The UK press is in an uproar over the allegation that a Cabinet minister who attended a National Security Council (NSC) meeting on 23 April leaked information. A minister is believed to have contacted a journalist at the Daily Telegraph on a non-attributable basis and said that the UK government had decided to grant Huawei limited involvement in non-core parts of the 5G network. The Minister would have felt quite at ease in doing this: intelligence matters are pretty freely discussed if you are “the right people”. That is one of the reasons why Spying Today was established. But now the headlines are full of threats of criminal prosecutions and former ministers are lining up to denounce the leak as a betrayal of the basic principles of security.
Readers of Spying Today (or any other news outlet) will know that the struggle over Huawei’s involvement in building the UK’s 5G network has been continuing for some time. That struggle is only partly about security. The UK has for some years been managing the security threat posed by Huawei’s involvement with the Chinese government, chiefly by running Huawei tech through “The Cell”, a GCHQ facility near Oxford.
The real fight over Huawei has been far more concerned with the United States’ current trade war with China. The Trump administration sees pressure on Huawei as an additional lever in forcing more concessions from China. This approach has even led to the arrest the daughter of the company’s founder. America would also like to see US tech used in the 5G networks, carefully omitting to mention that US equipment and software is likely to have just as many NSA backdoors as Chinese tech does for their intelligence services. (If you have doubts, a quick internet check on the histroy of Cisco will give you the background).
The Trump administration has leaned heavily on its allies, even threatening that anyone who does business with Huawei will find their access to US intelligence withdrawn. Germany has been a particular target of US threats. For US allies, the dilemma has been weighing up unfettered access to US intelligence against the possible loss of trading opportunities with China. Most US allies are trying to build economic bridges with China at a time when the United States is going to (economic) war.
So this fight is not really about security (although security is of course a major concern). The real fight is about the struggle between the United States and China and whether US allies will fall into line behind US policy. At the NSC meeting on 23 April, the United Kingdom seems to have taken what looks like a reasonable decision: allow Huawei some access to 5G thus not destroying valuable economic ties, but at the same time restricting Huawei access to “non-core” 5G elements (whatever that is) and thus attempting to allay most of the United States’ security concerns.
What has happened since then says more about the state of UK politics than it does about the state of UK security. The UK Cabinet is split as contenders line up to become the next Conservative party leader. One of the divisions in the Cabinet is between those who want to be close to the United States and those who believe the UK should take a more independent line in the post-Brexit world. One of those who supports the United States was clearly upset at the thought that the UK had not fallen into line and decided to leak the decision. This was for two reasons:
a) to weaken the Prime Minister by suggesting that she was not paying proper attention to UK security concerns and the recommendations of the intelligence services;
b) to strengthen their own hand by signalling to the Trump administration that they are strong supporters of US policies and should therefore get White House support;
They felt that they could do this because the regular Cabinet has been leaking information at an astonishing rate so that it now hardly seems like a betrayal to speak to the press at all. The leaker simply saw the National Security Council as just another Cabinet meeting.
That was a mistake. The NSC meetings consider intelligence material and are therefore covered by the Official Secrets Act. Unlike a Cabinet meeting, leaking information can lead to prosecution and jail time. This is why no-one has ever leaked information from an NSC meeting before.
Those who support the Prime Minister together with rivals of the leaker for the leadership position, saw an opportunity to strike. They quickly approached their own contacts in the media. Cue headlines about the unacceptability of the leak and calls for a criminal prosecution of the leaker. They did not do this because of security concerns. From the security point of view, the intelligence service are actually fairly relaxed about this story for three reasons:
a) because no actual intelligence was leaked. The fact that they oppose Huawei on security grounds is well known. Heads of the services have even been giving public speeches about their position;
b) they were a little upset that their recommendations have not been accepted and were quite relaxed the fact that the Prime Minister was suffering some discomfort after not fully supporting their position;
c) Note that the Daily Telegraph saw no problem in publishing this leak despite the fact that they are one of the newspapers closest to the intelligence services. If they had any doubts at all about whether the intelligence services could live with this leak they would have almost certainly contacted the intelligence services for further advice. They either didn’t or didn’t need to.
So if this isn’t primarily a security matter, why all the fuss? The answer is that the UK Prime Minister is under siege and badly needs a win. If it can be proved who the leaker was, then she is likely to be able to take out one of the pretenders to her throne. The outcry in the media is so strong that the political career of the leaker would be finished – at least for the forseeable future. The opposition parties in Parliament have joined in the furore simply because they see a chance to embarrass the government.
The current crisis is not really about security or intelligence. It is about the Conservative Party leadership race.