It was refreshing to have the head of the British intelligence services introduced at last night's Mile End Group event, held to launch the first volume of the official history of the Joint Intelligence Committee with the words, "and he is going to speak on the record".
Jon Day, the chairman of the JIC, was introduced by Sir Kevin Tebbit, former Permanent Under Secretary at the Ministry of Defence and a visiting professor at Queen Mary University of London, pictured on the right, above, with Mike Goodman, author of The Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Volume I: From the Approach of the Second World War to the Suez Crisis, at Admiralty House on Whitehall. (Thanks to Thomas Rid for the photograph.)
Day then said: "Thank you, Kevin. And that's it really."
But he was only joking, and went on to deliver an important short speech on the challenges facing the intelligence services, including one fine story which deserves to be declassified and to which I shall return.
Goodman spoke, admitting that his was a tough sales pitch: the book is priced at a mere £67.41 on Amazon or £64.04 for the Kindle version. First, he cleared up one of the most important historical questions about the JIC, namely when it started to be referred to as "the Jick". This "Americanised" form started to be used in the mid-1990s, he said.
His book doesn't go that far, of course, taking the story up to Suez. But it starts with the first meeting of the Committee on 7 July 1936, "when there were storm clouds gathering". Goodman said that whatever one thought of the ability of the Meteorological Office to predict the future – or of that of the JIC for that matter – the Met Office has excellent historical records. He could therefore assure us that, at 3pm on 7 July 1936, "there were indeed storm clouds gathering".
He told a story that will be familiar to all researchers, of searching a database for an obvious term and being surprised that there were no hits at all. "It wasn't until I got the 'i' and the 'e' the wrong way round in 'Chiefs of Staff' that I got hundreds of results."
Douglas Hurd, who was Foreign Secretary from 1989 to 1995, also spoke (pictured with Goodman and Day, centre, Sir Kevin Tebbit standing behind), to an audience that included five former chairmen of the JIC. Lord Hurd summarised the story told in the book's 500 pages as that of the gradual assertion of the power of the Foreign Office. After the Second World War, he said, most of the battles "took place within 300 yards of here". The JIC was created by the service chiefs to co-ordinate their separate intelligence operations, but eventually "the civilians gained control".
Anyway, to return to Jon Day's "on the record" speech, he told the story of how, when he was a Ministry of Defence civil servant, working in the private office of the Armed Forces Minister, a grand service chief arrived with a top-secret document in a special wallet. Day was given strict instructions to hand over the document to the minister without looking at it, but he was not told that he couldn't look at it after the minister had seen it. Day discovered that it was half of the front page of the previous Sunday's Sunday Express, with a note attached from the head of the Defence Intelligence Service saying, "This is true."