Nick Clegg this morning dismissed a group of senior defence and intelligence chiefs who questioned Liberal Democrat security policies as "a bunch of retired establishment figures" who were discredited by mistakes over Iraq.
In a letter to The Times, former Chief of Defence Staff Lord Guthrie, ex-MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove and former Metropolitan Police counter-terror commander and national counter-terrorism co-ordinator Peter Clarke warned that Lib Dem policies on nuclear weapons and Afghanistan put them outside the two-party consensus and represented "a gamble".
Citing plans to scrap control orders for terror suspects and pursue inquiries into allegations over the conduct of the intelligence services, the trio said: "The Liberal Democrats need to show that they do not stand outside the long-standing cross-party consensus on national security affairs.
"We believe that they need to clarify their position as soon as possible. All political parties must send the right signals to friend and foe alike."
Mr Clegg told GMTV: "I care passionately about the national security of this country, but I am not going to take lectures from a bunch of retired establishment figures about the security of this country.
"Some of them actually made the biggest mistakes in the run-up to the Iraq War.
"I am not going to apologise for calling, for example, for a proper inquiry into the allegations that somehow the British security services made us complicit in torture. That's a very serious allegation against our best British traditions. I want to promote those traditions."
The three security chiefs said they were "concerned" that the Lib Dem manifesto makes no mention of Nato and calls for a more distant relationship with the US. "An enhanced European defence and security posture, however welcome, cannot substitute for American power," they warned.
British troops in Afghanistan deserve a "clearer lead" than was offered by Lib Dem frontbenchers, who have adopted different positions on whether and when the UK contingent should be withdrawn, the three said.
Ruling out military action against Iran was "precipitate", while the Lib Dems make no mention of North Korea, the other state threatening to acquire nuclear weapons.
Lib Dem policy on the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent was in "potentially dangerous confusion", with several senior frontbenchers indicating they would like to take the "colossal gamble" of scrapping it altogether, said the former security chiefs.
And they said that Liberal Democrats appeared "shy" of putting forward new proposals to combat terrorism and ready to scrap control orders, while being "seemingly willing" to expose intelligence agents to relentless inquiry and investigation.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown said he had served in MI6 with Sir Richard, but told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I'm not about to take advice on these matters from the man who, after prime minister Tony Blair, is probably most responsible for the biggest foreign affairs blunder of our age."Reuse content