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Why David Frost as National Security Adviser risks repeating mistakes made ahead of Iraq war

Boris Johnson’s choice of David Frost as the new National Security Adviser has caused concern among some members of Britain’s intelligence and security architecture.

Questions have been raised as to how an official with minimal intelligence and security experience can be expected to direct MI5 and MI6 tasking. 

Even Theresa May has been critical of the appointment

Speaking in the House of Commons on June 30, Mrs May launched her most combative attack on the government since becoming a backbencher.

She said “On Saturday [Michael Gove] said: ‘We must be able to promote those with proven expertise.’

“Why then is the new national security adviser a political appointee with no proven expertise in national security?”

The primary role of the national security adviser (NSA) is to be the Prime Minister’s chief aide in the area of security and intelligence. To do that, he (and since the creation of the post in 2010 it has always been a ‘he’) chairs the National security council (NSC) and oversees and in some cases directs, the work of much of Britain’s intelligence and security apparatus.

As the government’s Brexit trade negotiator with a Foreign Office background mainly facing European issues, there have been questions over Mr Frost’s suitability for the post.

The NSA needs to understand the roles, limitations and specific operational tensions of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, better known as MI6), the department that faces threats from overseas, MI5, charged with countering domestic threats, and GCHQ, the government’s cyber spies based in Cheltenham.   

However, the NSA has many other responsibilities, and it is these areas that intelligence insiders are most worried about.

Most obviously, Mr Frost’s time will be split between being the NSA and the ongoing Brexit trade talks. Mr Frost has said his priority is the latter. Whether this dual role will allow him the capacity to oversee the forthcoming Integrated Foreign, Security and Defence review is open to question. 

Jamie Gaskarth, a former adviser on the National Security Strategy and now Reader in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the University of Birmingham, said the fact the NSC hasn’t met during the whole of the Covid-19 crisis shows that double (or triple) hatting the role under Sir Mark Sedwill “didn’t function well”. 

Mr Frost may well delegate day to day activities to his deputies while he concentrates on Brexit. Further, having experienced Deputy NSAs may soften the accusation that Mr Frost brings no great security experience. “Yes, but it’s a change in what the NSA is supposed to be doing,” Mr Gaskath says.

Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the post of principal security adviser to the PM was revamped to ensure there was one person in government that had a grasp on all the intelligence threats and ensure the product from the agencies was being used rigorously. 

The Butler inquiry into the use of intelligence prior to the war criticised the Blair administration for allowing national security policy to be handled in too informal a manner. The so-called ‘sofa style’ of government meant that decisions were not recorded properly and people held to account for the formulation of policy. The role of the NSA became more substantive with the creation of the NSC in 2010, in a bid to address these concerns.  

However, if David Frost is to be just another foreign policy adviser with no actual bureaucratic responsibility, who will oversee the National Security Secretariat (NSS), the much more rigorous discussion about the intelligence and security picture and the detailed planning?

“Someone’s got to do it,” Mr Gaskarth says. “If not David Frost, it will have to shift to someone else”.

Lord Ricketts, appointed in 2010 by David Cameron to be the UK’s first NSA, said that Mr Frost’s appointment seemed to “point in the opposite direction” to that described by Michael Gove in the Ditchley Park lecture on June 27.

In his speech, titled ‘The privilege of public service’, Michael Gove called on civil servants to show “the mastery of deep knowledge” in their subject areas.

“If those in Government have deep subject knowledge they move from reciters of the jargon generated by producer interests into the creators of original policy that serve the widest possible public interest,” Mr Gove said.  

Lord Ricketts, Britain’s former Permanent Representative to Nato and subsequently Ambassador to France and Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office, also said Mr Frost’s “main credential for the role is that he is a trusted political adviser to the prime minister”.

“That will be a further problem in winning the trust of the national security community. Previous NSAs have been politically neutral civil servants. There will always be an ambiguity as to whether Frost is giving his own political advice or reflecting the dispassionate judgement of professionals,”  Lord Ricketts said in a comment piece for the Royal United Services Institute.

This politicisation of formerly civil service posts is “really unhelpful for our democracy” Mr Gaskarth says.

“You’re supposed to be impartial and relate the intelligence picture to the Prime Minister accurately without domestic political considerations.” 

As an example he asks how a political NSA would handle a conflict between government policy and advice from intelligence chiefs, for example over Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G infrastructure.  If the JIC suggested China was a major hostile state threat, then “what kind of information is David Frost going to be feeding up to the Prime Minister? Will he be freely and openly reflecting the views of the intelligence community?”.

“If you look at the US system and all the problems they have with political appointees, would you think ‘right, that sounds great, let’s have more of that’?” he wonders. “You wouldn’t!”

“If they’re appointed because they agree with the Prime Minister politically it creates all sorts of problems,” he says.

If, for example, the NSA tasked MI5 to look into trade union or environmentalist activities, or focus on political rather than national threats, it would be a problem, Mr Gaskarth says.

Another problem may be the reluctance of the NSA to withstand pressure from the Prime Minister to see raw intelligence from MI5, MI6 or GCHQ. The access Tony Blair was given to such product in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is considered a major failing in the agency-Westminster relationship. 

“Raw intelligence is not fact,” Mr Gaskarth says. “It may be an overheard conversation on a telephone and it might not be true. It’s always a bad idea to have raw intelligence feeding straight into the system”.

The establishment of the NSS and NSA and NSC was to provide a buffer so that only JIC information that had been verified was fed into proper policy planners and then onto the Prime Minister. 

That did not happen in 2003, partly due to the speed of events at the time, but also because of the loose structures in place. Information that confirmed the established thinking in Tony Blair’s government was passed up the political chain and out to the public with little scrutiny. The NSA is designed to be the final gatekeeper to prevent such a situation reoccurring. 

“A deliberative body full of deep knowledge of intelligence and security matters, like the National Security Secretariat, feeding info to the NSC surely is the model that fits the view of [this] government. And yet they are actually dismantling it,” Mr Gaskarth says. 

“They want to get things done and they think bureaucratic opposition stops getting things done, therefore you have to remove the bureaucratic opposition. But if you’re sensible about it and know how government works you just need to make sure it’s constructive opposition.”

Of course it is possible that someone in the Prime Minister’s confidence might be listened to in a way others might not. 

“If you’ve got somebody with the ear of the Prime Minister and who is a trusted and competent individual, not in hock to the vested interests of the int community, then if he does give a warning maybe the Prime Minister will be more likely to listen,” Mr Gaskarth says.

Lord Ricketts is not convinced. 

“The message of Frost’s appointment is that the prime minister accords absolute priority not to expertise and experience, but to political loyalty among his closest advisers,” he warned in his Rusi commentary. 

“That is not a reassuring conclusion.”

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