The National Security Council (NSC) decided to allow Chinese company Huawei to build part of the UK’s new 5G network. The decision restricts Huawei from the most sensitive parts of the network but didn’t ban it entirely – as the US Government had been advocating.
So far, so uncontroversial – except that we only know about the NSC decision because of an unauthorised leak to the Daily Telegraph, which reported several ministers’ opposition to the decision because of potential security risks and the tensions it might create between the UK and the US.
Unsurprisingly, there were swift calls for a leak inquiry to apprehend and punish the culprit(s) who have not just leaked government information, but leaked from one of the most sensitive committees in Cabinet – and in the context of an undeclared campaign for the coming Conservative leadership election. By Thursday afternoon, it was reported that an official leak inquiry had already begun.
Some have said this is an unprecedented leak, but this isn’t strictly true. Details of previous NSC discussions have been published, albeit at a later date, in memoirs and interviews. And contemporary revelations of sensitive defence or security-related discussions have also occurred, such as speculation about possible cyber attacks to counter Russia after the 2018 Skripal attack – although it is unclear whether these leaks were unauthorised.
This incident, despite being a clear breach of convention, is far from being a ‘worst case’ national security leak. The Huawei decision would have been officially reported in due course and appears to align with previously-reported official advice. Ministerial disagreement would itself have become evident if one of May’s more ‘hawkish’ rivals succeeded her as prime minister and then reversed the Huawei decision (as they still might).
The key issue isn’t whether unauthorised NSC leaks are unprecedented, but whether they should be happening at all, and what can reasonably be done to stop them.
If the leak had been more obviously damaging to UK national security and/or posed a genuine threat to life, a strong case could have been made for ‘throwing the kitchen sink’ at the leak inquiry, possibly including the immediate involvement of the Metropolitan Police, to determine which suspect on the (presumably relatively short) list was guilty. An invitation to the police to investigate would be justified if the current official inquiry determined that the leak was sufficiently serious in itself, or that it involved the possible misconduct of officials (or even ministers) with access to secret information. But on the reported evidence, it’s difficult to see this threshold having been met – one reason for the choice of an internal inquiry.
While a vigorous inquiry might reveal the culprit’s identity, most leak inquiries end in failure – especially when leaks are political, as appears to be the case here, few culprits are ever identified or punished. It’s unlikely that the Government will want to authorise an extremely intrusive inquiry into its own conduct, especially if it means handing control of the investigation over to the police.
In contrast, the internal investigation will probably not amount to more than rounding up the usual suspects for a series of inconclusive interviews. No-one really benefits from that. If such an internal inquiry were conducted aggressively – hauling suspects in for thorough questioning and solemnly reiterating the duty of everyone to protect sensitive information – it might create a chilling effect on future leaks, but ultimately if it fails to produce evidence of wrongdoing and to identify and punish the culprit(s), I wouldn’t bet on it. Moreover, the selective practice of No.10 itself, in releasing sensitive information on occasions when it is judged in the Government’s interest, makes it unlikely that individual Cabinet ministers will take seriously claims that their own leaks are unacceptable – unless the deterrent effect of punishment is felt. If any inquiry did identify the culprit, however, then it would clearly be appropriate to sack them, rather than offer a face-saving resignation.
In the unusual circumstances of Theresa May’s parlous, straitened premiership, amidst incessant speculation about her departure from office, it has become commonplace for her would-be successors to leak stories to the press. The difference with a national security leak is that, in principle, it could compromise the safety and security of the UK and its citizens.
The fact that this incident was at the relatively weak end of the spectrum of possible national security leaks means we have no evidence that Cabinet indiscipline might extend to leaks that clearly damage national security in pursuit of narrow political advantage for a Cabinet minister with eyes on the top job. The current situation is bad, but there is as yet no reason to doubt that ministers (or their advisers) know where to draw the line in the most serious cases. The announcement of an official inquiry in these circumstances should be interpreted more as the Cabinet Secretary’s effort to impose greater discipline and try to prevent further deterioration.