Did British Spooks Know About The Algeria Hit In Advance? If They Did, Why Didn’t They Tell The Government About It?
Henry Forth writes from London: Has anyone seen William Hague? Nice man, average height, not much hair left, broad northern vowels. He’s the one who is described on the Cabinet List as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
I only ask because as I sat in the House of Commons gallery last week, watching Prime Minister David Cameron giving his take on the hostage crisis in Algeria, I kept thinking: why is Chancellor George Osborne sitting on his left and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is on his right? Then I got it! The Foreign Secretary Hague was nowhere to be seen.
Well, the hapless but nicest man in the whole foreign policy world, Mr Hague, was in Australia at the time. But the big story of last week was the hostage crisis is Algeria. Surely, I thought, Algeria was not very near Australia. In fact, it is very far from it.
This, of course, is not a fair observation by implication – as the always surprisingly late Cambridge cynic Edward Sands would say, usually when wondering why more people did not think Macmillan was a great man. Mr Hague was in Australia with the other missing minister, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, for the undoubtedly important annual Australia-United Kingdom ministerial summit where a new UK-Australia defence pact was signed. Hague left early for London. Crisis, you know. Need to be in the midst of things.
There was also an excellent performance by Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt while holding the fort – the one in Whitehall here, not the one in Algeria. The big guy on the block was, of course, Dave himself. Mr Cameron showed himself in charge, cancelled ‘an important’ speech on Europe, chaired the security crisis committee in the Cabinet Office and told MPs a lot of what he knows. Strike success for PM – so much so the questions sounded more like birthday greetings than stuff like: why has there been an intelligence failure? Really? Really, yes.
With all the Elint (electronic intelligence) and oil industry intelligence plus the SIS (MI6) men on the ground eye spotting, did nothing tell the emergency committee and certainly not the PM’s office that a hostage hit from Mukhtar Belmokhtar’s well trained and well armed Islamists was a likely runner?
If it were not an intelligence failure, what were Mr Hague and to a lesser extent at this stage Mr Hammond doing at a meeting that could easily have been postponed?
The gold pen affair – on closer co-operation and cyber security, personnel exchange and equipment – could have been initialled and then signed later. Everyone, including the sharp minded Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith, would have seen the need for Hague and his team to be back in Whitehall minding the store.
But if Cameron played a blinder, then does it matter that Hague and Hammond were absent from the front bench? Too right it does. British lives going down, other embassies and facilities now on the target list of Islamists add up to an overture for the UK to get deeply involved, whatever the Prime Minister and FCO statements suggest.
At that point, when the PM gets up, his two Cabinet Ministers on this particular Crisis Block, should be side-by-side him. Look tough. Look confident. Ease anxieties. (Another of Sands’s asides.)
People on the ground in both Mali and Algeria – having been saying since the French went in – that Belmokhtar, who broke from the mainstream Islamists in December, needed a biggy to prove he was the one who did spectaculars. Everyone in Mali and Algiers – including Algerian PM Abdelmalek Sellal – knew the chances of that spectacular were probable rather than possible, as the intelligence jargon still has it. It would seem that everyone had a good idea but Hague, Hammond, MI6 and therefore Number 10.
It was not on the cards, so Hapless Hague and Credible Hammond were absent with leave so to be. That does not tell us that we should be confident about the system that looks after our security on the wider scale.
There’s another part to this: Hague gets all the MI6 briefing. He gets the stuff from the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (slightly beyond this brief, but with a contribution) and as the man responsible for British embassies, he has a daily security update on each one. Hague either failed to ask the right questions of all these intelligence pointy heads, or did not know what to ask, or they did not tell him what was possible.
Or worse still, somebody did say the gas installation thing was very likely, but Whitehall ignored the warning. No? Then why were Hague and Hammond not on parade?