this is a security announcement

There’s been a little progress on some of the lines of inquiry in this post. First up, the question of whether or not Coulson was subjected to security vetting before joining No.10 Downing Street, and if so, what the Defence Vetting Agency said about him. This one took a relatively long time to spin up, but now it’s landed in this piece.

Coulson, arrested by police on Friday over his role in the scandal, went on to be cleared by the security vetting team at Downing Street after three in-depth interviews about his professional and personal life. He was given “strap one” status, which allowed him the highest access to top-secret material.

So not only did they hire him, they gave him a Top Secret security clearance. Wow. Shoulda googled, DVA, shoulda googled. To say nothing of DontDateHimGirl, or perhaps that gangland website Jamie Kenny linked a while back. Here are the criteria for the different levels of vetting:

You will need a security check if, in the course of your work, you will regularly need access to SECRET and sometimes TOP SECRET (under supervision) information or assets. You will need developed vetting if your work will involve substantial unsupervised access to TOP SECRET information or assets, access to category 1 nuclear material or access to material from other countries and international organisations. If you don’t think your job will involve accessing any of this information, you should check with your sponsor whether you need to be vetted.

A question. One of the reasons why this is important is that the prime minister’s office receives, as well as Joint Intelligence Committee and Defence Intelligence assessments, a special ration of choice raw intelligence material from GCHQ. This exquisitely practised method of making the prime minister feel special comes in a file known as a BJ, and I’m damned if I’m not going to get a rise with this joke having invented it for my review of Richard Aldrich’s history of British SIGINT as far back as last August.

I prefer to think of it as the world’s most classified blog. But anyway, this is as secret as secret gets, and moreover it is signals intelligence and therefore covered by special security procedures. These procedures are standardised between the UK, US, and other allies who cooperate on signals intelligence in a document called IRSIG for International Regulations on Signals Intelligence. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t contain the words “By all means show it to your dodgy spin doctor who hires people who plant drugs in cars during divorce cases, bribe coppers, and murder each other with axes in pub car parks”. What do the Americans, to say nothing of the intelligence-bureaucratic complex right here, make of the whole sorry mess?

Moving swiftly on, what did Cameron know and when did he know it? What might have gone into the report? For the details, the DVA’s “So you and your family are being grilled by faintly Pinter-esque security agents! Why didn’t you decide to be, say, a quantity surveyor?” page is pretty illuminating although not quite as good as the official Subject’s Information Leaflet (PDF).

The interview will cover most areas of your life. The vetting officer will build up
as complete a picture of you as is possible. We have to consider your loyalty, honesty and reliability, and whether you could be more at risk of bribery or blackmail than others. We will ask you about your wider family background (relationships and influences), past experiences, health, sexual relationships
and behaviour, drinking habits, experience of drug taking, financial affairs, general political views, hobbies, foreign travel and so on.

Apparently they didn’t think to ask if Coulson was particularly likely to commit bribery. It looks like they’d have noticed if he was behind on his mortgage, if he was gay, if he’d ever so much as looked at a spliff, or if he’d been in a trade union – all the usual “well, somebody might blackmail you with the threat of having your security clearance withdrawn, so we have to make sure we withdraw the clearance, thus completing the circle and making the blackmail possible to begin with” stuff.

Another question. Who were Coulson’s character references? Wouldn’t it be hilarious if one was Rebekah Brooks, or one of the various politicians who claim to consider him a friend?

Snark. I once had to complete a security clearance form and the bit that stuck in my mind was that I had to swear that I would not try to overthrow parliamentary democracy by violent, subversive, or industrial means. I’ve managed to stay legit so far, although the temptation can be a bastard. But there was nothing about running a really shitty newspaper that had to hide from its readers behind high walls, steel fences, and CCTV cameras, nor about planting cocaine on unsuspecting women.


  1. What are the industrial means of overthrowing parliamentary democracy? I assume it is a bizarre euphemistic way of saying oh noes teh unions?

  2. I think that was about the size of it.

    The “parliamentary” bit is odd, too – were they really that worried about people plotting to establish an executive presidency?

  3. Rob

    Another way of looking at the parliamentary democracy bit on the security clearance form is to see it as evidence of how deeply ingrained absolute parliamentary sovereignty is for the British establishment, since it allows for you to attempt to overthrow parliamentary democracy as long as you do it through parliamentary democracy. It’s fine to try and get parliament to abolish itself.

    More seriously, you wonder what the hell else is getting through vetting procedures.




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