The hot line call that went cold

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR was going walkabout in the shopping centre in Larne, Ulster, when the White House rang to tell him that President Bill Clinton had ordered the cruise missile strike on Baghdad, writes Colin Brown.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday told MPs that the Government had been kept fully informed by the White House. But that was only half the story.

Because Mr Major's officials were unable to interrupt the walkabout, the Prime Minister never managed to speak to the President before the attack was launched. 'It was not quite the call to have on a mobile. We felt it was not the most secure area,' said one official, recalling that Richard Needham, a former Northern Ireland minister, had been bugged on a car telephone there when describing Baroness Thatcher as a 'cow'.

Officials tried to make arrangements for the Prime Minister to speak to the President on a secure line. But by lunchtime, when he had reached Hillsborough, Mr Clinton had left for another engagement. Mr Major finally approved the attack in an exchange of messages at about 2.30pm through officials on a secret secure network routed through Downing Street.