Thatcher kept FCO officials in the dark over Reagan security briefing, new files show

Newly-released papers show how Number 10 kept the Foreign Office out of the loop over a US briefing on the controversial Strategic Defence Initiative

By Jonathan Owen

24 Aug 2016

Senior British officials were left out of the loop by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, when she agreed to president Ronald Reagan’s offer of a personal briefing from his national security adviser during the cold war.

Newly released papers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to the National Archives reveal the suggestion was made during a meeting between the two leaders held at Camp David on 22 December 1984.

But the US plan to brief Thatcher on its controversial Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), known as the "star wars" programme, came as a shock to FCO officials.

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For more than a week after Reagan's offer, the Whitehall department did not have any knowledge of the arrangement – which Downing Street officials had kept secret. 

It was only by chance that the FCO found out about the private briefing on a sophisticated anti-missile system designed to protect the US from a nuclear attack by Russia.

N.H.Marshall, FCO North America Department, had seen a note from Thatcher to Reagan thanking the US President for his offer of sending one of his top officials to brief her.

In a ‘restricted’ document sent to P J Weston, head of the FCO’s defence department, on 31 December 1984, Marshall said: “This is the first I have head of this proposal: I wonder if you already knew of it?”

This prompted Weston to write to the FCO private secretary that same day. “This is the first the department have heard of such a briefing. You may consider that the secretary of state should be made aware of it as soon as possible,” he wrote.

“Coming after White House briefing of the American press before Camp David to the effect that the prime minister was getting 'poor advice' on SDI, it may need rather skilful handling at this end,” Weston added.

Thatcher had been told by Reagan to “keep knowledge of this briefing to a very small circle,” according to the FCO senior official.

This resulted in Charles Powell, Thatcher’s private secretary, “deleting the appropriate reference from the record of the discussion.” Weston added: “No doubt as a consequence of this deletion, the FCO have until now been in ignorance of these facts.”

He argued that the foreign secretary, as well as the then defence secretary, Michael Heseltine, be consulted before a date was set for the briefing. Weston concluded: “There may be some lessons from the foregoing about the handling of communications between Washington and London on matters of this kind.”​

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