Andy Coulson’s security clearance

Media attention is focusing this morning on the question of why Andy Coulson didn’t go through “Developed Vetting” security clearance – an in-depth background check process that involves detailed interviews not just with the applicant, but with their friends and family as well, and that might in Coulson’s case have been expected to look at the whole issue of what he knew about phone hacking.

A Number 10 spokesman is quoted by the Guardian this morning as saying,

“He had ‘security check’ level of security clearance which most officials in No 10 and most special advisers would be subject to,” a spokesman said. “The only people who will be subject to developed vetting are those who are working in security matters regularly and would need to have that sort of information. The only special advisers that would have developed vetting would be in the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and maybe the Home Office.”

Which struck me as an odd statement – because I went through Developed Vetting as soon as I arrived at the Department for International Development when I became a special adviser there in 2003. The spokesman continues:

“Andy Coulson’s role was different to Alastair Campbell’s and Jonathan Powell. Alastair Campbell could instruct civil servants. This is why [Coulson] wasn’t necessarily cleared. Given [the nature of] Andy Coulson’s role as more strategic he wouldn’t have neccesarily have been subject to developed vetting.”

And I certainly didn’t have the capacity to instruct civil servants, so that’s clearly not it either (and in any case, why would you need DV clearance to manage civil servants? It makes no sense!)

Part of the point here is that having Developed Vetting clearance – and hence permission to see Secret and Top Secret material – is not just about intelligence material from GCHQ and the Secret Intelligence Service. It’s also, more broadly, about sensitive foreign policy discussions at PM level.

When I worked in government, material issuing from 10 Downing Street – minutes of the Prime Minister’s video-conferences with the President of the US, for example – would frequently be classified as Secret. (Which would be why, as Jonathan Powell notes in the Guardian piece, all press officers were DV cleared during his time at No 10.)

So if Andy Coulson didn’t have DV clearance, then – at least on the basis of how things worked when I was at DFID – presumably he couldn’t be part of such conversations.

In other words, the No 10 communications director must have had to leave the room when David Cameron and Barack Obama were discussing Afghanistan, for example – which does seem extremely anomalous (and I wonder whether that’s actually how it worked…).