Seventh Annual Lecture

‘Security, Policy-makers and intelligence’

Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG HonFRSE DUniv PC

Centre for Intelligence and International Security Studies

Aberystwyth University

17 November 2010


The Old Hall was packed out on Wednesday 17 November to  the hear Lord Robertson of Port Ellen deliver the Seventh Annual Lecture of the Centre for Intelligence and International Security Studies . 

In an entertaining, challenging and thought-provoking speech, Lord Robertson offered a range of insights and reflections on the subject of intelligence and policy-making that were based on his vast experience first as Labour Defence Secretary from 1997 through 1999 and then as Secretary General of NATO from 1999 through 2004.   

The lecture began with a timely reminder that “intelligence has never before been more intensively discussed than in these days”.    The lecture emphasised the difficulties inherent in using intelligence material to make vital decisions regarding national security.  Intelligence cannot and should not be expected to remove uncertainty,   nor can it remove the heavy burdens such decisions place on political leaders. 

To illustrate these points, Lord Robertson provided two first-hand examples of what it was like to be a policy/decision-maker in government:  Operation Desert Fox (the Allied air attack on Iraqi WMD command and control in late 1998), and the air strikes on Serb military targets in Kosovo and Serbia in 1999. Both involved military action, and both were fundamentally driven by secret intelligence.

Quoting Sir David Omand, once Britain’s national intelligence coordinator, Lord Robertson said “‘If all knowledge is power, secret intelligence is turbo-charged power’”. This ‘turbo-charged power’ was governed by the need to protect the sources used and the agents who supply secret human intelligence and in establishing the balance between that responsibility and yet being as open as possible in justifying that action that the decision maker has to make a judgement.  

Lord Robertson’s experience was that “decision-makers “have to weigh up the assessments, measure the caveats, discount the wordsmithing, think of the ‘general public’, its safety and security and come to a judgement.  Do something or do nothing”.  National political leaders cannot avoid the burden of decision.