Secrets, Lies and Diplomats: We Know Next to Nothing of How Our Overseas Embassy Staff Operate in Our Name. in an Astonishing Expose, a Former High-Flying Official Reveals the Vanity, Elitism and Lack of Moral Purpose in Britain's Diplomatic Service

By Ross, Carne | New Statesman (1996), February 26, 2007 | Go to article overview

Secrets, Lies and Diplomats: We Know Next to Nothing of How Our Overseas Embassy Staff Operate in Our Name. in an Astonishing Expose, a Former High-Flying Official Reveals the Vanity, Elitism and Lack of Moral Purpose in Britain's Diplomatic Service


Ross, Carne, New Statesman (1996)


When you join the Foreign Office, and once you have been "positively vetted", you are required to sign the Official Secrets Act. This draconian document comprises your agreement never in your lifetime to reveal to outsiders, or to publicise in any way, the content of your work. With astonishing breadth, the act defines the information that you must protect to your grave as any official business, determined by the government itself. In other words, anything that you do in the course of your work is to be kept secret, forever. Any revelation about what that work entailed is, in theory, a criminal offence. When I was offered the document to sign, I did not hesitate. The glamour of secrecy lured me in, and I simply never believed that the day would come when its strictures might seem more a threat than an invitation.

The signing of the Official Secrets Act marks one initiation into the culture of secrecy that pervades government, and particularly those parts of it dealing with foreign policy. When you learn how to handle documents, for instance, you are taught that the originator of the document must classify it, using designations starting with "restricted" up to "top secret". You are taught that only those documents that would not perturb you if they were handed out to passers-by on the street can be designated "unclassified". Unsurprisingly, therefore, almost every document produced inside the Foreign Office is classified "restricted" or above.

This culture is constantly reinforced throughout one's career. Telegrams are transmitted only when highly encrypted. All computers are hardened against electronic eavesdropping. Telephones carry stickers warning against divulging state confidences. So many and so ubiquitous are these limitations, that it is soon clear that the only people with whom one can discuss candidly what "we" are doing are one's colleagues--other members of the club of "we". One should only talk to people with a "need to know". This excludes almost everyone, including those in whose name "we" are acting.

The creation of the identity of a British diplomat, the exponent of the state, can seem a process which is innocent, unloaded and necessary. It could be argued that such a process is requisite for the international system the world today enjoys. States interact in this system; therefore the system requires exponents of the state's wishes, steeped in the richest sense of what their nation stands for. But my experience suggests that intrinsic in this process of diplomatic identity-creation is something dangerous.

In spite of the almost complete absence of outside scrutiny, the British Foreign Office does not "do" self-criticism. From the day I stepped into the training department, to the day I left my last full job at the UK mission in New York, it was part of the air I breathed that what "we" were offering the world was good. The oldest parliamentary democracy on the globe, a successful economy, an ancient culture: we represented the acme of what the rest of the world should aspire to. We were, moreover, pragmatic and "sensible" (never idealist, that was too romantic and therefore silly). American diplomacy, though marked with different emphases (the infinitely variable notion of "freedom"), is little different. Even when our motives were transparently different, we were encouraged, subtly and through imitation, to claim that we were offering others versions of ourselves: our democracy, our laws, our "values".

Pervasive complacency

In Afghanistan in 2002, our policy was framed as the delivery of stability and democracy, even when our motive was solely (and not illegitimately) our own security. I believed this identity: it made me feel better (particularly when defending the effects of sanctions in Iraq) and it gave me purpose. I only stopped believing it when the contrary evidence became too compelling to ignore.

This self-regard breeds a pervasive complacency. …

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Secrets, Lies and Diplomats: We Know Next to Nothing of How Our Overseas Embassy Staff Operate in Our Name. in an Astonishing Expose, a Former High-Flying Official Reveals the Vanity, Elitism and Lack of Moral Purpose in Britain's Diplomatic Service
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