Former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell has said this week's leaks from the National Security Council are “incredibly serious” and backed the decision of successor Sir Mark Sedwill to launch an inquiry after details of its discussions appeared in the press.
O’Donnell, who in 2010 created the NSC as well as separating the post of national security advisor from the role of cabinet secretary, said that the committee was created as “a special body” and the leaks of its deliberations regarding Chinese telecoms firm Huawei were a grave concern.
Earlier this week it was revealed that ministers had decided the firm could provide some elements of the equipment for the UK's future 5G data network, despite warnings of a security risk. It is believed the decision was taken at a meeting of the government's National Security Council on Tuesday.
Senior ministers have denied being behind the leak of information after it was reported that Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, has set up a formal investigation into how details of Theresa May's plans to give Huawei a role in the development of the 5G network were passed to the Daily Telegraph.
O’Donnell said that the leaking of information from the council was “beyond the pale” and backed the decision by Sedwill, who also holds the post of national security adviser, to launch a full leak inquiry.
“This is incredibly serious, this is complete outrage," he said. "I set up the national security council on behalf of the coalition government back in 2010 and it is a very special body. Whenever a meeting starts you start with the head of the JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee] assessing the intelligence evidence. This is highly classified material, I used to say to people when you come into the NSC you leave the politics at the door – and you leave your mobile phones at the door, let’s be absolutely clear.
“I can understand in a world where we have very divided cabinet over Brexit, we have had a prime minister who has said she is going to go… you’ve got these fissions. I can understand that for aspects of cabinet – I deplore it and it makes cabinet government work very badly – but for the National Security Council this is just beyond [that in seriousness]. I thoroughly applaud what my successor Mark Sedwill has done, to say that this is just beyond the pale.”
Sedwill has written to all of the ministers who sit on the NSC demanding that they fully co-operate with his inquiry.
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt was the first minister who sits on the NSC to deny any involvement in the leak.
He said: "I do think it's utterly appalling that that should happen – it's a really, really bad thing for decision-making in government.
"I have never leaked confidential Cabinet documents and I never will, but I do think it is a very, very bad day for our democracy when that happens."
Home secretary Sajid Javid said the leak was "completely unacceptable", while sources close to fellow Cabinet members Gavin Williamson, Liam Fox and Penny Mordaunt have also denied any involvement.
A Downing Street spokesman said: "The prime minister is clear that protection of information on matters of national security is of the highest importance."
According to the Telegraph, the government is poised to allow Huawei to provide ‘non-core’ technology for the upcoming mobile network, despite a raft of security concerns among the UK's allies about the firm.
But Jerry Wang, chief executive of Huawei UK, said objections to the firm in the US were "not based on security concerns, but a barely concealed protectionist trade agenda".
The company has long denied links to the Chinese state and pointed out that its technology is already used in the 4G network.
O’Donnell said that the leak undermined the operation of government.
“The point is the NSC was set up to handle the most sensitive subjects, once you let a precedent go where someone has had a conversation in the NSC and someone else thinks it’s perfectly legitimate to go and brief a journalist about that, then you break down the trust.
“Then the whole process of managing the most difficult issues – wars, counterterrorism, ongoing anti-terrorism operations – all of these issues become areas where you as cabinet secretary say well I’m not entirely conformable about having that discussed in that group, because you don’t trust them. Once that trust goes, the whole framework of how you manage government starts to go.”
Additional reporting by Matt Foster