Britain’s new National Security Council is built along much the same lines as its counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic – but if we’re copying the American model, how come we didn’t create a National Intelligence Council to go with it?
In the US, the NIC partly plays the role that the Joint Intelligence Committee performs in the UK system (although the National Intelligence Estimates that NIC produces are much more in-depth than JIC assessments). But the NIC also performs several additional tasks which are not well performed in Britain’s new system for foreign policy co-ordination.
For instance, in the US the NIC has the job of overall risk surveillance in the foreign policy domain over a 3-5 year timescale, including transnational threats and global issues as well as individual regions, and with strong emphasis on connecting the dots to see the larger picture (as for instance in NIC’s recent report on Global Trends to 2025). Unlike the JIC, the NIC uses both secret and open source data in drawing together this composite assessment – rather than falling into the Cold War trap of assuming that all the important information will come from covertly obtained data. And while the UK has experimented with a Strategic Horizons Unit in the Cabinet Office, it has suffered from being divorced from actual policymaking – unlike the NIC, which is firmly embedded in all levels of the NSC process.
This in turn allows the NIC to perform the second key role missing from the current UK configuration: the ‘red team’ challenge function that David and I call for in our Chatham House report Organising for Influence. The NIC’s seat at the NSC table in Washington comes with a clear mandate from the President to test other players’ assumptions, challenge policy options, and provide an additional view for policymakers. In the UK, by contrast, no part of the government enjoys the same ‘licence to be awkward’ – which creates a risk of groupthink, or alternatively of inter-departmental turf warfare with inadequate attention paid to the big picture.
Third, the NIC has a critical role in briefing Congress on long range foreign policy issues, increasing legislative awareness of the foreign policy context (senior NIC staff describe the role as complementary to that of the Congressional Budget Office in creating shared awareness of challenges facing the US). While the UK’s Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee does get access to (some) JIC data, the security classification of JIC assessments clearly prevents them from being shared with, say, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and International Development Select Committees. A UK version of the NIC, on the other hand, could provide unclassified, open source assessments to Parliament – enhancing Parliamentary involvement in, and oversight of, Britain’s foreign policy context.
Finally, the NIC plays a crucial role in bringing external thinking in to government on foreign policy issues by trawling the academic and think tank communities for ideas, including through its NIC Associates program. The UK, by contrast, tends to find this a lot more difficult. While the Strategic Horizons Unit undertook extensive outreach for the update of the NSS, it was badly linked to actual policymaking as noted above; and while FCO’s Policy Planning Staff is theoretically charged with maintaining close links with think tanks, in practice it has not done so for several years.
Admittedly, the NSC probably needs a bit of time to bed down before any more changes are made to the UK’s foreign policy architecture (there’s also the small matter of the Strategic Defence and Security Review to get out of the way). But when the government reviews its new arrangements, probably some time next year, it should give serious thought to a UK NIC.