Top security official could be axed

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A senior UK security official could be axed because of Whitehall cost-cutting, the country's leading civil servant indicated today.

The 195-strong staff of the National Security Secretariat could be cut by almost half as the Cabinet Office tries to trim its administration costs by a third.

The role of the NSS is to "maintain capacity for the effective co-ordination of government response in the event of civil emergencies, terrorist incidents and international crises", and the development of the National Security Strategy.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell was unable to guarantee that one of the two deputy national security adviser positions would not be among those lost.

He was pressed on the implications of the budget squeeze as he gave evidence to the Iraq Inquiry, where he also announced a review of how vital intelligence is handled.

National Security Adviser Sir Peter Ricketts and the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) Alex Allan are to lead the examination of the system, Sir Gus revealed.

It has been set up in the wake of the creation by the Tory-Liberal Democrat Government of a National Security Council (NSC) which was "working well", he told the panel.

In his written evidence, Sir Gus said the foreign and defence team elements of the NSS would comprise around 20%-25% of the total staff after the cuts.

Pressed on the figures, he confirmed that the total numbers in those teams would remain at around the present 25, meaning deep cuts elsewhere.

Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot questioned whether the Government was committed to retaining the "very important" role of Sir Peter's two deputies.

"He has to have at least one deputy. At least one," Sir Gus said.

"The Cabinet Office has a one-third reduction in its admin budget so I am not going to make any promises," he said when asked about the wider cuts to the secretariat.

"We will need to look very carefully at the composition of that team (National Security Secretariat) and there will be some reductions there."

Some of the staff being removed were reinforcements brought it to deal with last year's strategic defence and security review, he said.

The review, which will also examine whether new central structures might be required, will also involve outside experts and is due to report in the summer.

Sir Gus said one issue which required examination was how to avoid the prime minister being presented with "single source" evidence and how better use could be made of information widely available on the internet alongside traditional "secret" intelligence.

He also repeatedly called for more people with economic expertise to be recruited into the system.