21 Jul 2011

Andy Coulson had only ‘standard’ security vetting

Government sources tell Channel 4 News the fact Andy Coulson did not face top-level security checks before working as No 10 spokesman would have made it difficult to do the job.

Andy Coulson, formerly the PM's spokesman, did not have top-level security clearance (Getty)

It has emerged that Andy Coulson faced only basic security checks before taking up his post in Downing Street.

The former News of the World editor had considerably lower clearance than his predecessors, including Alastair Campbell, who ran communications for Tony Blair.

The limited security checks meant that Mr Coulson was denied access to top secret documents, and could not attend high level meetings such as Cobra, the Government’s emergency committee.

It also meant that he avoided any forensic checks into his background by Government investigators and MI5 for issues that could compromise him.

It does seem odd that someone who is responsible for the communication operation in Number 10 doesn’t seem to be in full control of the facts. Former special adviser to ex-Cabinet Minister

A former special adviser to an ex-Cabinet Minister told Channel 4 News this basic access would have “hampered” Mr Coulson’s ability to do his job.

The source told Channel 4 News: “I think he’d be severely hampered because he wouldn’t be able to give any communication advice on counter-terrorism issues or national security because he wouldn’t have full grasp of the information.

“It does seem odd that someone who is responsible for the communication operation in Number 10 doesn’t seem to be in full control of the facts.”

A spokesman for Number 10 said: “We are reiterating what the Prime Minister said in the Commons, that Mr Coulson was vetted. He was not able to see the most sensitive documents in Government, and he obeyed that code of conduct. Everyone working in Government is subject to national security vetting.”

Alastair Campbell has predicted that there will be “some unravelling ahead” to the official line that Andy Coulson did not need a higher level of vetting because he did not need to see sensitive and secret material.

Writing in his blog on the “loose ends” of the hacking scandal, Campbell says: “I am sure that when Mr Cameron became PM, the expectation among the waiting civil service would have been that the key people around him would have had access to key meetings and papers. So either someone – Mr Cameron or Mr Coulson – decided that the communications director should not be on that list of new faces to be put through developed vetting. It would be good, if this were so, to know the reasons.

“Or, the civil service – possibly encouraged by the Palace – decided that Mr Coulson should not have the access predecessors in the role had done.

“Whichever it is, there was something very odd going on here. It would be wrong to say it would be impossible to do the job without access to sensitive material for which DV status is required. But it would certainly be a lot harder.

“I suspect that in coming days journalists will quite easily be able to ferret out information to the effect that Mr Coulson had been at meetings and seen papers he was not, apparently, cleared to see.”

In Parliament on Wednesday Mr Cameron confirmed that Mr Coulson had had only a “basic level of vetting”.

The revelations will put even more pressure on the Prime Minister, who on Wednesday said he regretted the “furore” caused by the hiring of Andy Coulson, who has brought the PM far too close for comfort to the phone-hacking scandal. Mr Coulson resigned from his post at No 10 over the issue in January, and was arrested over phone-hacking allegations, dating from his time at the News of the World, last week.

Security vetting for civil servants

Now there are new concerns over Mr Coulson’s time with the Prime Minister.

There are a series of security clearance levels for civil servants like Mr Coulson, which are outlined in a document produced by the Cabinet Office, although Government insiders told Channel 4 News these are less “grades” than guides. If staff needed higher clearance than normal to do their job, they would get it.

The levels of security go from the basic check, called the “Baseline Personnel Security Standard”, which all staff are subject to, right up to “Developed Vetting” (DV), which allows access to top secret and top secret codeword material, including nuclear material and “protectively marked” material from other countries.

The top level of security vetting involves checks by MI5 and a number of interviews to uncover whether the prospective employee has anything in their past which could cause problems. It is understood that previous No 10 communications staff had these kind of checks, but Mr Coulson was only subject to the middle band of inquiries into his background, a security check and a counter terrorist check.

Read more: Andy Coulson and a career of controversy

Government insiders said it was not necessary for every member of communication teams to have the DV top level of vetting but added: “You would probably expect the director of communications to have that level of vetting.”

Another former adviser told Channel 4 News: “I am surprised that Andy Coulson didn’t have the level of DV given the seniority of his position. It would be interesting to know if he had access to any papers or meetings above his security clearance.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “We do not comment on the vetting level or status of individual current or former members of staff. That said, anyone working in the Prime Minister’s Office is of course subject to national security vetting. The type of vetting undertaken will depend on the level of access they require to sensitive information and other factors.”