Bruce Anderson

Tinker, tailor, soldier, stooge

Bruce Anderson reveals the steps by which the intelligence services succumbed to the magnetic charm of Tony Blair

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THE conventions of secrecy were maintained. Only Richard Dearlove's disembodied voice appeared in front of the Hutton inquiry. But, irrespective of the effect on individuals' reputations, there are fears that recent events have compromised the Secret Intelligence Service. Its operating procedures have been subjected to too much daylight, and it has been used for purposes that were never intended. One former intelligence officer has described this as the Icarus syndrome; SIS has flown too close to the sun. In this case, the sun is Tony Blair.

There is a piquancy in Mr Blair's developing such a close and indeed affectionate relationship with SIS. About a year before he became Prime Minister, he was invited to lunch at the service's Vauxhall Cross HQ. Those present hoped to dispel any suggestion that they were a bunch of right-wing fascists and to assure the Labour leader that SIS would work as hard and loyally for his government as it had for previous Labour governments. Tony Blair seemed unimpressed. He appeared to take little notice of what was said to him. The lunch was a stilted affair; it was one of the rare occasions when Mr Blair's charm had deserted him. He came across as graceless, edgy and uninterested. After his departure, his hosts scratched their heads over his attitude. They wondered if his mind had been poisoned against them and, if so, whether the damage was redeemable. No one present at that lunch – least of all Mr Blair himself – would have predicted that within four years the new PM would have at least as good a working relationship with SIS as any of his predecessors.

This was partly a result of changed circumstances. Back in 1996, Tony Blair expected to be a domestically focused PM, with only one major foreign-policy priority: Europe, where SIS had little contribution to make. Events developed otherwise, and as they did, Mr Blair became more and more involved with defence and intelligence. Like many of his predecessors, he was struck by the contrast between the cheerful efficiency with which soldiers and intelligence officers set about their tasks and the committee-burdened procrastination of the home Civil Service.

There was a further factor. Although SIS has always recruited able officers, the group that was rising to the top by the late 1990s was exceptionally talented. They were also formidable personalities. Since the war, despite its cloak-and-dagger image, SIS has recruited a lot of officers with an academic temperament: very suitable for the close, cautious analysis of complex intelligence material. The characters who now hold the key posts are at least as academically gifted as their predecessors, but there seem to be more big-scale figures.

Richard Dearlove is an obvious example. He has always been outstanding behind a desk, but, as one would expect of someone who, as a young officer, went trekking with Wilfred Thesiger, his personality could never be confined to a desk. The same is true of his board of directors. Even a prime minister would find it hard to see such men at work without being impressed. The chilly luncheon at Vauxhall Cross was quickly forgotten.

Mr Blair was also influenced by SIS's worldview. Well before 9/11, he had been persuaded of the danger that terrorist groups would get hold of WMD. Post-9/11, he got religion on the subject. This inevitably heightened the role of SIS, as did Afghanistan.

After 20 years of virtually no contact with the country, the Foreign Office had little to add to Afghan discussions. SIS did, as did the SAS. But SIS's role quickly crossed the frontier between operations and policy. Afghanistan earned it a seat at the top table, which it retained for Iraq. There were a number of reasons for this. In the first place, conventional diplomacy had little role to play in the build-up to the conflict. From the outset it was clear there would not be another grand coalition as in 1990