So, as expected, Cressida Dick, Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the woman responsible for the operation which resulted in the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes, is on her way to SIS in January 2015… or at least that’s what everyone assumes. The announcement (or rather non-announcement) of the appointment has raised two interesting issues.
The first is the manner of the delivery of the news. The Metropolitan Police issued a statement that she would be retiring and taking up a post at the Foreign Office. Naturally, the Foreign Office was contacted by various media outlets asking what post she would be taking up. The Foreign Office mumbled that it really couldn’t say….
This is quite pathetic. If Ms Dick was heading for a legitimate FCO post then their spokesperson should simply have been able to say so. Instead, by making the appointment seem all very cloak-and-dagger, the FCO has led observers (hostile and otherwise) to assume that she is going to SIS. This may well have increased the security threat to her. They should either have come clean about the SIS appointment which would leave them in no worse situation than they are now or they should have had an FCO cover role prepared as traditionally happens with other SIS appointments (see Dorrill’s MI6 and elsewhere). The FCO’s apparent excuse is that they do not comment on intelligence matters. But why not? SIS is an official government department. Either SIS should have asked the FCO to disguise her move or they should have admitted it (in PR terms, the appointment of a senior woman to SIS might, arguably, be very productive – see below), but instead they have been left hanging about like a small child trying to explain where its homework went – very much to the amusement of numerous journalists. (BTW, I am told that the Daily Mail actually said on its website that she was joining SIS, but then changed the headline to their story. I can’t confirm that as I didn’t see it, but at present their website talks of her appointment to “a secretive job in the Foreign Office” which is simply Press code for the same thing.)
One might ask how SIS ended up in this predicament. It is not hard to imagine why. It was the Met who made the announcement of Dick’s retirement. Chances are that they did not bother to let SIS know. It seems unbelievable, but the Met and SIS are two separate and rather jealous empires. Furthermore, intelligence history teaches us that this sort of SNAFU is far from uncommon. When John Sawers was appointed as the new Chief of SIS five years ago, the security branch of SIS was supposed to “clear his coat-tails” i.e. make sure that there were no embarrassing traces of him or his family left in the public record. Apparently (and astonishingly) they forgot that something called “Facebook” existed (which is a bit ironic given the ISC’s report as described below). As a result of this “oversight”, a picture of Sawers in his swimming trunks was published around the world. Rather unflattering comparisons were drawn with the iconic image of Daniel Craig emerging from the surf in his speedos and a copy was reportedly on every officer’s wall in Yasenevo (the SVR’s headquarters in Moscow). The omission was so unbelievable that there was even a story that the picture had been left up as a protest by some SIS officers against having an “outsider” appointed as their new boss. Whatever the truth, the question remained: if you can’t get it right for something as important the appointment of a new Chief, when can you get it right?
The second issue arises from the first: why appoint an external and senior female candidate to what must surely be a high-ranking post at SIS? A Director level appointment has been suggested, possibly Director of Counter Terrorism. There are two likely reasons for this. The first is the continued effort to raise the level of SIS’s performance. As was stated above, five years ago the then Labour government appointed an external candidate to be the new Chief because SIS’s performance had been so poor in the lead-up to Iraq. This was a considerable slap in the face for the organisation and the first time it had happened since the Philby and Blake debacles of the 1960s. Furthermore, we have just seen the publication of the ISC’s report into Lee Rigby’s murder by Islamic extremists. In that report, buried deep in civil-service language, were trenchant criticisms of SIS’s recent performance. It was described as “deeply unsatisfactory“. One sentence of the report read: “SIS must ensure that their procedures are improved so that this does not happen again.” From this it seems that the Sawers appointment did not achieve its aim or at least, not fully. The appointment of an outside expert to a key counter-terrorism post just two days after a damning report would seem an unsurprising development – but it is also another slap in the face for the current management of SIS. Cynics might remark that this might be another reason why the announcement was bungled…
The other reason for this particular appointment is the need to get senior women into positions of power at SIS – which still appears to be very much of an old boys club. Women have made it up the ladder as far as Director level in the past, but while MI5 has already had two female leaders, SIS has not had one and will not do so for at least the next five years. If they cannot come up through the ranks, then you have to appoint them from outside as a way of breaking up the various tribal loyalties within the organisation. But the problems with this apparent solution are two-fold: in the first place, Dicks, if she really is going there, will be hampered by being both a woman and an outsider, a double handicap which may severely hamper her effectiveness. The outsider element in the equation should not be under-estimated: it was also a factor in the Gareth Williams incident. In PR terms it is not a straigtforward win either. Dicks still has the de Menezes affair hanging around her neck. Any credit that will be built up amongst the Service’s usual critics for appointing a woman will be quickly lost because she was the officer who allowed what amounted to an execution of an innocent man followed by an investigation that was widely condemned by independent observers.
Her appointment, if it is such, is not the easy solution that it might appear to be.