. Papers are printed Friday and distributed to consumers on Monday, particularly the weekly JIC intelligence summary or ‘Red Book’.

The actual analytical work is undertaken by the Joint Assessments Staff. This is again a network of committees or Current Intelligence Groups (CIGs) drawn from the contributing JIC membership, but at the area of in-house specialism. Hence the Latin America CIG would consist of R/WH from the SIS, a member of the relevant area of GCHQ, someone from the FCO Latin America desk, an equivalent from the Directorate of Service Intelligence at the DIS, the LACIG Chair (a permanent appointment to the JAS), and possibly contribution from the CIA and Canada. The CIGs work up their assessments on Monday and Tuesday of each week, passing them up for ‘B’ Committee approval Wednesday.

The JIC’s other central role is the formulation of the UK government’s intelligence requirements, annually in the form of the annual National Intelligence Requirements Paper (NIRP), and five-yearly reviews of requirements and long terms requirements planning. The Intelligence and Security Agencies are only allowed to mount operations to fullfill the NIRP shopping list; any operation has to be justified in terms of the NIRP both in terms of internal and political clearance, and in applying for funding to pay for the operation. The SIS portion of the NIRP list is formulated in an SIS internal document called the SIS ‘Red Book’ (not to be confused with the JIC ‘Red Book’), and any officer wanting to mount an operation of any kind has to be able to justify it in terms of the Red Book’s requirements and priorities.

Finally, the JIC ‘A’ Committee handles all policy and jurisdictional disputes or uncertainties, chiefly through the efforts of the Coordinator who serves in the dual role of interlocutor and enforcer.

Special Relationship
As I noted earlier, the Americans, Canadians and Australians participate in the JIC process as they are all members of the broadly-defined ‘Special Relationship’. The ‘Special Relationship’ is involves the whole intelligence communities of these countries, although it is most strongly expressed not in the SIS-CIA relationship but in the UKUSA system of treaties that link their respective SIGINT agencies i.e. the American National Security Agency (NSA), GCHQ, the Canadian Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate (DSD). These agencies (and to a lesser degree the New Zealanders) have parsed up the world between them so that, although the NSA is potentially capable of global collection it can share the burden with GCHQ targeting Western Europe and Eastern Russia, Canada over-the-pole surveillance of Asia, and DSD handling south Pacific targets.

The agencies are tied together by a common range of shared technologies, security and operational procedures, as well as a common intercept handling computer system called Echelon (about which see my article 'Intelligence, Information Technology and Information Warfare' in The Annual Review of Information Science and Technology Vol.36 (2002)).

SIS and the CIA are much less closely linked, although they traditionally share liaison officers and a great deal of their intelligence (this has occasionally cost both sides dear as when Philby blew braces of US agents in the 1940s, and when Alrich Ames in the CIA blew SIS’ agent-in-place Oleg Gordievsky and others in the 1980s). Australia’s Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) is also closely linked with both SIS and the CIA. The system is least integrated where security intelligence is concerned, although links between MI 5, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) are historically close since those agencies were originally set up, like ASIS and CSE, by alumni of the British services. The FBI has, however, generally shown much less enthusiasm for the transatlantic relationship, initially because of J. Edgar Hoover’s anglophobe inclinations, but also partly because intelligence plays a secondary role to policing.

For anyone who wants to know the evolution of the SIS and its relationship to HMG over the last ninety-odd years, check out my book forthcoming in 2003 from Frank Cass Ltd.

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