The Need to Know principle - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
Go to content

The Need to Know principle

Written on or around 20 September 2015

One of the most worrying aspects of today’s defence policy and the associated politics is that no-one seems willing to trust anyone else any more. I don’t think I need to spell out recent events revolving around the machinations of the main political parties – in any case I know nothing more about them than I’ve read in the press and seen on TV. What I do know, however, from my many years in the RAF when I was privileged to be given access to highly sensitive intelligence, is that there are far too many people who think they should be allowed access to classified information out of idle curiosity or simply because of who they are.

When I first joined the RAF V Bomber Force in 1960, we were taught, and then reminded at regular intervals, about the ‘need-to-know’ principle. If you didn’t need to know some specific classified information in order to carry out your duties, you had no right to be told it. For example, as long as I wasn’t employed on a V Bomber nuclear squadron, I had no right to know anything about the nuclear capabilities, war targets, and roles of those squadrons – and for a few years I never did. The ‘need-to-know’ principle was strictly enforced or, to be more accurate, it was supposed to be strictly enforced.

When I was appointed to the first of my many part-time PR jobs, a secondary duty as Press Officer at RAF Finningley in the early 1960s, my briefing from the Station Commander was simple and to the point: “Your job is to keep my station out of the newspapers.” (The word media was not used in those days in the way we now use it, and TV News was in its infancy.) I had to learn about D Notices, which were ‘requests’ to newspaper editors not to publish any classified information that they might inadvertently learn during an authorised visit to a military establishment. Nevertheless, there were times when reporters were deliberately asked to sign a D Notice before being given a classified briefing to ensure that they didn't subsequently accidentally breach the Official Secrets Act.

For example, one day in 1963 Chapman Pincher, the then very well-known and highly respected Defence Correspondent for the Daily Express, came on a visit to Finningley and we, the aircrew, were told that Pincher was cleared to be briefed up to and including Secret. That certainly caused quite a flutter in the V-Bomber aircrew lounges! However, when Harold Wilson came to RAF Gaydon the following year soon after becoming Prime Minister, and I was by then the Station PRO for Gaydon, we were briefed that under no circumstances were we to discuss any classified material in his hearing. The implication was that, Prime Minister or not, Harold Wilson was not to be trusted with any defence secrets - and that caused an even greater flutter amongst the aircrew! If you are too young to understand why I mention Pincher and Wilson in the same paragraph, use your browser to search for 'chapman pincher harold wilson', without the inverted commas, of course. Read the articles and draw your own conclusions.

There were, and probably still are, four main security classification categories: Restricted, Confidential, Secret and Top Secret. Additionally, there were caveats for different nationalities: for example, there was the self-explanatory UK Eyes Only – and the US equivalent, NOFORN. There was also a caveat nicknamed ‘Five Eyes’, which meant that information it covered was to be released only to persons of UK, US, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand nationality. It could get quite complicated and there were doubtless more that I never had access to! On one of my official visits to GCHQ in 1980, I accidentally learned as a result of someone else's assumption about my clearance level, that there were other classifications even higher than Top Secret. As we Yorkshiremen often say to each other, with a forefinger pointing to our nose: "Only them as knows their own, knows!"

Back to where this piece started: defence policy and politicians. We should certainly be able to trust our politicians to tell the truth – those in government and those in the official opposition. We are also entitled to expect that those who are given classified intelligence briefings do not use that intelligence for personal, political gain. Of course, we should not expect our intelligence agencies to tell us, Mr & Mrs Joe Public, all the details of what they know and how they learned what they know, because to do that, as events of very recent years have clearly shown, not only lets our enemies know that they have been rumbled but alerts them of the urgent need to change their methods. That is why so-called ‘fake news’ is, these days, so insidious.

Back to content