The secret service, open to question

Do the intelligence services have a vital part to play in a changing world, or are they merely the `itch after the amputation' of Britain's arm of global influence? It's time to review their role
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How good are Britain's intelligence services? What are they for? Do they achieve their purpose cost-effectively? These questions are so central that even the most secret parts of the state must not be immune from public questioning and debate.

Tomorrow sees the publication of what I believe to be the most thoughtful, detached and up-to-date primer on the subject ever produced by a recent member of the British intelligence community in Michael Herman's Intelligence Power in Peace and War. Its appearance coincides almost exactly with Mark Urban's UK Eyes Alpha which, to the consternation of insiders, has placed in the public domain detail and argument from the recent secret areas of the state which is without precedent in its immediacy and sensitivity. One has been cleared by the Cabinet office, the other most certainly has not.

The past decade has seen the greatest advances towards accountability and openness since Sir Francis Walsingham turned intelligence into a serious part of statecraft in Elizabeth I's time.

It is high time, as the turn of the century approaches, to take a cool, hard look at just what we should and could be seeking by way of our national niche in the global influence business. This is especially so since there is a real possibility of a change of government next spring that would produce an administration with almost no experience of intelligence activities.

Intelligence is a crucial element in any forward calculations. Is it the most cost-effective way of buying such influence for a cash and kit strapped country? Or is it, as a member of Her Majesty Secret Intelligence Service inquired recently, merely "the itch after the amputation" of Britain's arm of influence?

The Treasury has always taken a great deal of persuading that the nation gets value-for-money from its intelligence effort which, as Michael Herman puts it, still places us in the upper second division of intelligence powers. The Treasury sees intelligence-gathering like any other government operation as a "customer-contractor" deal. Customer departments, they argue, should tell their colleagues in the secret service what kind of information they need. The state's secret servants would then procure it. and the customer departments would pay.

John Major was quite keen on the idea when chief secretary to the Treasury. But, as Prime Minister, he appears, rightly, to have taken a broader view. Good intelligence is too much a seamless garment for this narrow approach to be sensible or practical.

Yet the Treasury is right to point out that the itch for intelligence, whatever the utility of its yield to those who would wish to maximise British influence or to approach the negotiating table well primed, does not come cheap at about pounds 1bn a year. Though as Michael Herman points out, "intelligence is cheap compared with armed force or policing; governments can afford to buy a lot of it for the cost of a frigate, or for the police manpower deployed on anti-terrorist protection". "The British government," he adds tellingly, "is said to be spending almost as much on private consultancy fees for the Civil Service as a whole as it spends on intelligence."

When the Treasury acquires its copy of Intelligence Power in Peace and War it will, I suspect, skim the book until it reaches the section on "Accuracy", with its chapter on intelligence failure and remedies. One hears all the time how Western intelligence as a whole failed to predict either the ending of the Cold War or the concatenation of events and personalities that triggered its termination.

Without wishing to explain away intelligence failures, I have to say that if I had been sitting around the table of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in the late Eighties I would not have wagered my pension on the likelihood of the Red Army being confined to barracks when the satellites, especially East Germany, began to slip from the Soviet Union's ultimate control. Intelligence has to be both accurate and illusion-free. It is not a trade that attracts or welcomes Pollyannas.

In a nasty world in which British interests, for both historical and current reasons, still girdle the globe, I remain convinced that British ministers, diplomats, civil servants and the military need to be as well primed as possible with timely information, often of a kind that cannot be procured by open means from orthodox sources. A new government would, I am sure, feel the same not least because of omnipresent terrorist threats. There is no indication that a Labour cabinet would finally wish to withdraw from an international posture that brings with it a seat at the UN Security Council and a range of influences out of proportion to our current wealth and firepower.

Real advantage remains with those nations whose knowledge base outstrips that of the competition. Intelligence without question is an influence- multiplier in the sense that it enables a state to apply its other instruments of influence more effectively. And when I recently put the proposition "what targets should British intelligence concentrate on now?" to one of that heroic post-war breed of old Empire hands-turned-intelligence officers, without hesitation he replied "terrorism, international crime and trade". To his list I would add weapons proliferation, especially nuclear, biological and chemical.

That said, there is, I am sure, considerable scope for re-ordering the UK's intelligence effort within a gradually - though not dramatically - shrinking allocation of resources. Michael Herman is convincing on the need for cuts to fall on the collection side rather than upon the all-source analytical capacity where he wants both improvement and modest expansion.

This might be the time, too, to consider the feasibility of knowledgeable outsiders from universities and business being brought in to the JIC process to help avoid "tunnel vision".

Another crucial element in any hard, forward look would include the durability of the special intelligence relationship with the United States. Without it Britain would slip swiftly from its upper second division status as an intelligence power. Yet I suspect that so powerful is the Transatlantic and old Commonwealth nature of that relationship (which is enshrined in the 1947 UK/USA agreement) that the British intelligence community may be sceptical of and resistant to some of the opportunities that may arise if Europe continues to integrate and the UK remains part of that integration process.

The point I am making, in essence, is that late-NinetiesWhitehall, whatever the electorate decides next spring in terms of the political personnel of government, must see a really thorough review of Britain's place in the world which sweeps up all the elements of our external relationships. Only then can the kind of intelligence capacity the UK needs in the 21st century be properly assessed and its costs set in the context of the gamut of policies, people and institutions which make up the British face towards the rest of the world.

Whatever might come out of such a review, the Treasury will continue to see what remains as an expensive job creation scheme for a certain kind of Brit who cannot bear to think of his or her country falling out of the great game. And who is to say the Treasury is wrong?

If the Treasury could apply its resource accountancy skills retrospectively, even they might appreciate that just one potential armed conflict averted in advance thanks to reliable and timely intelligence would fund the whole apparatus for several years. The capital costs arising out of the Falklands war (quite apart from the battle bills themselves) reached pounds 2.6bn over the first five post-invasion years - equivalent, at mid-Eighties prices, to about three years' worth of total British intelligence.

The writer is Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, and author of `Muddling Through: Power, Politics and the Quality of Government in Post-war Britain' (Gollancz, pounds 20). This article is based on a lecture given yesterday to the Royal Institute for International Affairs.