Pauline Neville-Jones, 53, a career diplomat, will take over by the end of the year from the present chairman Sir Roderic Braithwaite, 61 - also named officially for the first time - as part of John Major's open-government policy in a pamphlet on the central intelligence machinery.
Two of the most senior intelligence posts in Government are now occupied by women. Stella Rimmington, head of MI5, the security services, came out of the shadows for the first time last July.
The head of MI6, traditionally known as 'C', was officially named as Sir Colin McColl by the Prime Minister last year, when Mr Major for the first time put on record the existence of the Secret Intelligence Service, and the open secret that Britain employs spies abroad.
The JIC is responsible for assessing intelligence information from MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, the communications centre, and informing ministers with a weekly digest, known as the Red Book.
Its terms of reference, published for the first time, make it clear that Britain's agents are involved in the intelligence war on economic matters, in addition to political and terrorist threats. They include: 'To monitor and give early warning of the development of direct or indirect foreign threats to British interests, whether political, military or economic.' Sir Roderic refused to confirm or deny whether British agents were involved in industrial espionage, but he said the terms of reference did cover money laundering by drug smugglers.
The JIC, comprising key officials from defence, the Foreign Office, the Treasury, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ usually meets weekly at the Cabinet Office to assess and alert ministers about intelligence. One former Cabinet minister who received the Red Book said: 'It's absolutely bloody useless. Everything they told us about Northern Ireland we already knew.'
The JIC's biggest known failure was over the invasion of the Falklands. Sir Roderic yesterday defended the then head of the JIC and said 'nobody can foretell the future'.
After the 1983 Franks Committee report on the Falklands, the chairmanship of the JIC was switched to the Cabinet Office from the Foreign Office to avoid departmental bias in assessing risk in future.
Sir Roderic, a former ambassador to Moscow, is also the Prime Minister's adviser on foreign affairs. He said he had not had 'a major failing' while chair of the JIC. However, MPs believe that the IRA bombing in the heart of the City of London showed clear intelligence failures, which Miss Neville-Jones and Mrs Rimmington, in charge of co-ordinating action against the IRA, will have to tackle.
Miss Neville-Jones, educated at Leeds Girls' High School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, is a high-flyer at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, becoming the first woman to reach the rank of deputy under-secretary there. She could become the first chairman of the JIC to face democratic oversight, with the expected creation of a committee of Privy Councillors in the next session to monitor the intelligence service.
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