When the whitewash of a cover up unravels: why archives matter

English: Richard Nixon boarding Army One upon ...

English: Richard Nixon boarding Army One upon his departure from the White House after resigning the office of President of the United States following the Watergate Scandal in 1974. 日本語: ホワイトハウスを去るリチャード・ニクソン (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What people most remember about Watergate, aside from President Nixon decision to resign the presidency, are the investigations and hearings that lead to his resignation. The film All the President’s Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, was a huge success and it made investigative reporting a household term.[1] What is often forgotten, though, are the various efforts to cover up and stop the investigations. Watergate was not a single scandal, but a series of interconnected scandals and for each the White House took a variety of counter measures to thwart the various political and media investigations. At one point, the President claimed to have investigated the issue and dismissed the allegations.[2] Later, the White House would claim that the media were making “wild accusations” about the Watergate issues. After he tried, and failed, to stop the investigation using the CIA to stop the investigation[3], he offered a compromise that would limit who could hear the tapes. All of these attempts to stop and control the investigation failed. Nixon failed in his attempt, as he could not control the investigations. If he were to control or thwart an investigation, he would have had to control the terms of reference and who investigates. So what does this have to do with the Home Office, Leon Brittan and the archives?

The Dickens Dossier and the missing files

The United Kingdom faces its own Watergate with the apparent cover by the government of politically powerful paedophiles. In October 2012, Tom Watson made stunning claims to Parliament about a powerful paedophile ring at the heart of Westminster. Many people were incredulous. They could not believe that such behaviour occurred and if it had occurred, it was investigated. However, his claims forced the Government to act.[4] Even though the focus was on the infamous Dickens Dossier, there were a number of interconnected claims. As the Dossier had the highest profile, it is alleged to have named powerful paedophile predators who were working in government, it has been the focus of the most attention. In 1983, Geoffrey Dickens had sent the dossier to Leon Brittan as Home Secretary.[5] Yet, nothing appeared to happen. With Leon Brittan as a potential suspect because of other evidence, the public feared a Home office cover up.

The government’s initial response: a narrow focus on specific issues.

In February 2013, Tom Watson asked that the Home Office review its files.[6] The permanent secretary to the Home Office Mark Sedwill commissioned an independent review to look at what information had been received by the Home Office from 1979 to 1999.[7] We do not know who wrote the terms of reference, but we do know they were only focused on 1979 to 1999. The review duly reported, yet failed to dispel concerns about what had happened to the files. It raised further concerns. In particular, the permanent secretary revealed more problems with records management at the hearing before the Home Affairs Committee.[8] In response to these issues, David Cameron asked the permanent secretary to the Home Office to investigate the claims.

Cameron said he understood the concerns that had been raised. “That’s why I’ve asked the permanent secretary at the Home Office [Mark Sedwill] to do everything he can to find answers to all of these questions and to make sure we can reassure people about these events.[9]

An independent review into independent reviews.

The Home Office commissioned an independent review by Peter Wanless (CEO of NSPCC) and Richard Whittam QC. They were given a short timescale (less than 8 weeks) and narrow terms of reference (look at the previous reviews and their methodology). The authors did not contribute to the terms of reference. Like the initial reviews, we do not know who wrote the terms of reference.[10] However, we do know that the government needed to respond quickly to limit the potential damage from flawed initial investigation and reassure the public. With less than 8 months from an election, they needed a review that would provide a quick, clear, reliable answer. When the report was provided on 11 November 2014, the government declared that nothing had been found. Although Theresa May was less effusive in her endorsement, she did not contradict the official narrative.

“The official Wanless review into whether there has been a cover-up of the Home Office’s handling of child abuse allegations in the 1980s has returned a verdict of “not proven”, the home secretary, Theresa May, has told MPs.” [11]

The public, victims, and survivors were less impressed. Even the review authors were keen to explain that they had a very short time to work, barely eight weeks, and they were not consulted on the terms of reference. There was fear that the report would be seen as a whitewash. Despite some mild criticism, the report was seen to be valid.[12] The government and the public appeared to turn their attention to the still unfolding Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. The official story was that while there were problems with the records, there had been no “smoking gun”. The “wild accusations” had not been proven. There had been no historical cover up and there had been no whitewash of the cover up. Then something happened.

All decisions leave bureaucratic echoes in the archives.

In January 2015, an independent researcher visiting the National Archives made an important discovery. He found a file for Margaret Thatcher that contained allegations about Leon Brittan and others. The official story presented by the Wanless Review was now in doubt. The Home Office and the Cabinet Office had to review their files. They found more information. On 22 July 2015, the story broke. Newspapers reported that more files, beyond the initial one found by the researcher, had been found with allegations against senior political figures including Leon Brittan.[13]

What had happened in the previous reviews?

When the independent researcher found the file, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office claims to Wanless and Whittam crumbled. They had lied to Wanless and Whittam. Their good names and their status as decent, honourable, men had been used as a political shield by the Home Office, the Cabinet Office and their masters. The Home Office (1 May 2015) and the Cabinet Office (5 May 2015) wrote to the Wanless and Whittam. They explained that they had found more records. The Home Office finally confirmed the existence of a large amount of unstructured files. They explained that they had not provided the authors with all the material. Even though they knew of the material since 2013, when the first independent review was prepared, they did not mention the unstructured files. At the time of their review, the senior civil servants assured the authors that everything had been found.

When British bureaucrats are mad as hell: they express “disappointment”

The authors issued a supplement to their review on 3 June 2015.[14] Although they did not change the report’s conclusion, the terms of reference were drawn narrowly, they explained in an understated way they were disappointed. They were disappointed in the searches and the unreliability of senior officer statements.

“That said, it is essential that the public have confidence in the searches that were undertaken, not least because we had to rely on the efficiency and integrity of those who sought material on our behalf. The emergence of these papers only after our Review had completed is not helpful in that regard.”

In their own understated way, the authors explained that senior civil servants lied to them. The senior civil servants omitted to tell them of the other files. The authors had been misled by those assurances. They were never told of the unstructured files. There are sins of commission and there are sins of omission. In this case, the UK civil servants committed a sin of omission. The Cabinet Office knew about the files and withheld them from the investigators.

We are concerned and disappointed that the Cabinet Office was aware of the separate Cabinet Office store of assorted and unstructured papers yet informed us that the searches covered all records and files held.

The civil servant behaviour is disappointing. Although they will point to the narrow terms of reference, they failed the spirit of their role. They ensured the information remained hidden. However disappointing the behaviour, it should not be surprising. The behaviour appears common among senior civil servants. The senior civil servant who upholds the Nolan Principles and the Ministerial Code that governs the civil service regularly flouts the rules.[15]

If this is their best effort to help, what happens when they want to stop something?

The permanent secretary to the Home Office failed to do what David Cameron had asked. He had failed to “do everything he can to find answers to all of these questions and to make sure we can reassure people about these events.” What David Cameron promised was not delivered. If we are generous, we would think that the civil servants, with their narrow terms of reference, hollowed out David Cameron’s promise. If we were less generous, we would think that David Cameron did not intend to deliver on his promise to reassure the public and the civil servants acted to protect him. In either case, the reviews were flawed and failed to reassure the public. What is clear, though, is that the civil servants knew about the store of records and were concerned about it long before Wanless and Whittam started their review. Even though the Cabinet Office knew about the unstructured files in 2013, as they explained in their letter to Wanless, they did not mention it to the authors.

We have been .aware for some time that this is an unsatisfactory position. In 2013, we sought approval from the Lord Chancellor for retention of these papers, under the Public Records Act, so that they could be property reviewed and prepared for transfer and public release as appropriate. In 2014 the Lord Chancellor, advised by his Council on National Records and Archives…[16]

The National Archives role is important. At this stage, though the Cabinet Office knew there were files the authors had not seen. The authors had asked about this possibility. The civil servants reassured them that nothing of consequence existed off the system.

[T]hough we did seek assurance from very senior officials at the Home Office in the early 1980s as to what papers might have been held off system and were told very few (Review 6.9].

Where were the National Archives?

What remains unexplained is why the National Archives were not involved. Even though the National Archives were aware of the unstructured files in 2013, they were not consulted nor included in the Wanless Review. Even though the Home Office knew about files with the National Archives, they did not direct the authors to visit them.

[W]e have conducted some additional searches that were the subject of these enquiries. These searches have, identified some unregistered Home Office papers held at The National Archives. We would not have expected these papers to have been discovered·as part of the searches that you commissioned, because their file titles do not include any of the search· terms you agreed and they are unregistered papers so they did not appear on our record management system. You will recall that the searches we conducted on your behalf were limited to registered file titles only (rather than file contents) and that file titles are often imperfect.

The search terms and the approach to searching the records were done without the National Archives. Despite a massive historical records management problem, neither the government nor the authors of the review consulted the government’s records management experts.

Why did the Home Office exclude the National Archives?

If the permanent secretary intended to “do everything he can to find answers” as he was instructed, he would have involved the National Archives. They are the UK government’s archives and records management experts. If you have a records management problem, you consult a records management expert.[17] Yet, they were not consulted. Why? Perhaps, the Home Office did not want to find out everything it held. A wider review at the time would have revealed further problems. In particular, as we now know, that Edward Heath was involved in meetings [with paedophile rights campaigners from the PIE group] [Update see below **]. If the review had looked more widely, then it might have turned up this information. Perhaps, the Home Office did not want to include the National Archives as that would have revealed too much. We do know that the terms of reference did not include them and they were not included in the searches.

Who wrote the terms of reference for the reviews?

The terms of reference tell us about what the report will and will not cover. Their content reveals their intent. If the author wants to avoid a topic or only cover a specific topic, the terms of reference will be written accordingly. In all three reviews, the two initial reviews and the follow up review, the terms of reference were written to avoid some topics and focus on others. In all cases, the reviews avoided any reference to the National Archives. Even though the National Archives had been consulted in 2013 about the unstructured files, they were not consulted in the terms of reference and they were not included in the searches. With the recent revelations about Edward Heath, we need to ask why. The recent revelations show there is more information within the archives than is currently known. [18]

More questions that need to be asked

We can see the initial reviews did not cover the period when Heath was in office. Why? They only looked at Home Office funding for PIE. Why did they not look at who was involved with it inside the government? They did not look at what figures were involved in the PIE nor did they look earlier than 1974. Why? Will the permanent secretary to the Home Office explain who wrote the terms of reference and why they did not involve the National Archives? Why there is such a gap between what David Cameron promised and what the civil servants delivered. What remains unexplained is how the Home Office and the National Archives overlooked the document that the researcher found. All documents are reviewed before they are sent to the Archives. When records arrive at the National Archives, they are assessed, reviewed, and catalogued before they are made available to researchers. Why were they overlooked?

Does the civil service lack the integrity to act with honesty?

The debacle with the review the narrowly drawn terms of reference, and the sins of omission, explains why the victims and survivors have little faith in the government. When the civil service to act without honesty and integrity even when directed by the PM, who is left to trust? Even when required to disclose the information, they made every effort to resist. The terms of reference they wrote would *never* fulfil the PM’s promise. If the civil servants are willing to mislead a QC and the CEO of the NSPCC, what chance do the victims and survivors have?

The episode reveals a suspect civil service ethos. The Nolan Principles that are supposed to guide all public officials, including the Civil Service, appear as hollow pious wishes. The Principles insist on openness, accountability, and integrity yet, they were not displayed in this episode. What has the civil service gained by its sins of omission? They have sacrificed their integrity, their honour, and the public trust. In return, they have satisfied their political masters. They have sacrificed their personal integrity. In return, they have protected the reputation of dead men. Are the secrets they protect more important than their duty, their integrity, and the public trust? Is it that the civil service cannot work without the secrets it keeps that allow it to blackmail the privileged and the powerful?[19] What type of person aspires to behave this way? Are there any honourable or decent civil servants left?

Time is running out for the government to act with decency and integrity.

For the sake of the Goddard Inquiry we can only hope, the government and the civil servants will act with honesty and integrity. If they cannot be expected to act with honesty and integrity, do they only exist to protect the powerful and privileged. Is the British Civil Service a shield of incompetence and dishonesty to protect the wicked? We have to believe there are men and women who will do what is right, act with integrity, punish the wicked and protect the weak. If they cannot do this, then we have to wonder whether the civil service can recover from its Watergate.

**The original phrasing was incorrect. The updated sentence is based on the following quotation from the Mirror online news site.

“A dossier of files compiled by former Labour minister Baroness Castle showed Heath was present at Westminster meetings ­with paedophile rights campaigners from the PIE group.

Heath is said to have attended at least a quarter of the 30 or so monthly or bi-weekly meetings.” http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/edward-heath-fixed-jimmy-savile-6220604

[1] The media’s role is often over emphasized as the FBI and the House and Senate investigations were especially effective. http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/6813

[2] “On August 29 [1972], at a news conference, President Nixon stated Dean had conducted a thorough investigation of the matter, when in fact Dean had not conducted any investigation at all.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watergate_scandal

[3] http://www.historycommons.org/context.jsp?item=a072372ciafbinixon

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/24/british-lawmaker-tom-watson-prime-minister-pedophile-ring_n_2010912.html

[5] “Dickens, a longstanding campaigner against child abuse, passed the dossier of allegations to Brittan in 1983. Brittan has said he passed it on to his officials and raised concerns about some of the allegations with the director of public prosecutions.” http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jul/04/david-cameron-orders-inquiry-westminster-child-abuse-claims-dossier

[6] http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/05-07-2014-MS-to-Vaz-HO-investigation-Dickens-Dossiers.pdf

[7] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/independent-review-of-home-office-files-to-identify-information-about-organised-child-sex-abuse-cr26284

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/2014/jul/08/mps-question-home-office-chief-over-missing-child-abuse-files-politics-live-blog

[9] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jul/04/david-cameron-orders-inquiry-westminster-child-abuse-claims-dossier

[10] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-peter-wanless-and-richard-whittam-qc-review The second review, in response to a question by Tom Watson MP in January 2014 looked at what funding the Pedophile Information Exchange (PIE) received from the Home Office.

[11] http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/nov/11/child-abuse-claims-wanless-home-office

[12] I was critical of the review and explained why in this article. What remains unexplained to this day is why the National Archives, the country’s records management experts, were not involved in the review. https://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/records-management-and-the-wanless-report-on-home-office-files/

[13] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/22/leon-brittan-westminster-child-abuse-files

[14] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/447564/Peter_Wanless_-_Richard_Whittam_supplementary.pdf

[15] Christopher Wood article in BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-33431580 and https://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/2015/07/13/can-the-goddard-inquiry-succeed-when-civil-servants-hide-the-secrets/

[16] https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/advisorycouncil%5Cdefault.htm

[17] What is curious about the whole case is that the records would have ended up with the National Archives in any case. They knew the National Archives was aware of the document and cleared to be involved in it.

[18] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/edward-heath-fixed-jimmy-savile-6220604

[19] As Wanless and Cottam explained, the behaviour of civil servants and elected officials could encourage this view. “Michael Cockrell’s ‘Westminster’s Secret Service’ featured an interview with Tim Fortescue who was a senior Whip, in the Heath administration 1971-1973 – and so almost a decade before the period of greatest relevance to our review. He was prepared to say in an interview broadcast on national television:

“For anyone with any sense, who was in trouble, would come to the whips and tell them the truth, and say now, I’m in a jam, can you help? It might be debt, it might be… a scandal involving small boys, or any kind of scandal in which, erm er, a member seemed likely to be mixed up in, they’d come and ask if we could help and if we could, we did. And we would do everything we can because we would store up brownie points… and if I mean, that sounds a pretty, pretty nasty reason, but it’s one of the reasons because if we could get a chap out of trouble then, he will do as we ask forever more.” [Emphasis added] See also https://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/official-secrets-act-and-child-sexual-abuse-inquiry-arcana-imperii-and-the-secrets-of-state/

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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