Margaret Thatcher and the Joint Intelligence Committee

Soon after taking office a new Prime Minister receives special briefings from the Cabinet Secretary. One is on the ‘letters of last resort’, which give instructions to the commander of the British submarine on patrol with the nuclear deterrent, in the event of an attack that destroys the Government. Another briefing outlines the structure and control of the intelligence machinery, including the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in the Cabinet Office. Sir John Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary in 1979, briefed Margaret Thatcher on the intelligence structure, including counter-subversion activities, the day after her election victory of 3 May.

Margaret Thatcher arrives at Number 10 Downing Street 1979

Margaret Thatcher arrives at Number 10 Downing Street 1979

Thatcher had started a programme of visits to Government departments to see first-hand what some of the 732,000 officials inherited from James Callaghan’s administration actually did. In September, during a routine briefing by Brian Tovey, the Director of GCHQ, Thatcher showed great interest in the way in which intelligence was collated and assessed by the JIC, stressing that assessment should be free from policy (or political) considerations. She also expressed a wish to attend a JIC meeting. It would be the first time a Prime Minister had attended the JIC since its creation in 1936.

It fell to Sir John Hunt, a former Secretary of the JIC, to make the arrangements, but there were complications. First, the JIC Chairman, Sir Antony Duff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), had also been made Deputy Governor of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) after the British Government assumed direct rule of the rebellious colony. He was a key participant in the Lancaster House Conference, aiming finally to settle the Rhodesian problem, and could not be sure to attend the JIC until after its conclusion. Second, the JIC normally met on Thursday mornings in 70 Whitehall, which was also when the Cabinet met in 10 Downing Street, so a special JIC meeting would need to be arranged.

Extra work was also needed. The agenda of the Committee typically related to events of immediate interest and focused on Soviet (and other powers’) capabilities, opportunities and aims. Thatcher had asked deeper questions about the longer-term motivation and intentions of the Soviet Government and it was thought wise to include papers on this topic at the JIC meeting she was to attend. Two relevant papers were in preparation. One covered the long-term aims of Soviet foreign policy, but not the underlying motivation. A second sought to define the characteristics of the Soviet Union in the forthcoming decade. Hunt also commissioned a third, to analyse, in depth, the broader thinking and rationale of the Soviet leaders.

In a briefing note prepared for Thatcher by the JIC’s Secretary and the Intelligence Co-ordinator, the JIC’s main responsibilities were described, including the difference between policy-making officials and elected ministers:

[the JIC’s] main function is to assemble, evaluate and present joint intelligence on events, situations and problems in the field of external affairs and defence as may be required by the Cabinet, individual Ministers or the Chiefs of Staff, or as the Committee consider necessary. This means that the JIC provides a forum for the approval of interdepartmentally agreed assessments where the main customer Departments for intelligence are brought together with the intelligence agencies. The JIC provides assessments for use by policy makers; it is not within its terms of reference to discuss policy or make policy recommendations.

Thatcher’s visit took place on Friday, leap year day 1980, in the JIC room (room 215) in the Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall. It began at 10.00am immediately after she had chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Office Oversea and Defence Committee. She was provided with a ‘quicker, more convenient and discrete route’ to the room, using a ‘normally unused security door’. Thatcher set aside a full two hours for the session which took place under high security – even her own official diary merely contained a bland entry: “Keep free for Cabinet Office.” She sat at the head of the conference table between Sir Antony Acland (who had succeeded Duff as Chairman) and Sir Robert Armstrong, the new Cabinet Secretary. All members of the Committee attended, including the ten British officials from intelligence and policy departments, ranging from the Chief of the JIC Assessments Staff and ‘C’, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, to representatives from the FCO and Ministry of Defence, and the Intelligence Co-ordinator. Also in attendance, as was normal, were representatives of the UK’s closest allies, who were present for the discussion of current intelligence and then withdrew.

The JIC Chairman opened proceedings by welcoming the Prime Minister and declaring that her presence was ‘as far as could be established without precedence’, continuing that ‘the Committee were gratified and encouraged by the Prime Minister’s interest in intelligence, and her attendance at this meeting would be a stimulus to its work’. The Committee then discussed, as was customary, items of current intelligence.

Thatcher offered her support for these regular, weekly updates but also suggested that the language they employed was ‘nuanced’. ‘It would be helpful’, she explained, ‘if key judgments in the assessments could be highlighted by placing them in eye-catching sentences couched in plainly expressed language’. This was an understandable criticism of the JIC papers, but also suggested a potentially dangerous precedent, for it implied making often vague and fragmentary intelligence clearer and more definitive than it necessarily ought to be.  Perhaps as a result, Acland agreed to ‘consider’ revising their ‘presentation’.

The Committee then moved onto its more substantive work, following the withdrawal of the allied liaison officers, considering a longer draft assessment on Soviet foreign policy in the 1980s, focussing on how the recent invasion of Afghanistan might affect future decisions. Thatcher did not intervene, and there is no record of her expressing any views on the topic. Thereafter several minor administrative matters were discussed, relating to the ‘utility of JIC assessments’.

Thatcher later commented how valuable the session had been in helping her to see the Committee’s reports in context. She left the Committee with views on how the material should best be presented for ministerial consumption, stating that ‘the work of the Committee is of considerable importance and it is essential therefore that it should be presented to the best effect.’ Quite what Thatcher intended has not been preserved; neither has any record of an internal discussion within the JIC structure. In practice there was a change, though it does not seem to have followed from the specific point raised by the Prime Minister. Items of current intelligence in the Weekly Survey of Intelligence or ‘Red Book’, as it is known, had, until that point, provided details of the sources of intelligence. Following Thatcher’s intervention these were removed.

Margaret Thatcher continued to take a close interest in the working of the Committee, ranging from frequent annotations on its weekly reports to a more critical discussion with Sir Patrick Wright (Acland’s successor as Chairman) on 25 April 1982, just over three weeks after the surprise Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. The subsequent review, chaired by retired diplomat Lord Franks, recommended that future JIC Chairmen should be independent and appointed by the Prime Minister. According to her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, Thatcher was ‘positively besotted’ by intelligence. Part of the explanation is provided in the recollections of the final JIC Chairman under Thatcher, Sir Percy Cradock, who eloquently summarised her views and passion:

Mrs Thatcher respected intelligence and had a keen appetite for it. She was aware from personal experience that we lived in a dangerous world… She was aware that Britain had a powerful intelligence machine, was good at the game, and enjoyed in consequence valuable influence in Washington. That mattered… The value and prestige of the intelligence services gained in consequence. How was policy affected? The policy-makers were well informed and often forearmed. British ministers had consistently better briefs than foreign colleagues. The Prime Minister was given the underpinning for a robust and expert response to the multifarious threats to the British interests…

Copyright  and  . This article was produced as part of the No10 Guest Historian series, coordinated by History & Policy.