Richard J Aldrich

Richard J Aldrich

Luke Harding

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Allan Massie

IF you want to induce panic in a Foreign Office official, all you need to do is mention something called the Joint Action Committee (JAC).

Richard J Aldrich, professor of International Security at Warwick University, informed us of this yesterday while discussing the Joint Intelligence Committee, the central brain of Britain's secret machinery and the subject of his latest, co-authored book, Spying on the World. As the book was nearing completion, the authors learned of the JAC, an "eye-wateringly secret" unit that "deals with special operations, covert action, dirty tricks".

It is "so secret that if you even mention it to a Foreign Office official, they wince with a neuralgic pain, and twitch," Aldrich said.

Interviewed by Guardian journalist Luke Harding, Aldrich touched on wider intelligence setbacks of the past and was asked whether the truth about Lockerbie would ever emerge. Aldrich said that despite the fact that it had been extensively chronicled, "you get such a snowstorm of material that it becomes harder over time to know what the objective reality is".

While conceding that the security services had prevented terror attacks, he felt that the terrorism threat had been over-rated - "more people every year die by slipping in the shower than are killed by terrorism."

What was likely to kill his children, he said were "new threats, like disease".

Luke Harding re-appeared a few hours later to discuss The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man, his account of how Edward Snowden, a junior contractor with the NSA, leaked thousands of top-secret documents to journalists.

Snowden is still living in Russia. Harding said: "He's happy to face some kind of trial but the problem is, at the moment, he is charged with espionage, and under the US Espionage Act, he can't make a public-interest defence, which means that he faces 400 years in jail."

On intelligence agencies scooping up vast quantities of people's private data, he said: "We need to go back to the classical system, where you have a target and focus on it, rather than taking stuff from everybody … We have to have this privacy, and we are rapidly losing it."

Allan Massie, the esteemed Scottish novelist, covered a lot of interesting ground in his interview with Stuart Kelly: the life of novelist Klaus Mann (son of Thomas, and the subject of Massie's new book, Klaus); and elements of his own work - writing about addictive personalities, power and politics, about people on the losing side of wars.

He said one of his previous novels, Surviving, had been rejected by a dozen London publishers, all for "wholly inadequate reasons". One editor turned it down because "there was no character in the novel with whom she could identify".

"One thought of writing back and saying, 'Which characters do you identify with in The Brothers Karamazov? Or Lolita, or Crime and Punishment?" The audience winced at her shortsightedness.