How little knowledge is a dangerous thing

By Guy Dorrell @GuyDorrellEsq

Any Coulson

Straight out of university, my first career move was to become an Army office. The year-long course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst – where William and Harry attended – was designed to breed the future leaders of the British Army.

My first close friend in my platoon was from an army family. He wanted to, and almost certainly would, follow his father’s footsteps and go into the same regiment, doing the same role. His father was a lot to live up to; he was known for his exploits throughout the army. Every regiment and corps has their legendary soldiers, but my friends father was a step above – he has even had well-known artists paint oil paintings of his actions.

His father did something very specialised; I cannot say what. He did it to such a high skill level that he taught the US Army to do this, with the equipment that the Department of Defence had funded and commissioned, prior to selling it to the rest of the world.

And yet, after decades of exemplary service, my friends’ father was still a Major. This is significant because, assuming you stay as an army officer long enough, everyone gets to be a Major. The next step is to be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and with it would come the command of a regiment.

Fortunately, for a well-respected and well-connected man, he could call in a few favours to find out what was holding up his promotion. He contacted a friend from when he was at Sandhurst many years earlier, who had been commissioned into the Intelligence Corp. The friend promised nothing other than that he would try to find out.

You’ll never be promoted to Colonel

Some time later, the friend got back in touch. He had found some things out, in fact he had found out a definitive answer. “You’ll never be made a Colonel” was the bald fact. The obvious question was why, and there was an answer to this too. The answer was because one of my friend’s great grandparents, his father’s grandparent, had been a gypsy.

That is how detailed vetting, especially Developed or Enhanced Vetting, is. There was no question that promotion would bring this man into contact with secret equipment; he already used it and trained others to use it. There was a question mark against his reliability two generations back.

Which is why the verdict delivered against Andy Coulson this lunchtime may, or may not, have been entirely predictable, but the appointment of him to Number 10 as director of communications – without appropriate vetting – is perplexing.

The case to attribute blame is binary; either the security services were negligent in not finding out the background of a man – let’s not forget one of whose employees had served a jail sentence for activities undertaken while Coulson was responsible for governance – something that the security services are eminently capable of, or a decision was taken within Number 10 to ignore this warning.

Cabinet meetings

This man was privy to Cabinet meetings at a time when conflicts arising out of the Arab Spring were at their peak, Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks were threatening to disclose information damaging to national security and the NSA in America was monitoring the telephone calls of Angela Merkel. These were all highlighted in the Manning and Assange cases as huge threats, threats worthy of imprisonment of one person and the exile in a foreign consulate of another. And yet, someone equally threatening, not bound by secrecy and with a track-record of selling the secrets of others for personal gain was allowed to take part in discussions more confidential than most of us will ever witness.

Justice has been done, and seen to be done, but with the lawyers having finished all their involvement, the questioning should now begin in earnest.

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