The former Chief Sir Richard Dearlove was unknowingly taped by the American journalist Ron Suskind.
Unusually, the American journalist Ron Suskind was granted interviews by two recent senior SIS retirees, the former Chief Sir Richard Dearlove, now Master of St John’s College, Cambridge, and his former deputy, Nigel Inkster. Both are quoted in his new book The Way of the World in connection with the war in Iraq and, in particular, the inaccuracy of the intelligence that was collected concerning weapons of mass destruction prior to the conflict.
Having seen how he has been directly quoted, Sir Richard insisted he had been misinterpreted, denying that he had said anything like what Suskind had alleged. Suitably embarrassed, the British government issued his statement, but it is now revealed that the author has been in the habit of secretly taping his interviewees.
This, of course, is a grotesque breach of good manners and the universally-accepted convention that interviews are not recorded without the consent of all the parties, so there is much embarrassment all round. Was Dearlove quoted accurately? Did Suskind covertly record the conversation?
Whatever the truth, several reputations have been damaged severely by this episode, but the question remains whether the illicit taping of such conversations is ever justified. The objective in Suskind’s case was not the exposure of criminal or other misconduct, but rather the kind of cooperation and guidance that historians rely upon.
Dearlove has been outspoken on several issues, thereby breaking a convention adopted by his predecessors, and went on the record when addressing the Aspen Institute to declare his opposition to ‘extraordinary rendition’, the abduction by the CIA of terrorist suspects and removal to unaccountable ‘black sites’ for interrogation. Dearlove condemned the practice as counter-productive and bad for the reputation of western intelligence agencies, thereby establishing his status as the first retired SIS Chief to go public on such controversial issues, and the first to express an opinion on an ally’s foreign policy.
Dearlove was courting criticism, as he well knew, but did his candor deserve to be rewarded with a betrayal of his trust?