Sunday, 22 April 2012

Oh for the sound of silence

Yesterdays Daily Telegraph ran a report suggesting that it had seen a document classified as SECRET UK EYES ONLY, sourced from DSTL and which made extensive comments on the suitability or not of various variants of the F35, which the papers claim is currently being subjected to scrutiny as part of the MODs annual spending round.

The purpose of this article is not to comment on that specific paper, but more generally to enable this author to try to express in words his anger at the utterly irresponsible actions of the individual who felt it was appropriate to so publicly breach the trust they were extended and leak a highly classified document in order to meet their own agenda.

Humphrey is not naïve, he fully accepts that leaking of documents is probably the third oldest profession (and no doubt is closely related to both the first and second professions!). It is inevitable that in all walks of life, there is a clear desire to try to protect ones interests, or to stand up for what one believes in, even when one disagrees with a course of action that is being considered.

At present the MOD is going through an annual spending review which by all media accounts has included a fairly tough scrutiny of a wide range of projects, equipment and options. This is something which has by necessity involved consideration of many options of varying impact – some of which would be immediately discounted, others of which may be looked at in more depth. Along the way this will have generated a lot of debate, scrutiny and detailed work on what the implications may be if one option is taken, or how collectively what the impact of a range of options were taken would be.

By its very nature this work can be emotive, and involves searching questions – some years ago Humphrey was involved in staffing some planning round work, and found that the experience was challenging because it made you strive to clearly justify matters that for some had always been accepted as sacred truths. The other thing that came through very clearly was that no matter how important you felt your own issue to be, there was always a much bigger picture which had to be considered, and that very few people relatively speaking saw just how vast and complex a planning round could be when all the different options were being considered.

This is linked to the fact that people in the MOD, both military and civilian are entrusted with a level of access to material which can often be hugely sensitive, and where lives can genuinely be at stake when it falls into the wrong hands. The Second World War showed the hugely dangerous implications of codes being broken, or sensitive military equipment being captured and falling into enemy hands. The author does not think that for one minute the average member of the MOD or HM Forces would willingly wish to compromise material that may have a direct impact on the lives of their friends and colleagues. This is why he finds it so immensely frustrating that people who would defend with their lives some protectively marked material are so utterly cavalier when it comes to passing a juicy document to the media in the hope of protecting their own interests.

Lets be clear here – if what the Daily Telegraph alleges is true, then someone has deliberately taken a document protectively marked as SECRET UK EYES ONLY and willingly passed it into the hands of an international media organisation for publication. This is a shocking breach of trust on every level and one can only wonder at the motivation of the person behind it.

In any decision, there will doubtless be a range of papers, options and other material that is being looked at. What is vital, particularly when emotional or sensitive issues are being considered is the ability to consider the entire issue objectively, and consider decisions without external pressure or fear that possibly controversial decisions may be exposed before all the facts have been considered. Right now, the person that chose to leak this document would appear to be trying to push an agenda of some form or another, and probably hoped that by exposing it to the media, then a particular line would be taken, or that senior officials or politicians may seek to change their views because of media outrage, and not because of the strength or logic of one argument over another.

To this author, this is not the way to conduct business – the ability to consider decisions without fear of being exposed in the media, or to have someone try to force an agenda change on you is vital. You need to be able to consider the whole picture properly, and with the full range of facts to hand, and not just a single document released to the media.

From a trust perspective, this author considers that it is morally wrong to breach the implicit trust that the nation has given you. Many people in Government have access to material which is protectively marked for a good reason. It is simply not appropriate to unilaterally decide who the right recipient for this sort of information is and then take it upon yourself to decide to leak it to the press.

Humphrey does not know, and bluntly does not particularly care, why the person chose to leak it to the media. There was doubtless a reason behind this, and in their own minds they may have thought that by leaking, they could influence whatever particular case they felt was of concern to them. But in reality what they have done is breached the trust placed on them by their employer, and the wider nation.

Planning Rounds can be challenging, as is any period where potentially significant changes are being considered. No matter what peoples personal views about the wisdom or otherwise of a decision, this author doesn’t think it appropriate to try to influence the debate by applying external pressure. There are cases to be made, and these can be made eloquently and effectively within existing channels. But once that argument has been made, and a decision is being contemplated, then it just feels plain wrong to try and influence that decision in a different manner. The reality of democratic government is that sometimes you have to go along with decisions that an individual may personally not agree with. The reality of being professional is that the same person is able to staff and implementing what is being asked of them without resorting to external vehicles to make their case.

Humphrey is genuinely angry that someone has chosen to breach the trust placed on them, and try to influence a private debate so publicly by allegedly exposing a classified document to the media. He earnestly hopes that the person responsible will be caught, tried and if found guilty, sentenced to a long period in prison on the grounds of breaches of the Official Secrets Act.

There will come a point when it is appropriate to comment on the various specific changes being considered to the MOD plans, and to this author at least, that point comes when the Secretary of State for Defence has announced those changes to Parliament and not a moment sooner. If only all those people with access to the privileged information about possible options that may or may not be under consideration felt the same way.

Edit - The Think Defence has an outstanding article on this subject as well, and their own views very closely mirror those of this site. The article can be found at the following link:


  1. Come on, Humphrey, this F35 nonsense is pure RN vs RAF survival instinct gone mad (well, madder than usual). Think Defence and Lewis Page at The Register have covered this superbly so I don't need to explain save to say that it's The Boy David who's the decider with all that implies for getting it "wrong". Someone having a leak in the circumstances is not only likely but inevitable and it probably wasn't a junior rank - they still haven't found out who leaked Fox's letter to the PM before SDSR, have they?

  2. Can't say I've ever expected to see the word 'superbly' and Lewis Page's name in the same sentence. :-D

    I've no time for people who leak things to further their own agendas. As CS we've all been in a position at one time or another when we have had access to documents that were restricted to some degree and were trusted with them.

    Now the person who leaked it certainly broke the OSA (though I'll believe a prosecution when I see one), but I wonder if the Torygraph also broke the ODA by publishing?

    I do have to wonder where the leak did originate from. A Civil Servant, service officer, contractor, or a SPAD in the SecState's officer? Who knows?

  3. Let me place a few counter-thoughts on this table:

    It is true that permission to access classified information is trust and trust should not be easily betrayed.

    Nevertheless, the duty to protect classified information is but one thing entrusted to officers, and is subordinate to the more strategic, over-reaching trust from the British people: to provide the best possible defence for the UK.

    So, here's the situation. You genuinely believe that the conclusion of The Process is wrong. Given this, you can either have Blind Faith in the Process, and in the process betray the trust from the British people, OR you can betray the trust of the guy giving you the clearance.

    Is not the choice clear?

    Now, it might be one thing if the Process has always brought good results so some Blind Faith in it might be justified, but it arguably has not. This whole B/C debate (leaving aside whether F-35 will even make it) is reminiscent of the decision which led to the RN being forced to fight the Falklands with two tiny V/STOL carriers instead of a CATOBAR one, which almost certainly was a leading cause of rather horrible casualties to the British Fleet.

    Now, it looks like a re-run is happening.

    From a more strategic point of view, modern militaries rely on secrecy too much anyway. Every classified piece of information is actually a barrier to civilian control, but nevertheless we the public understand that some things must be concealed and thus entrust to the military the right to conceal things when necessary. The military betrays the Public's trust when it un-necessarily conceals.